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Poetry Moment: 'Southern Sit Right', by Maria James-Thiaw

Maria James-Thiaw
Maria James-Thiaw

This is Poetry Moment on WPSU – a weekly program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Your host is poet and author Marjorie Maddox, a 2023 Monson Arts Fellow, author of 20 books, and professor of English and creative writing at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University. 

Welcome to Poetry Moment.

“Southern Sit Right” by Maria James-Thiaw is part of the staged production Reclaiming My Time: An American Griot Project, for which the poet interviewed women about their memories of the Jim Crow Era. Maria James-Thiaw explains about today’s poem, “The griot, or storyteller, was Ms. Jeanne Ridley.” White and a poet, she “was a school teacher in Clinton TN when the KKK bombed her school.” Pieces from this production won the Art of Protest Poetry Prize from the Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State University. Listen to find out why.

Poet, performer, and educator Maria James-Thiaw bridges the gap between stage and page, using spoken word events to address identity and social justice. Based in Harrisburg, she is the author of three poetry collections. Her work also has appeared in Black Lives Have Always Mattered, Cutthroat, Essential Voices: A Covid 19 Anthology, and elsewhere. She is the founder of Reclaim Artist Collective, which brings her performances to marginalized communities.

In her choreopoems, plays written in poetic form, Maria James-Thiaw often uses the voices of real women. In today’s work, the author presents a white teen’s uneasy conviction that “this don’t sit right with me.” Setting: Jim Crow era. Specific location: a bus.

Here’s “Southern Sit Right” by Maria James-Thiaw.

  - - -

Something about this don’t sit right with me
I know, I know.
It’s respect. It’s the way it’s always been.

But I bound on a bus, a newly blossomed flower,
Sixteen years old with that light that lingers in the eyes
When you know you have a whole life stretched out in front of you.
At sixteen joints and muscles follow your commands.

You can bounce out of bed after staying up half the night.
Sixteen is strong. Sixteen is beauty. Sixteen is a privilege.

So I don’t understand why, when I get on the bus,
All the colored men rise like I was the queen of England.
All the colored men rise trembling with age.
The colored men rise, some leaning on canes.
This one winces as he stands. This one’s back remains crooked.
I hear the crack and pop as this one struggles
with a hat tip and a ‘Morning, ma’am.’

I can’t hardly look at them. All this pain for a child on a bus.
I know they mean respect. I know it’s just our way—
but something about this just don’t sit right with me.

- - -

That was “Southern Sit Right” by Maria James-Thiaw. Thanks for listening.

Listen for Poetry Moment with Marjorie Maddox Mondays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WPSU. You can more episodes at Our theme music is by Eric Ian Farmer.

Marjorie Maddox is the host of WPSU's Poetry Moment for the 2023-24 season. She has been a professor of English and creative writing since 1990 at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.