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Becoming
Jericho Brown

How the poet endured a violent childhood, got a
new name and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In one of his earliest memories, Nelson Demery III is running away with his mother and younger sister. He is 6 or 7 and beanpole-thin. Their small shotgun-style house in Shreveport, Louisiana, is disappearing behind them as they scramble in the middle of the night along gritty streets where stray dogs roam.

They walk for what seems a long time through their working class neighborhood before their mother approaches a stranger’s house, perhaps to use the phone and figure out their next move.

Little Nelson feels powerless because he can’t fix the problem they are fleeing. Yet he is hopeful because maybe they are leaving for good.

They were running away, he says, because his father had hit his mother, again, violence his parents deny.

Nelson Demery Jr. was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of father who could love his kids in a tender way one moment and then snap and discipline them the next with a belt, a switch or whatever was nearby, his children say.

In a poem titled “Again,” the son, now grown, vividly describes his parents’ perplexing relationship:

My mother loves her husband
And his hands
Even if laid heavy against her.

and

My father loves his wife
And the shape of her body
Even if hunched in retreat

Simultaneously tragic and beautiful, the Emory University professor’s poetry has brought him national recognition and many awards, including a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship announced last month. His poems — collected in two books that explore sexual identity, racial injustice, God and the intersection of love and violence — are part of the long path he has taken to becoming who he is now: an acclaimed writer who goes by the name Jericho Brown; a spiritual man who has drifted from the Baptist church of his childhood; and a son who struggles with alienation from his deeply religious parents who vehemently oppose his homosexuality.

Eventually that night, Nelson’s mother turned back home, disappointing her son.

Why don’t we just go? Nelson and his younger sister Nequella would plead.

Go where? their mother would respond.

Today, Jericho can’t remember many details from that night — how far they walked, whether it was hot or cold outside. But he can’t forget the helplessness that tormented him.

“I felt like ‘Oh, wow. There is nothing we can do. There really is no way out of this situation — I can’t just fix it,’” he says. “And I wanted to just fix it.”

2

‘The Backhanded’
It’s a warm Wednesday evening in April. As the sunlight slips away, the Interdenominational Theological Center in Northwest Atlanta — a leafy refuge in a city buzzing with activity — is still and quiet except for one classroom. Inside, more than a dozen graduate students are putting away their things and getting ready to meet the poet. Their class is normally boisterous, but today they listen with rapt attention, despite the distant whine of a police siren, the jingle of an old-timey ice cream truck song and the pop-pop-pop of what sounds like gunfire.

His long black braids tied back, Jericho stands before them in a long-sleeved green shirt, dark jeans and gray tennis shoes. He flashes his radiant smile, lighting up an otherwise drab classroom.

“I get to do this a lot, but I don’t always get to do it in front of black folks, so it is a joy to have this opportunity,” he tells the class.

They are seminary students, so it’s fitting that Jericho starts off talking about how growing up in a Baptist church has inspired his poetry. As a boy, he sang in the youth choir at Shreveport’s Mount Canaan Baptist Church, a grand place of worship with burgundy-colored pews, wood-paneled walls, a balcony and a vaulted ceiling. He loves the pomp and circumstance of church, the stirring gospel music and the unpredictable reactions from parishioners when moved spiritually. Like church services, Jericho explains, poems have structure, music and even surprises.

“You don’t know who is going to shout or why they are going to shout or how loudly or if they are going to be sitting next to you and knock your glasses halfway across the room,” he said. “You know you are going to have a good time. As we enter the space of a poem, you enter the space understanding, ‘Oh, this is going to change me.’

“We want from art the same thing we want from God and we want from prayer,” he continued. “We want to be different after we have the interaction with God. So you enter it knowing it is going to change you.”

Church taught Jericho to be comfortable with vulnerability, an important skill for a poet who mines his personal experiences — the good and the bad — for inspiration. As a boy, he often had to summon the courage to deliver speeches before large audiences in his church. That taught him about poise — and performance.

In the classroom in Atlanta, Jericho starts out thanking the students and their professor — Daniel Black, an author and friend — for welcoming him. Then he dives into “Prayer of the Backhanded.” It’s a poem about seemingly contradictory things: getting hit by his father and loving him. In tones reflecting a range of feelings from pain to serenity, he recites it from memory.

First he catalogues all the things he says his father would use to punish him: a pear tree switch, a broomstick or an extension cord. His description of his father’s alleged violence is vivid and arresting:

And forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target
Like hail from a blind sky,
Involuntary, fast, but brutal
In its bruising.

Jericho finishes by asking God to help him “hold in place my blazing jaw/ As I think to say, excuse me.”

Statue-like throughout the reading, the students exhale as if they had been holding their breath the whole time.

“Wow,” someone says. “That’s heavy,” another quietly declares.

Jericho smiles. He’s gotten the intended result: His audience has been affected by what they have just heard, maybe even changed.

“You all are very good,” he tells them, cutting the tension in the room and eliciting laughter. “I wish everybody would do that after every poem. That is good. Thank you.”

3

‘A different breed’
The voice on the other end of the phone line is resonant and authoritative but friendly. It’s the voice of Jericho’s father, Nelson Demery Jr.

He’s a hardworking man who spent much of his childhood fatherless in Cedar Grove, Louisiana. He learned to take care of himself as a young boy when his mother, the daughter of a sharecropper, divorced his biological father and raised him and his five sisters on her own before remarrying years later. Nelson Demery Jr. graduated from Grambling State University with a business degree and built his own landscaping business for which his son worked. He became a deacon in his church.

I mention the name Jericho and he tells me he calls his son, Trey, a nickname referring to the poet’s position as the third Nelson Demery after his father and grandfather. He remembers Trey as a skinny boy who wore a little white coat to church. He recalls his son spending a lot of his time as a young boy at the local library, where he read the poets Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Walt Whitman. He encouraged his son to work hard, go to college and learn to support himself, like his father did.

Had he heard his son had won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded for “prior achievement and exceptional promise?”

No, he hadn’t. He learned it from me.

“Oh, it’s great,” he says. “It’s terrific.”

Asked if he’d read his son’s poems, “Prayer of the Backhanded” and “Again,” he said no, he hadn’t. I offer to read them to him. He enthusiastically agrees and listens quietly without interrupting.

“It hurts,” he says when I finish. Asked about the portrayal of him as a violent father, he admits to “whipping” his son twice for misbehavior. But he never hit his wife, he says, though his daughter Nequella says he did.

His wife Neomia suffers memory loss from a brain aneurysm she suffered about 11 years ago. She has sustained two strokes since then. On the phone, she sounds fragile but lucid. Like her husband, she graduated from Grambling, a historically black college, and worked hard to support her family. At various times, she taught school or cleaned houses and helped her husband run their dry-cleaning and landscaping businesses. Her children recall singing church songs with her to keep her awake as she drove home from long work days.

I don’t want no peanut butter and jelly. I want my soul to be saved, they would sing.

Like her husband, she had not read her son’s poems about them. She listens intently as I read them to her. She denies her husband ever hit her or her son.

“I love him very much,” she says tenderly. “We both love our son.”

Her husband returns to the phone. He says he, too, loves his son. And then he wonders aloud whether he was too rigid with him. He wishes they could talk like they used to when they went to church or cut the grass together. He says his son became another person when he went off to college. He says he hasn’t spoken to his son in two months.

“I think Trey is made of a different breed and a different time,” the father says. “I have done the very best to raise him. I think he doesn’t want to be in the world I came up in.”
I ask him why his son would write about such violence in his poetry. He mentions his son’s homosexuality, saying it is “against the will of God.”

Neomia agrees.

“We don’t believe in such things,” she says.

None of this is surprising to Jericho. He wants to talk to his parents, but he says the only thing they want to discuss with him is not being gay.

“Me being gay is something that my parents think is their responsibility to confront at every second,” he says.

Growing up, Jericho never thought to call the cops on his father.

“It was never really an option for me because it is sort of like, why would I do that? Because then I’m going to get in trouble,” he says.

His father did, though, according to a 2005 Shreveport Police report. It was prompted by an altercation with his son on Christmas Day that year. Jericho, who was 29 at the time, was visiting for the holidays when his father started “lecturing/disciplining” and “punching/hitting” him, the report says. Jericho, according to the report, defended himself by hitting his father in the head with a glass candy bowl. No one was arrested or charged.

4

The dream
The poet is sitting in a sterile, white waiting room full of other black men. A white woman with a bob haircut is at a small metallic desk, calling out names. Every time she says a name, someone gets up and walks through a door beyond her. Two or three more men show up in the waiting room. It is getting crowded, hot and stuffy. There isn’t enough room for everyone to sit down. The men become impatient and frustrated. They groan each time a newcomer arrives. A sense of foreboding settles over him.

“Jericho,” the woman calls. No one answers.

He realizes he is dreaming and this is his ticket to wake up and get out of there.

“OK, I will be Jericho,” he says in the dream. He stands up and tells the woman, “I’m Jericho.” She gives him a strange look before responding, “OK.” And then he walks through the door and wakes up.

Jericho had that dream in 2002, when he was living in New Orleans and working for then-Mayor Marc Morial. He was learning to write fast under deadline in the mayor’s office, cranking out opinion pieces for newspapers, press releases and speeches. But it wasn’t his passion.

He had graduated with his master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of New Orleans and was preparing to get a doctoral degree in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. His poems were beginning to be published under his name, Nelson Demery III. And that was bringing up memories of his father.

“I felt crazy because I was like, ‘There is my damn Dad again,’” he says. “I felt like I didn’t have this thing that was my own ... And I wanted my poems to be mine.”

At the time, he was starting to write about sensitive subjects — his family and being gay.

“Seeing these poems come out with that name didn’t seem exactly right,” he says. “It didn’t seem fair to my parents because I knew they wouldn’t want to be associated with that work.”

He woke up from that uncomfortable dream in 2002 around 1 a.m. He couldn’t fall back asleep so he went to a gay bar in New Orleans. An older man at the bar started hitting on him. Jericho wasn’t interested, so when the man asked for his name, he blurted out: “Jericho.”

Oh, so you are ‘straightly shut up,’ the man responded, quoting a Bible passage about the ancient fortified city that was destroyed when its walls fell.

Huh? Jericho said.

Jericho literally translates as straightly shut up, but it is loosely translated as defense, like a wall. It also translates as good-smelling, the man said.

The poet had been thinking of changing his name for months. The dream and his encounter with the man at the bar sealed it.

He liked the way it sounded with Brown, a name he now shares with friends.

From then on, he was Jericho Brown.

Jericho’s sister, Nequella, was in town recently to celebrate the poet’s 40th birthday, for which she made a short film loosely based on their childhood.

5

On the road
Jericho is no longer the skinny little boy whose slight frame was ridiculed when he was growing up. Now he has a broad chest and bulging biceps, evidence of his assiduous work in the gym. He concedes he is self-conscious about his appearance, joking he is trying to not look “horrendous” in photos on social media.

Raised in the Baptist church, he no longer considers himself a member of that religion. He attends the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta, which welcomes gay people and “honors all walks of life and paths to God.”

There are some things Jericho misses about the Baptist church and others he is glad to do without.

“I have fear about churches because I know that ... at any given moment somebody can say something that I know to be crazy — that I know to be scientifically impossible,” he says. “People say crazy stuff. And you just have to sit there and take it. And I am just not a sit-there-and-take-it kind of guy.”

“I also felt like if they knew who and what I really was, they wouldn’t love me,” he added, referring to his sexual identity. “So there was a judgment, but it was a judgment based on me understanding that this love is indeed conditional.”

Jericho doesn’t think the way he was raised was much different than the way others were brought up in his neighborhood, in Shreveport and in the South. And despite his painful memories, he loves his parents and credits them for pushing him toward a college education and self-reliance. Jericho even sees some of his father in himself.

“I know I get my passion from him,” he says. “I know I am often as committed and dedicated — i.e. stubborn — because of him.”

He adds that he doesn’t have a lot of regret.

“I actually feel like I’m pretty joyful, you know? I don’t ever want people to think that I’m trying to make myself out to be some sort of a victim. Because I don’t feel that I am.”

Indeed, there is a buoyancy about him. His laughter is uninhibited. And there are so many good things going on in his life now — the Guggenheim included — that he can’t stop smiling.

The fellowship, he says, is proof he is on the right track. When he was a kid, he would tell people he wanted to be a poet and they would respond, OK, so what do you want to do for your real job?

“I’m just glad that I was right,” he says, laughing. “You know that feeling you have where something happens and you feel really somehow vindicated? That’s sort of the experience.”

The Guggenheim comes with a $50,000 grant, which will allow him to return to Italy, where he has drawn a lot of inspiration for his poetry at La Biennale, an arts organization in Venice. Among his poems that were inspired there is “Bullet Points,” published on Buzzfeed.com in March. It’s a chilling piece about Sandra Bland and other minorities who have died in police custody in recent years. It reads in part:

I promise that if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me.


Jericho has just turned 40. His sister, Nequella, is visiting, and they are expecting some friends to come over to his home in Decatur the next day to celebrate his birthday. His friends will bring a chocolate sheet cake trimmed with orange icing — his favorite color because he says it is bright and sunny like him. They plan to watch “A New Chance,” a short film based loosely on their childhood that his sister made for the occasion.

But Jericho has something to do before the party starts. He is scheduled to give yet another poetry reading. Dressed in an orange T-shirt and matching Nike tennis shoes, he’s flying to New York to read his work at Sarah Lawrence College.

“I am always on the road,” he tells me. “It is true that I need to give readings to promote the book, but I probably don’t need to give as many readings as I give.”

But he craves the connections he makes with his audiences. It reminds him of the connections he experienced when he spoke in church as a boy.

He rolls his suitcase out of his modest house. His sister hovers at the front door to bid him goodbye. He turns and warmly embraces her. Jericho is getting back on the road, seeking that connection. He may have good reason to keep walls up around him like his pseudonym suggests, but he is constantly letting people in.

“Prayer of the Backhanded”
By Jericho Brown

Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closest extension
Cord, not his braided belt, but God,
Bless the back of my daddy’s hand
Which, holding nothing tightly
Against me and not wrapped
In leather, eliminated the air
Between itself and my cheek.
Make full this dimpled cheek
Unworthy of its unfisted print
And forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target
Like hail from a blind sky,
Involuntary, fast, but brutal
In its bruising. Father, I bear the bridge
Of what might have been
A broken nose. I lift to you
What was a busted lip. Bless
The boy who believes
His best beatings lack
Intention, the mark of the beast.
Bring back to life the son
Who glories in the sin
Of immediacy, calling it love.
God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward in fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.

“Again”
By Jericho Brown

You are not as tired of the poem
As I am of the memory.
A returning toothache
On either side of the mouth.
An ingrown hair beneath the chin.
Simple itch. Bruising scratch
And again I am bundled
In cousin Kenny’s clothes
From last school year
My hand held by my mother’s.
We walk as if the house behind us
Isn’t warm enough
For my feet. In the dark
We make a few blocks
Around the one-story neighborhood
That I loved
Though nothing I’ve written
Tells you this.
I want to cut it out of me.
Because. Turns out it never mattered.
Right now my mother’s asleep
On my father’s chest.
His arm has landed
In the same place around her
Most of thirty years.
Give a man a minute.
She’s asleep and I’m typing it
All over again. Everywhere
A man is shifting a bit
To make his woman comfortable
In his arms.
I should have told you this
Lines ago. We walked back
To the house we ran from.
Because.
My mother loves her husband
And his hands
Even if laid heavy against her.
I know you
Don’t want to believe that
But give a man a minute.
We’re not done.
My father loves his wife
And the shape of her body
Even if hunched in retreat,
Their son keeping up. I’m so sick of it—
Another awful father
Scarring this page too—
A bruising scratch.
We walked back
Through an open door.
And why don’t I mention
He kissed my forehead
Before covering me
On the couch that was my bed?
Listen
And you can hear them
In the next room
Planning names for the youngest of us
Then making love loud enough
For the oldest to learn.

Behind the story


HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I studied poetry in college and once dreamed of becoming a full-time poet. That was until I got addicted to journalism. So when I learned last month that Jericho Brown had won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, I jumped at the chance to combine my passions and interview the Emory University professor. I originally planned to write a short piece about him and his award. But when he started telling me about what inspires his work, I knew I had a much bigger story on my hands – a compelling tale about love, violence, sexual identity and God. I hope you enjoy it.

Jeremy Redmon
Reporter
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jeremy Redmon has been reporting for newspapers for more than two decades. He now covers a variety of subjects — including immigration, politics and military affairs —for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He previously reported for newspapers in Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; and Northern Virginia. Redmon has embedded with U.S. soldiers and Marines during three trips to Iraq and has covered state legislatures and gubernatorial elections in Virginia, Maryland and Georgia. Redmon also reported on the 2012 presidential race across five states. He graduated from George Mason University in 1994 and 1997 with undergraduate and graduate degrees in English.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Taylor Carpenter is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia. She is originally from Richmond Hill, and fell in love with photojournalism when she attended a journalism camp at UGA. She has interned with her hometown paper, the Bryan County News, WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was also heavily involved in the Red & Black, UGA’s student newspaper, as a photographer and editor.