The tragedy of MacNolia Cox

A. Van Jordan shares about writing a book about the first African American to reach the final round of the National Spelling Bee

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

The renowned poet and Guggenheim fellow A. Van Jordan was at Oak Park and River Forest High School last week to talk to Peter Kahn's poetry students about the mechanics of writing.

He also sat down for a quick interview about his award-winning book of poems M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, which reimagines the life of MacNolia Cox, winner of the Akron District Spelling Bee.

The 13-year-old made it all the way to the final round of the 1936 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., (the first African American to do so) before succumbing to a word that wasn't selected from the official list, a tactic devised by the southern judges to keep her from winning the competition.

Talk about the way you merge history and poetry in this book of poems.

The intersection of poetry and history has been there since the beginning of poetry. The poet has always chronicled the culture and history of a people. And so, I'm just trying to extend that tradition and work within that tradition. We want to go to the poem for something we can't get in the daily newspaper or on the news at night. We're trying to deal with the emotional resonance behind the story. We get the facts of the history, but now we're trying to get some of the interiority of this person.

How'd you learn about MacNolia Cox?

She was from my hometown of Akron, Ohio. I went home to watch LeBron James play in his high school basketball game. Before I knew who he was, I just knew he was this great ball player in my home town and [James's team] was in the championship and my brother was trying to get me to come home. While home, I opened the newspaper the next morning and they had a column in the Akron Beacon Journal called "This Place This Time" and it told Cox's story. It was a big two-page spread. I was already writing poems about the great migration and I thought this may fit in that series. And then the more I delved into her story, the more I felt like this is the story. I just became obsessed with MacNolia Cox and what she was going through.

What primary sources did you use to get a sense of her personal history?

The first thing I did was go to the Department of Vital Statistics in Akron and I got her birth certificate, her death certificate, her marriage certificate and I started following those trails. I went to the phone book and found her last descendant, her niece. I met her niece on New Year's Day 2000. She had MacNolia's mother's diary. We started an email exchange, and I would ask her questions and she would send me snippets from the diary. She promised to keep in touch and she did. And then I started interviewing people I found out knew her.

What was the unofficial word that MacNolia couldn't spell?

Believe it or not, the word was "nemesis." MacNolia had memorized 100,000 words. She was a straight-A student and she actually had the IQ of a genius. She had all the potential in the world, but the book is really wrestling with the fragility of life at that point. When you're a teenager and someone does an injustice to you, how do you come back from that? What we find with her is that, that event was traumatic. She doesn't come back from it. It sets her life in a different direction. And so, that's really what the book is addressing and wrestling with.

How exceptional a spelling bee competitor was Cox?

So they're at the National Spelling Bee in D.C., they go through the preliminary rounds and the people in that round with her are all there on technicality. Either they misspelled a word or they spelled an alternate spelling of the word, but were allowed to stay in. MacNolia, however, just spelled straight through with no technicalities. It was clear that she looked like the winner.

What particular struggles had she faced up to that point?

She had faced all types of racism up to that point. When she crossed the Mason-Dixon Line on the train, she had to get off and go to the colored car. She gets to D.C. and she can't stay at the hotel with the other contestants, so she has to stay at a safe house. She stays at the home of a doctor, who inspired her to want to be a doctor. She goes to the competition, she can't go through the front door. She has to go around back. She gets to the ballroom where the competition is held and they won't let her sit with the other contestants, so she's sequestered at a card table all by herself. She's unflappable through all that. And it wasn't until they pulled this word … That just took her out of her game. She won the city, the county, the state, but gets to the nationals — the final round. … By the way, that's the first time a person of color had gotten to the final round. When you look at the Spelling Bee now, it's one of the most diverse competitions in the country. She was the start of all that.

What did Cox end up doing with the rest of her life?

She ended up being a domestic in the home of a doctor. And so, she marries a guy who's more streetwise than her. She's diagnosed with cancer and dies at age 53. So it's a pretty depressing story. I start the book on her death bed and move in reverse chronological order to the night before the spelling bee. We close the book at the moment of her greatest potential. Hopefully, the progression, the experience of the read, is one of transcendence.

Often I'll do this talk in places with people who aren't as sensitive to these issues and people will ask, "Well, why didn't she just go to college or why didn't she get a student loan?" The thing people don't understand is this is pre Brown v. Board, before the Pell Grant; not even the Voting Rights Act had happened yet. The Civil Rights Movement hadn't gained traction yet.

What, in your interpretation, does the word "nemesis" represent?

The word in this situation stands in for injustice. There are people and forces in the world, irrespective of what you have done or prepared for or how you've comported yourself in the world, that will come with their own presuppositions about you and inflict those presuppositions upon you. [That dynamic] comes in the form of a word like nemesis. People will use that as some kind of tool to pull the rug out from under you.

The following is a poem from M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A:

"John Montiere: answer to question one"

I taught Mac [sic] how to drink and she was no longer as I remembered her to be: she was no longer quiet and steady and quick-to-answer. She was no longer not ready to surrender; she had surrendered. She had only crumbs of her past: she worked hard, but hated work; she knew all the answers on game shows, but she would never compete; she had a shy smile, but she laughed like a man. Her eyes no longer looked like the dark wells I would fall into when we first met; her eyes were bottomless pits filled with sadness, dark holes I feared. I could no longer look at myself in those eyes.

If I would look into her eyes, it was as if fingers would strip off my clothes, and I would want to strip off my skin, but I'd fear it would not help my fear; it may only lead to my bones, without the distraction of my flesh to comfort me. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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