Where We Look: Reflecting on This Country & Poetry / by Peter LaBerge

By Caleb Kaiser, Poetry Reader.

(c) #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, 2014.

(c) #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, 2014.

There seems no appropriate way to begin this article, no way to neatly encapsulate our heartbreak over Eric Garner, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Kimani Gray, Trayvon Martin, and the seemingly endless list of black Americans killed by police officers. As anyone reading this is probably aware, there are a number of simultaneous and related debates currently happening on a national stage, ranging from the frustratingly obvious to legally pedantic. Unfortunately, addressing every debate is beyond the scope of this article, just as summarizing the sorrow of those affected seems disingenuous. We’re asking a simple question, taken from an even simpler observation, in the hopes that it will resonate with those who are conflicted by these events. Black people in America are suffering, and have been suffering in one form or another throughout the history of America. Why is it that in a country whose political process is based in a dynamic of assembly and representation, such a massive and integral group of people can cry out without proportional representation or agency?

Below we have listed writers, or groups of writers, who are writing from a place steeped in race. We are doing this to some degree because we are ourselves writers, and we look to other writers to make sense of tragedy. However, we are also doing this to show that this outcry is not new, some of these poets are reading poems published over 70 years ago. The pain being experienced now is not an aberration, this is not the first time black Americans have been victimized, nor is it the first time they have fought against their oppression. We must approach these horrors with the understanding that this is not a slip in the system, that the proper response isn’t to simply put our nation “back on track”. We must fundamentally change what America is, and has been, just as every person who fought for change in America’s history has. As Edward Murrow famously said, “Remember, we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”


#BlackPoetsSpeakOut

A group of Cave Canem poets began uploading homemade videos of themselves reading poems addressing race in America, and the movement has spread to include hundreds of videos from black poets across America. Some read their own work, while others read works from history, all without any curation, aside from the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. We have provided a link to a list of around 200 videos here.

“We Are Not Responsible” Harryette Mullen (Read by Khadijah Queen)

“Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments.”

"from The Interrogation" by Jericho Brown

“They want me kicked. So kick me. They do…”

Button Poetry

It should be said that Button Poetry is not itself a political organization, and it does not solely publish poetry about race. However, it is one of the best repositories of spoken word poetry freely available, and hosts videos of many important race-related poems, including Danez Smith’s popular “Not An Elegy For Mike Brown” (below). A link to the channel can be found here.

"Not An Elegy for Mike Brown" by Danez Smith

"bring him & we will mourn/until we forget what we are mourning/& isn’t that what being black is about?/not the joy of it, but the feeling/you get when you are looking/at your child, turn your head,/then, poof, no more child./that feeling. that’s black."

“Open Letter to the Mother of Michael Dunn” Bianca Phipps

“My mother taught my brothers how to bow their heads, how to be submissive subjects in a kingdom that does not accept them. You gave your son a scepter in the form of a gun and crowned him king.”

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Aside from these groups, there are and have been many black poets in America writing about this oppression and this pain. Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Thomas Sayer Ellis, Harryette Mullen, and so many more. The focus of this article is not to curate black poetry in contemporary America, it is simply to share who we’ve looked to for understanding in the wake of these tragedies. It is our hope that in doing so, someone who seeks solidarity will find it. 

 

Caleb Kaiser is a nineteen-year-old writer from the Southeast currently living in Chicago. Most recently, his work has appeared in Diagram, PANK, Painted Bride Quarterly, and A-Minor Magazine. He is a staff member of Able Projects and The Adroit Journal. He has a thing for storms.