On November 24, 2014, my Facebook News Feed forked: all at once I was reading two wholly different kinds of perspective, like dispatches from parallel dimensions. I remember because I was laid up for days with a fever-dream flu, the kind where you pour broth down your throat while it’s still too hot because everything in your body aches for the fluid. I couldn’t sleep or work, but I could hold a laptop and click. That’s what I was doing when the grand jury announced its decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown some four months earlier.
Darren Wilson, the white police officer with some light facial bruising and a story that didn’t add up, was not indicted on murder charges. Michael Brown, the black teenager whose body lay in the street for hours, remained killed; we were just all officially meant to call it something else now.
The bifurcation of my social media stream was stark and immediate. On one side, outpourings of rage and grief, anguished and weary exchanges, posts and reposts of memes bearing Brown’s face, tagged with the gut-punching, ‘Is-this-real-life?’ hashtag #blacklivesmatter. For myself and my co-workers who teach young men of color, who have watched white cops put them in handcuffs for ‘disrespect’, very little felt larger at that moment than our terror for their safety, than the urgency of that terror. How much larger must that terror have been for their families? For the young men themselves? After all, a white cop shot a black child, and (the story goes) made enough money in donations to retire.
However, these heady emotional posts were also interspersed with ones that now seemed oddly inane. I saw photos of people’s dogs in funny hats, a recipe for Moroccan chicken, and a video tutorial for DIY (“professional quality!”) blowouts at home. I saw new haircuts and bikes and album after album of adorable children who would never need to fear for their safety from the police unless they were holding a weapon. It was almost like watching what Facebook should look like: in that parallel universe that was nearly the same as our own, but in which Ferguson was not on fire and Darren Wilson was being arraigned. “Yep, we’re all still good here, the world makes sense, check out these cats—they’re dressed like they run a Pizza Hut!”
The poetry world did something similar in the months that followed. For example, I have vivid memories of reading Danez Smith’s blazing, beautiful, sad poems: sharing them and emailing them and quoting them and being excited about them in general. For example, “Not An Elegy for Mike Brown,” which in its very first line communicates a heartsickness, a weariness:
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
It is the work of someone who does not want to have to do this work, who wishes that so many other kinds of poem were available in this moment, but who writes this one because it is necessary. It is born of the urgency of having to live in a skin you’ve been shown is a liability. It is not saying, “I will choose to confront this.” It is saying, “I must.”
One of the things that makes this poem such a difficult read is the naked hurt that travels with this imperative, the continuous acknowledgement of its subject’s general invisibility within our poetic tradition: “think: once, a white girl / was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan War. / later, up the block, Troy got shot / & that was Tuesday.” The language swings between verve and heartbreak, as when Smith demands a war to bring Michael Brown back from the dead but follows immediately with a demurral, with lowered expectations. “I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.” To locate Brown’s killing within the epic universe of The Iliad is audacious, so much so that the impact is even stronger when the poem’s speaker de-escalates the negotiations.
Frederick Seidel also wrote a poem about Ferguson: “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri.” More than mourning or disorientation, its oblique, meandering opening communicates a skittish reluctance to get political—anxiety over maybe being labeled pedantic runs through it like a tight-strung invisible thread. Rather than locate his concern too transparently in the political, he sidles up to the topic, approaching via the intellect. He writes:
A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.
Then the zipper got stuck.
An angel flies in the window to unstick it.
A drone was monitoring all this
In real time
And it appears on a monitor on Mars,
Though of course with a relay delay.
One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry. Forget about about about it.
The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.
Ferguson, Missouri isn’t mentioned until the sixth stanza, and the reader arrives there by way of Mars, Madison Avenue, the Carlyle Bar, and Indianapolis. It’s worth saying that this isn’t a bad poem, just a puzzling one, and it does reward re-reading. The line “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” works as a fulcrum, smack in the middle, subtly and (not so subtly) altering the repeated refrains that follow it. The elegant Mad. Ave. clothes-shopper from the third stanza is transformed, now a man on fire, trailing the flames after him into the Carlyle. The polite Algerian waiter collapses in strokes and prayers.
Seidel uses this technique to demonstrate the way that even the most pedestrian (if elite) concerns and activities are sullied by systemic injustice. The poem is heavily historical, grounded in Seidel’s memories of the Civil Rights Movement; Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billie Holiday are all present. It also strives for topicality, concerning itself to the point of preoccupation with drones, monitors, terror, privacy—all humans, regardless of race, united under a surveilling eye.
So where’s the difference, and does it matter? The obvious answer would be that white poets can choose to engage this topic—the destruction of black and brown bodies at the hands of our police, cavalier, casual, largely unpunished, and seemingly ceaseless. This is one of the most insidious benefits of white privilege. When our racist great-uncles insist on ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ on Facebook, we are free to defriend. When the news is baffling and horrifying, we are free to turn our eyes elsewhere. We are free to choose whether we make this ‘our issue’; when we do make it our issue, we are free to approach it as serenely, as philosophically, as much Devil’s advocates as we like. We are free, in essence, to live on the dogs-in-hats side of the Facebook feed.
On November 25, 2014, Danez Smith wrote an “Open Letter to White Poets,” saying:
There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.
As my activist friends have been putting it, “white silence equals white consent.” I would argue for a poetics that complicates this notion, or at least one that holds white artists to a higher standard than simple acknowledgement of systemic racism. In certain instances, without forethought or empathy, white speech on these issues can be incredibly harmful. Witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s now-infamous performance piece, “The Body of Michael Brown,” a 30-minute long reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. Goldsmith read this text (which he altered through cut-ups and remixing) beneath a massive projected image of Brown’s graduation photo. He chose to end the poem with a jarring line about Brown’s “unremarkable” genitalia. He played these choices straight, with a gravitas that could be called self-congratulatory if one were feeling uncharitable, and seemed honestly surprised at the outpouring of rage and pain that followed.
Many writers of color have deconstructed this poem, far more eloquently than I could here; I bring it up because it illustrates my point so well. White silence is unacceptable, but mere white speech is not enough. It is possible for white authors to enter the conversation in modes and styles that reify white supremacy rather than helping to dismantle it. Black and brown bodies—black and brown tragedy, misery—are not a canvas for our experimentation or philosophizing. At a certain point, Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s injuries can only look like appropriation. At a certain point, Seidel’s observation that he “wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” only serves to remind that he is a white man in New York City.
This type of speech is easy, and it is not what we need. Rather, we need white poets to be accountable, to be honest about the power of our voices and their capacity to wound, to be aware of how far those voices carry. Claudia Rankine, quoting Judith Butler, wrote that “we suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Amiri Baraka wrote, “Let there be no love poems written / Until love can exist freely and / Cleanly.” The news continues to baffle and horrify. We need to keep our eyes peeled, our fever spiked, waiting for the poem that crashes our two different worlds—two different poetics—together until they are indistinguishable, down to the dental records. Who knows? Maybe one of us could even write it.