The Tradition is the titular poem from a poetry collection by Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown. Like many poems in the collection, it describes the past and present state of the US political and social system regarding its treatment of African Americans. The poet uses his transformed sonnet and a heavy dose of symbolism to unveil the social injustice blacks face in today’s US.
Explore The Tradition
The Tradition is a poem describing the African American experience in the past and present American society.
The Tradition begins with the naming of flowers; each symbolizes a state or characterization of African Americans, people the speaker calls “brothers”. The first eight lines describe the oppression of blacks in society. Using symbolic flowers, these lines narrate how “philosophers” and other people in power manipulate blacks into believing they are inferior. Before subjecting them to all shades of suffering. Afterward, the speaker shows how these same people attempt to bury their wrongdoings with the mundane news.
The last six lines tell of the efforts the black community put into ensuring their past isn’t forgotten, and the actions people in power took to destroy such hard work. Nonetheless, the poem ends on a hopeful note: although the community’s efforts are continuously “cut down”, they remain immortalized in these names, “John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown”.
You can read the poem here.
You can also listen to Jericho Brown read The Tradition in this YouTube video.
The speaker is an African American man living in today’s US. In the poem, this persona uses intimate diction (“us”, “me and my brothers”, etc.) to establish himself as part of the larger black community, for whom he speaks. This builds an empathetic bridge between the speaker and readers, especially with the nature of the subject matter.
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
These lines tell of the way people in power manipulate blacks. The mention of “philosophers” shows the extent to which these unnamed people go to influence the thoughts of the persona’s community. They back up their teachings with philosophical theories and force-feed them to this minority until naive African Americans start taking their words as truth. Line four ends with a symbolism: “Star Gazer”. The meaning of this flower—innocence—effectively captures the state of blacks before they were exploited.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
These lines begin and end with the mention of three symbolic flowers. Two summarize the narrative of this section of The Tradition; the third foreshadows the next section. Within these lines, Brown’s persona narrates the aftermath of the mind manipulation, while connecting it to the suffering his ancestors endured. He notes how these same oppressors use the present media to cover up their maltreatment of his people in the past. To bury their mistakes, they come up with seemingly more important issues. All to prevent the public from revisiting history. It’s a realistic depiction of how today’s society functions.
“Foxglove” represents the ambitious efforts of the people in power to hide their wrongs and keep their pride. On the other hand, “Cosmos” shows the unity amongst the persona’s forefathers, even in their suffering. “Baby’s Breath” refers to the impending fight for freedom, which is portrayed in the next lines.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Brown’s persona uses these lines to dive fully into the present. Here, he describes the efforts of his community to unveil the story the media tries to bury. He tells of videos fellow blacks record as “proof” of their suffering. However, he also mentions the public deliberately ignoring these videos. This situation mirrors today’s society, as many do not wish to delve into a grotesque history. On this note, the persona feels their fight came “too late”.
The use of “brothers” in this stanza reveals how tightknit the African American community is, added to the symbolization of the “cosmos” flower. The mention of “men” here also confirms our persona is an African American man.
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
This couplet ends a rather somber poem on a hopeful note. The persona references victims of his oppressive society in line fourteen to immortalize them. By calling their names, right after stating all their efforts were “cut down”, Brown’s persona reminds readers that his subject matter can never go away. Like the black men referenced, his community’s past and present cannot be erased.
This couplet carries the entire message of The Tradition. In it, Brown is saying that although it is society’s tradition to trample on the black minority, it can never be the end of them.
Structure and Form
The Tradition is an atypical sonnet: though it has fourteen lines, it does not follow the Shakespearean or Petrarchan rules of rhyme or rhythm. Brown also uses enjambment throughout the poem to create a pause-and-think effect.
Social injustice, racism, deliberate ignorance, suffering, and prejudice come to play in The Tradition. Ultimately, you also find themes of hope, freedom, and love. Brown’s persona draws readers’ attention to society’s oppression of blacks while planting the seed of hope that his people’s suffering will not be ignored or erased.
- Symbolism: Symbolism is the dominant device in The Tradition. Brown uses the flower, Aster, to symbolise faith: the belief that society can never stop blacks from telling their story. Nasturtium represents the awaited victory of the African American community, while delphinium introduces a light tone in an otherwise somber poem. In this same fashion, other flowers noted in the poem symbolise a state of being for the black community. “Star Gazer”, for one, shows the initial innocence of blacks which others exploited. “Cosmos” and “Baby’s Breath” tell of the united front blacks eventually formed to regain their freedom from oppressors. The first three flowers are also believed to describe the characters of the three black men mentioned at the end of the poem.
- Allusion: The three names mentioned in the fourteenth line of The Tradition is a reference to three black men who were victims of police brutality in today’s US.
- Metonymy: Metonymy appears in line six, where “news reports” refers to people working for the press.
- Metaphor: In line five, Brown compares “summer” with a flower when he says it “blooms”. Line ten also compares the filming of a video to the planting of a seed. As the video eventually becomes evidence of society’s wrongdoings, so does germination serve as proof that a seed was planted.
About Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown is a renowned American poet. He’s authored several books and collections, among which The Tradition—his third poetry collection—won him the 2020 Pulitzer Prize. He’s a winner of several other awards, and the inventor of the poetry form: the duplex. A lover of short powerful poems, he also directs the Creative Writing Program as a professor at Emory University. Currently, he’s presiding as a guest judge for the 2021 Palette Poetry Prize.
Discover Jericho Brown’s poetry.
If you like The Tradition, you can read up other poems with similar themes:
- ‘Bullet Points‘ by Jericho Brown: A poem that explores hate crimes and police brutality in America.
- ‘Black Women‘ by Georgia Douglas Johnson: A poem talking about race, equality and parenting.
You can also read ten incredible poems of The Black Lives Matter Movement.