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In a new memoir in verse, Alora Young traces the lives of generations of Black women

Poet Alora Young.
Sonya Smith
Penguin Random House
Poet Alora Young.

As a young Black woman coming of age, Alora Young traced her life back through generations of Southern women.

She's 19, and the 2021 Youth Poet Laureate of the Southern United States. Her debut book Walking Gentry Home archives her family's history – and the legacy of slavery in the American South – in the form of a memoir in verse.

Here's the very first poem from the book, titled "Mother, TN, Many Many Generations":

I have many mothers
They are mostly black
They are mostly broken
They have existed here for centuries
They are dying with the towns that birthed them

"I started the book this way because I feel like this is a story that doesn't have a starting place," Young told NPR's Morning Edition. "For thousands of generations, Black women have existed on this planet and all of the culmination of thousands of women led to me being here."

In the book, Young recounts the stories of nine generations of women — all the way back to Amy, who was the first of Young's foremothers to arrive in Western Tennessee.

Amy was enslaved and had a child with her enslaver. The book takes readers through all the stories that come after, leading to Young's own story of becoming a young woman.

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

On how the book came together

It always needed to be about my family's history, because these poems didn't start out about me. They started out about not knowing the names of my family members, about losing my grandmother, and thinking what difficulties she must have gone through being a pregnant teenager in the South in the 1960s. It's [about] the brutal realities that my family members faced, and I wanted to make sure their stories were never ever forgotten.

I actually interviewed all the living women in my family. I did a lot of genealogy research, and once I reached a point where there was nothing more I could learn from the records, I sat down and I called every single living woman in my family and I interviewed them. We had wonderful conversations and honestly, I feel like I'm so much closer to the women in my family now because of this book.

On Gentry's story

When my grandmother Gentry was 14 years old, she got pregnant. And then of course, she got married. One day, she got into a fight with my great-grandfather Walter Dean. She walked all the way from her house with her husband, miles and miles back to her early family home, where she grew up. She gets there, and her mom's like, 'oh hey' and they spend the day together and she hangs out with her brother. And at the end Gentry says, 'Mama, I want to come home.' Then Nanny Pearl, who is Gentry's mom, says, 'okay, Ortho B, walk Gentry home.' Can you imagine the shock of thinking you are home, thinking that you've finally come back to your family, only to be told that the home you grew up in is not your home anymore? She said, Ortho B, walk your sister home back to the house that she's making. I think it's so powerful because I think that is transition from girlhood to womanhood. It's walking from the home you grow up in to the home you make.

On exploring colorism and abuse in her poetry

I don't know if this is a plight that all lighter-skinned women of color face, but it's something that I know that me and my other sister have definitely experienced. And it is the feeling that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you see that the color of your skin is the product of uninvited attention from people who enslaved your family. And I look the way I look not because either of my parents are consensually white, but because my bloodline is filled with nonconsensual whiteness. And it's honestly a hard thing to think about, and it's a hard thing to experience, because no one wants to look at themselves and see rape. But that's just a reality that I have to live with, and that's something I see when I look in the mirror.

And I want to make sure that, through discussing this troubling sensation I feel, I don't dismiss the struggles of darker skinned women. But to me, darker skin has always been a symbol of true beauty because my mom is brown-skinned and I see her as the epitome of all things good and gentle and compassionate.

On poetry's role in recording painful history, but also breaking that cycle

I believe poetry is such a powerful tool, because it can convey the human experience in a way that no other kind of writing can. And I believe that we can use this art form as a tool for education and communication. I believe poetry is something that can cross any line, any border. And I think we need to try to cross these lines and borders and connect our world through the arts because we can make the world better.

This story was produced by Jeevika Verma and edited for radio by Reena Advani.

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Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.