UC Blue Ash professor finds inspiration in documents from nation’s troubled past

Anthology of Appalachian Writers book cover

A 1925 property deed owned by her late grandfather inspired Rhonda Pettit to address racial segregation and institutional racism in her poem ‘A Deed Supreme.’ It is one of two poems by Pettit included in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers Crystal Wilkinson Volume XII, which was recently released by the Shepherd University’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities.

Pettit is an English professor at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College who has been writing and publishing poems for more than 30 years. Her themes often focus on issues of gender inequality, race or social injustice.

When she found the property deed for her grandfather’s land in Falmouth, Kentucky, she noticed it included language prohibiting the property owner from selling it to “anyone having Negro blood in his veins." That inspired the poem that highlights the forms of oppression that continued well after slavery ended.

“The deed is an example of institutional racism,” said Pettit. “The poem presents this through a variation of the call and response form that was used in slave work songs and spirituals, consisting of the poet's voice setting up the context on the left side of the page, and phrases from the deed on the right. The title alludes to John Coltrane's famous jazz song, ‘A Love Supreme.’"

Pettit’s second poem in the anthology is titled ‘Writing Blanks’ and was also inspired by a historical document, a 19th century Kentucky slave bill of sale.

“It’s similar in format (to ‘A Deed Supreme’), but it uses two sets of language from other sources,” Pettit noted. “The left side consists of phrases from the slave bill of sale where I have chosen to blank out the names of the slaves, and halfway down, a second set of phrases pulled from African American spirituals that provide an ‘answer’ to this historical mistreatment.“

Dr. Rhonda Pettit

Professor Rhonda Pettit

Pettit realizes that the topics are timely, given the national conversation on racial discrimination and injustice that has jumped to the forefront since the senseless death of George Floyd. She said the poems were created before these recent developments and they touch on a topic that has always been a part of her life.

“I was born white into the American Jim Crow era, and that's the perspective behind anything I write that concerns issues of race, to explore the national blindness and deafness that occurs when you are born into a set of assumptions codified by law and commercial practice, and tucked away in legal documents," said Pettit. "Some people gain their sight and hearing, while others don't.”

The Shepherd University Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities is based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Copies of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers Crystal Wilkinson Volume XII will be distributed to school libraries across West Virginia. The book is also available for purchase online at Four Seasons Books.

About UC Blue Ash College

UC Blue Ash College is a regional college within the University of Cincinnati. It offers one of the best values in higher education with access to a nationally recognized UC education in more than 50 degree and certificate programs, as well as tuition that is about half of most colleges and universities. The college is located on a scenic 135-acre wooded campus in the heart of Blue Ash, Ohio. To learn more, call 513-745-5600, visit us online, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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