Letters to the Museum

Nigga in the Woodpile

Back in February, I inquired if your Jim Crow archives had any images illustrative of the phrase "nigger in the woodpile." You referred my letter to John Thorp, who informed me that there were none.

The reason I made my query was because I'd written a poem entitled "Nigga in the Woodpile" that was inspired by an illustration of this phrase that I'd seen when I worked at The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, because I was subjected to racially bigoted behavior by my supervisor there, and because I am African American but am normally perceived as caucasian by both whites and blacks, so I function socio-culturally as a "nigger in the woodpile."

The poem was published in an online zine, but without informing me or asking for my approval, the editor changed the lineation, thus destroying the integrity of the poem. I complained, but nothing was done about this, and I began to gripe to several people I know, including an antiquarian book dealer here in Berkeley. He asked me to write an explanation of what had happened to the poem when the lineation was altered, and give that to him along with the poem as I'd originally written it, and he would sell a few copies to collectors as a signed typescript ms.

I did this, and then he told me that he wanted to publish the poem and essay as a limited letterpress book, which is now in the works.

I would be happy to donate (not sell) one of the typescript mss. to your collection if you would be interested in it and would send me a mailing address.

I am a published writer: Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale (Simon & Schuster/Trident Press, 1966; City Miner edition, mid 1980s, and various overseas editions; The Before Columbus Anthology of Multicultural Poetry, WW Norton (can't recall the date); and The Passion of Joan Paul II, Ishmael Reed Press, 1996. I've also published poetry in a variety of magazines over the years. In late 1999, Mojo Hand was listed in the LA Times as one of their "Forgotten Treasures of the 20th Century.

I would also like to ask if you know the word (or is there a word) that denotes the pseudo-learned nonsense nonce words that white writers would use to parody black speech, such as "How's your carborosity sagasuating?" I thought there was a word for this, but it escapes me, and maybe I'm just imaginating? ("Imaginating" is, of course one of those nonce words.)

Yours truly,

J.J. Phillips

-- April 8, 2008


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