Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Darktown Follies, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s daring and surprising new collection of poems, responds to Black Vaudeville, specifically the personal and professional challenges African American variety performers faced in the early twentieth century. Johnson is fascinated by jokes that aren’t funny — particularly, what it means when humor fails or reveals something unintended about our national character. Darktown Follies is an act of self-sabotage, a poet’s willful attempt at recklessness, abandoning the “good sense” God gave him, as an effort to explore the boundaries and intersections of race and humor.
“In these poems Amaud Jamaul Johnson channels a confluence of Robert Hayden, Frederick Douglass, and Dave Chappelle to create a synergistic poetry that sings the lyric, chants down babylon, and makes your head spin with the ironic twists of history seated on the front porch of the present. Darktown Follies is an acutely discerning book that challenges the reader’s sense of blackness in the American landscape. Intimate, intellectual, and incredibly funny, this is poetry carved from a past that can only be seen in the light of this moment.” — Matthew Shenoda
“Almost unbearably painful and poignant, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s remarkable new book Darktown Follies
walks the difficult line between historical record and lyric insight, embodying the legacy and power of The Minstrel Show. Johnson’s poems figure minstrelsy not as cultural anomaly nor artifact, but as a method of “othering” the dumb show of contemporary racial relations. One thinks of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s Mask, and equally Etheridge Knight’s Shine. Johnson’s minstrels are shifty and shifting, both objects and shapers of an outside gaze — the smile indicts; the smile implicates. In Johnson’s deft hands and acute ear, the overt address reflects and refracts the brutal amalgam and fragmentary pluralism, the assonance and dissonance that are the collective American experience. For what these poems reveal in us and about us, for what they project as us, and for their riveting beauty, we are awed at the tragedy and comedy of our histories and identities. We are at the mercy of The Show.” — James Hoch
One of Slate’s Ten Best Poetry Books of 2013
Split This Rock, Recommended Poetry Book of 2013
The Front Matter
Pity the ringdove, the silver-tongued
Coxcomb, throb and pulse, the hurly
Burly of the hurdy-gurdy man. Pity
The pomp, all the prunes and prisms,
That miscellany of light located beneath
The lips and gums. It’s all that cockeyed
Peacockery, the dumb show high flown,
Guffaw, and that garbled moonlight.
Now, I got the big talk. I’ll play the heavy.
Watch me in my cap and bells, my jingle.
In a nutshell, all patter and ballyhoo aside,
I’m aping the Sun. I am the Jack-pudding.
I reckon to out herod Herod, and trademark
Racism and cultural appropriation are not exclusive to American culture, but if you enjoy music, dance, food, clothing, and speak American English, then you have participated in such appropriation as an American. Johnson’s book uses an impressive facility with craft and language in Darktown Follies to cross-examine this twisted history, even as he reveals new meanings and feelings.
— Sean Singer, The Rumpus