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The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Race

In light of the recent epidemic of racially charged violence and two grand jury decisions not to indict the policemen responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I would like to draw attention to three newly published poetry collections that deserve consideration within the current dialogue on blackness: The New Testament by Jericho Brown, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae. These three books have garnered much attention on their individual merit, but deserve consideration in terms of the conversation we should be having about race relations in America.

A poetry book is a kind of rumination. For the average poetry collection to go from the seed of an idea to an ISBN number takes at least 2-3 years—even for relatively established poets like Rankine, Brown and McCrae. All three books were released within a month of each other and, based on their overlapping subject matter, one might suppose these varying depictions of the expendability of black lives result from the July 13, 2013 Trayvon Martin case verdict. But, assuming a typical publication schedule, these books would have been in the editing stages by the time George Zimmerman’s acquittal made headlines.

I say this because The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness all bear testimony to the importance of poets amidst the voices that respond to today’s atrocities. The fact that these books focus our attention of varying views of blackness, of black masculinity, of disappearance, of youth—while our newsfeeds fill with the loss of one black life, after another black life, after another—is more strategic than anomalous.

Poetry—true poetry—is a meditation upon a theme and not a salacious headline that favors attention over content. Poets predict trends. It is no accident that a month after the military blackouts over Ferguson in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, we can open the pages of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament to the poem “Homeland”:

… In America that year, black people kept dreaming

That the president got shot. Then the president got shot

Breaking into the White House. He claimed to have lost

His keys. What’s the proper name for a man caught stealing

Into his own home? …

If Homeland were a blog entry, we’d understand these words as responsive. But this is a poetry collection; this is foreshadowing. Indicative of America’s turbulent history of displaced anger and the violation of civil rights, one cannot help but tie the nationwide eradication of young black men to the closing of the two-term Obama presidency. The president has not gotten shot. To date, the government has successfully protected the health and safety of the First Family. But the increasing number of civilians and officials who have been acquitted of the deaths of other black men by the American judicial system seems eerily similar to Jim Crow era lynchings in the South where hordes of men and women gathered to dole out their own so-called justice upon African-Americans; men suffocating, hanging from trees, some just for the sake of serving as a communal warning.

The mere fact that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric exists shows, even amidst the militarized protection of the most visible African-American family in our nation’s history, the concept of blackness remains as terrifying cloak of inaudibility—a way of existing as a citizen in America without access to all the established values and protections citizenship. I think of the word ‘inaudibility’ and I cannot write it without hearing Eric Garner’s voice suffocating under the chokehold, “I can’t breathe”, or the names we do not mention in these days of rallying cries—like Vonderrit Myers, Jr, the third African-American male shot and killed by the police in St. Louis County after the death (and ensuing protests) of Michael Brown; or 7-year old Aiyanna Jones killed in Detroit—one of a staggering number of female victims in the continuing discussion of civic malfeasance.

Citizen’s distribution began less than 24-hours before an off-duty cop fired 17 shots at eighteen-year-old Myers.

When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. … Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the psychological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend. (Rankine 11)

You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend. For generations, African-Americans have used academic and socio-economic advancement to counteract the erasure of Black bodies, and therefore Black voices, in our country. The fact that three intellectually heralded, widely successful poetic voices in contemporary literature have synchronous distribution of books on the continued invisibility and marginalization of the black race should tell us something. Ironically, as so many news outlets hurry to proclaim these books as indicative of and necessary for our times, I have seen little mention of the widespread concern contemporary poetics has consistently showed for giving voice to voiceless causes. When I see articles like these, or the hashtag BLACK LIVES MATTER, pop up in my social media newsfeed, I cannot help but cringe at these well-meaning example of “John Henryism” this misdirected attempt at harnessing the power of black voices.

For instance, take a second to think about the slogan BLACK LIVES MATTER. Assess this phrase its poetic value: BLACK LIVES MATTER. To whom? To the people for whom black lives matter—today, right now—the need to qualify that existence with race does not exist. Does not exist. There is not a mother who has lost her son in this war who thinks of him only as another black life. There is not a moment in which the people I love and worry about losing become solely matter in the form of ‘black life.’

Think of Shane McCrae’s “On the White Invisibility of the Natural World”:

A black boy is

both more and less a part of nature

Than every other part of nature

And the race of   the meadow is

the meadow is American

and white men have no race

By the socially conscious voices of America (Black and otherwise) aligning in a chorus of “Black Live Matter,” what about the existing power structure do we seek to change? If the only thing we want to negotiate in retribution of the widespread abuse of power is for Black lives to “matter,” what are we willing to accept as a concession?

The media recently derided Smith College President Kathleen McCartney for saying “All Lives Matter” in the midst of a student protest connected to the court cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Although the use of this adapted slogan, by her and others like her, displays the type of inclusionary ignorance that necessitates a term like Sherman James’ “John-Henryism,” I question the effect of a movement based on a slogan whose language can be so easily altered. What about a slogan that does service to the data that makes the necessity of this movement so absolute? What about: BLACK AMERICANS DEMAND JUSTICE or END THE BLACKOUT—or is it too frightening, in the midst of the mounting evidence that America has transitioned into a police state, to call the movement by its real name: SAVE BLACK LIVES.

The proliferation of slogans and sound bytes to tell America how to think about its current racial climate all highlight the inadequacy of social media alone to initiate real dialogue in America. Real dialogue requires real language. We need to be reading the state of our country more broadly and more deeply, just as we need to read poetry. As eloquently stated by McCrae’s verse, “A black boy is / both more and less a part of nature,” but the ominous truth remains that “white men have no race.”

This ability to distill an idea into a social platform is what makes recently published works of Brown, Rankine, and McCrae so necessary this year. The decisions we make in the conversations on race happening right now will define our times and the ways in which America moves forward. America needs to force-feed its plague of “white invisibility” into the healing process. Sometimes the right word makes the best medicine. As media outlets of the last two weeks have showcased a flood of powerful many-skinned faces—from Broadway to the NBA, even the White House itself—to lend their voices to the movement, perhaps America will finally succumb to putting a salve on its disease of racial bigotry. And when it does, remember poetry was there first, diagnosing the ailment, ear to our skin, listening to our heartbeat.

One Response to “The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Race”

  1. cheri dorondo

    For close to six years, I’ve worked on my own book of poems that confronts the frustration I’ve felt as a “southern poet”: I’ve found southern poetry over the last thirty years more a celebration of “southern identity” than true introspection. During that time, I’ve wondered at the collective brain freeze from the New South’s overindulgence in ice-cream economics, that supply-side theory which rode into town, let’s face it for God’s sake, once and for all, on the same horse as the “welfare queen” and “Willy Horton”. What did we expect? Yes, our nation has been traumatized by the Gulf war and 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, by the militarization of our own country’s police forces, and by economic collapse, but it seems to me that all that was built on the divisions created in a more distant time, and by political parties and their lap-dogs who learned just enough psychology to play on the right kinds of fear to get them elected, and on other emotions besides fear as well. Where has poetry been all this time? It seems to me it’s been taken prisoner by the same forces and fears and motivations that have taken journalism and fiction and academics (the former inextricably linked to the latter, and all inveigled by the same gods of fame and fortune.) Perhaps now history has begun its inevitable antithetical move; whether it’s toward resolution or dissolution, is anybody’s guess.

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