Essay by Victor D. Infante, Poems by Alan King, Christina Springer, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Casey Rocheteau, Sonya Renee Taylor and Danez Smith
It is agonizing to witness a community wailing in despair, to hear the pain echo across the sky. But that’s the only way to describe the chorus that’s erupted in the wake of the non-convictions of the slayers of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, as well as the seemingly endless parade of similar deaths that follow the same, dispiriting pattern: A person is dead, and no one is held accountable. When that is the refrain, how does one retain faith in justice? How does one do anything but scream?
Everyone has an opinion, and feels the need to express it. Everyone. And some of the voices are sympathetic to the African-American community, and the immense sense of grief and frustration they’re expressing. Others still are confused, and don’t seem to understand where it’s all coming from. And then there are those who seem insistent on telling people how they should feel, that their outrage is misplaced. The least offensive of these are condescending. The most offensive feel the need to quote Martin Luther King Jr., to brandish his name like a weapon. None of them are helpful.
It seems self-evident that a grief as large as the one being expressed right now is one that should be listened to, regardless of its roots or which community it is that’s in pain. No outcry that loud comes from nowhere. It was with this in mind that I found myself watching videos made by African-American poets reacting to the the long line of slayings, each video marked with the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut.
The immersion of one’s self into this stream of poems is heartbreaking. But then, heartbreak seems to be the order of the day. What follows are just a handful of the videos, reposted with the authors’ consent.
“Striptease,” by Alan King:
There is a refrain that, with some small variation, accompanies each video: “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” It’s a powerful mantra, and while that right to be angry seems self-evident, it only takes a moment of attention to the media caterwaul to see how easily some wave that anger away. They should not. Even if one sees events and their aftermaths differently, that anger should not be dismissed.
“Them Ghosts,” by Christina Springer:
Watching video after video is a painful activity. After a while, the refrain echoes in your ears: “I have a right to be angry.” It becomes less a piece of rhetoric and more a truth soaked into the poem. But yes, the wash of poem after poem is painful. Some pain, sometimes, is necessary.
“Maybe None Of Us Are Actually From Anywhere,” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib :
It’s easy to see why some feel compelled to dismiss this anger: Perhaps it doesn’t fit into their experience of the world, or perhaps there’s a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs when they glance in the direction of the rising voices, a nausea that tells them that there is indeed something broken in the world, and they have no idea how to fix it. Maybe some of them really are just hateful bastards. It’s not unheard of.
“If the Tables Were Turned,” by Casey Rocheteau:
But mostly, it just seems likely that the clucking disapproval and disbelief is rooted in fear: Fear of what it will take to fix the problem, fear of what will happen if we don’t, fear of what will happen if we do. Fear is the devil’s first weapon, always.
“who has time for joy?” by Danez Smith
This is the reality: There is a pattern, and it starts with a black person, often a child, dead, and it’s followed by the slayer not being held responsible. And each time this pattern repeats, the agonized chorus grows louder. It is not a problem that will be solved easily: It’s a cultural knot that needs to be unraveled with care. It will be difficult. But for it to happen, that act of unraveling must begin. And it begins in speaking painful truths that need to be given voice, and it begins in listening, no matter how much you don’t want to hear what’s being said.
“When the Shotgun Question the Black Boy” by Sonya Renee Taylor