I was honored to be asked to share this poem at the Racial Healing and Action Service at Second Baptist Church here in Kalamazoo a couple of weeks ago. The service represented the beginning of a collaboration of sorts between ISAAC and ERACCE to work together in dismantling racism.
I believe poetry can play a part in social change and is at its best when it does so.
I believe that for white folks to be able to do anti-racist work effectively over the long haul, we need to be aware of how racism hands us all kinds of privileges on the backs of people of color and we also need to be aware of how, at the same time, racism, that place of racial superiority, robs us of our humanity. This is my attempt to address that belief in a personal and poetic way. (What follows is a version revised post that reading in June)
Used to Not Seeing (or Everyone's Mississippi Delta)
Only low beams lit the road
as my parents drove Highway 61
south out of Memphis in route
to Cleveland, Mississippi. We passed
the Devils Crossroads in Clarksdale,
there wasn't a marker, we were blind
to more than the Blues. I barely saw
the civil rights marches, only learned later
it's not a delta at all, no mouth
until further south. It's all alluvial
plain, this place of my birth. Grandpa
disembarked in Baltimore's harbor
in 1921, moved south when
cotton was still king, but
he never planted. Instead he owned
a five and dime on Main Street
in Cleveland. I was proud
to help clerk. Sometimes he'd aim
squinted eyes my way, talk the Italian
he taught me, it translates: “follow that N____r."
"It's the longest stretch of straight road
east of the Great River," my Dad
always said as he drove with low beams
to avoid blinding the oncoming
drivers like us. We got used to not seeing
anything beyond the cotton
by the side of the road.
Even amid fields of outcries
at the murders in the streets,
in the parks, and the churches,
we whites miss the lay of the land
with our questions:
Was the officer following policy?
Was the shooter mentally ill?
Isn't the KKK really to blame?
The fertile flatness freed
by the floods of the Mississippi
and Yazoo was stolen
and exploited--Indian removal, slavery,
sharecropping, Jim Crow de jure
and now de facto. History's alive and
denied. But with my heart set
on high beams, I can see how
the land of my birth really lies,
how I could become Darren Wilson,
even Dylann Roof, if I don't feel
my conscription. If I don't feel
the white of my finger placed
every day on the trigger of the gun
I was given in my cradle, then
there's no chance of turning gun
into ploughshare, there's only
this senseless soldiering on.
This poem was original published in a earlier version in New Verse News (click here for that version)
Please let me know if you share this poem..