When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, we didn’t look back to the Civil Rights era during Black History Month – well, we didn’t have Black History Month at all in the schools I went to in Southern Illinois and South Jersey. It was the middle of the Civil Rights Era, and its history was being contested, sometimes right outside of the schools I went to. No, when we looked at the history of African-Americans, we looked at Crispus Attucks, and at Booker T. Washington, and of course, at the most eminent faculty member at Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the great agronomist and botanist George Washington Carver.
As the linked bio indicates, the most amazing thing we learned about Carver was that he invented 325 different products based on the peanut. (Plus another hundred from the sweet potato. I did not know that.) In fact, I somehow always thought that Carver had invented peanut butter, which would have placed him high in my personal foodie hall of fame, but come to find that “nut-butter” was patented by none other than Kellogg of Battle Creek.
Now, I am as amazed as anyone else by inventions like peanut sausage and peanut linoleum; the list of Carver peanut products behind that link above is every bit as wild and strange as the fictional list created by poet June Jordan in her “Notes on the Peanut” (written in 1980). But as we ritually admired Carver’s ingenuity every year in school, there arose the nagging question: was the entire contribution of black people to American intellectual history located between the halves of a peanut shell? Everywhere else in our history books, we saw only white folks and the occasional Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The one black man we had as a role model was a nutty individual who apparently ran around all day fixing peanut bisque, driving a car powered by peanut diesel.
June Jordan must have shared that suspicion. In her brilliant satiric poem, she pumps tons of hyperbole into Carver’s peanut resumé. She imagines Carver as a lecturer firing up an audience with peanut facts. The absurdity of his inventions mounts, till at some point in the poem it spills over the bounds of parody. We start to see a Carver trapped inside his own peanut universe. The little corner of human endeavor and the natural world that he has been granted by American historians starts to become a grotesque obsession.
The tone of the poem is sharp, unrelenting. Is Jordan laughing at Carver, or with him? At her audience, or with us? When does humor segue into anger, or vice versa? And at what point does stand-up comedy become political?