Dear President Trump,
Have you noticed that nearly every day there is a prominent story about police having been summoned to deal with black people? Have you noticed that most of the stories not involving the black person dying do involve the black person being led off in handcuffs, under arrest for having stood their ground in claiming space? The frequency of those stories has been ramping up and as a result we all, white and black and brown, are seeing more and more images of black people subdued by the system, in cuffs that look and function like chattel chains. Those images are powerful and they tell us all who is vulnerable to what sort of treatment in which places. Those images starkly tell us who has a right to be where.
It’s as though it’s no longer enough to follow my pastor around in the department store to make the point that she’s not welcome there, that she is not trusted and her business is not wanted. It’s as though it’s no longer enough to imprison and essentially disappear ungodly numbers of black and brown men and women, undermining them, their families, communities and their collective psyches. No, now we need to make a scene of going after people waiting for a business meeting in a public place or working out in a gym or playing golf. God forbid they protest the prejudice they are encountering and risk stirring up some trigger happy law enforcement officer (words carefully chosen) who can claim that he or she was frightened for his or her life by the scary black person or people and thereby was justified in shooting however many bullets they’ve got.
There’s another poem-a-day I want you to read. It’s by Danez Smith and it’s called “say it with your whole black mouth.” Since I know you won’t read it, I’ll reproduce a couple of key, devastating lines for you:
….how many times have we died on a whim
wielded like gallows in their sun-shy hands?
here, standing in my own body, i say: the next time
they murder us for the crime of their imaginations
i don’t know what i’ll do….
The line “murder us for the crime of their imaginations” is so life and death important. Not only are white people prone to imagining it’s impossible to reason with those dangerous black and brown people (i.e., savages) and so they must be subdued, choked, cuffed, but so many of us white people are incapable of imagining ourselves in their situations, of achieving anything remotely like radical empathy.
The universe is so strange and amazing. Last night I read a New Yorker article from last fall by Dan Chiasson and I put the magazine by my writing chair because I wanted to share it with you today to frame my thoughts about how we are being fed a steady visual diet of black people in modern day chains. The article is a review of a poetry book and the final line conveys how poetry can facilitate radical empathy. The book of poetry being reviewed was by Danez Smith.
I have to admit that at first I didn’t put together that the article was about the same person whose poem was in my inbox this morning. Would I have remembered their name if they’d been a white man or woman? Quite possibly. I’m obviously still a work in progress.
The line I want to share, though, is about how reading someone’s poetry aloud, living in their space for a bit, might not fully bridge the gaps between our experiences and theirs, but it can mean “…they are not unimaginable.” Poetry is often so raw, so able to cut to the heart of what matters that it can open doors for us to one another and to ourselves if we are brave enough to venture across those thresholds.
May we be safe enough to venture into unknown territory.
May we be happy to just listen when we are there.
May we have the ego strength and health to stay open even when it’s really, really hard.
May we be grateful when the universe takes us by the hand and leads us places we need to go.