- The Ballad of Nearest Green
Until you know how African you are, you will never know how American you are.—Robert Farris Thompson
The Southern history of whiskeyis wrecked and tangledwith the work of slave hands,ingenuity lost and barreled.
The past is erasure—a name redactedfrom the record, a nameignored, origins abstracted.
Until now, we did not know of Nearest Green."Nearer, My God, to thee"recites Jacob's dream. Jacob,who robbed Esau of his legacy.
Jacob, the heel-snatcher. Jacob, the fraud.So, as you see, let's call Jacob, JackDaniels Distillery, and when Jackwas a young boy he worked way back
for Preacher Call who had a slave and said,Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey makerthat I know of, and made him teachyoung Jack the slave's technique as a favor.
Slaves had developed their own spirits,carried from ancient West African traditionsfrom fruit liquors, palm wine, and sugar cane,adding charcoal to smooth illicit libations. [End Page 42]
1865, slavery was ratifiedwith the 13th amendment.The next year Jack opens for business,but what happens to Nearest and his kin?
I'd say the devil's cut erased them,absorbing stories of black laborinside fat barrels making the brand billions.That smoke you swallow, a nigger's flavor. [End Page 43]
TIANA CLARK is the author of Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Her first full-length debut collection, I Can't Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018) won the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Clark is the winner of the 2017 Furious Flower's Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was recently the 2017–2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. Clark is the recipient of scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Sewanee Writers' Conference, and Frost Place Poetry Seminar. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.