Building Sanctuary

I have been following the progress of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice since the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) first announced plans to create it. America’s history with lynching is deep and ugly, rooted firmly and hidden from view, glossed over. We, as a country, turn our backs on this history … even as we nod and wink at the carnival spectacle of it.

I don’t know my family’s full history, have no idea if any one of my ancestors was lynched, but lynching is a power evil in my consciousness all the same. I learned about lynching when I was a child, was already aware of it by the time I made the mistake – at nine years old – of reading Uncle Tom’s Children. That collection of stories is a classic but  definitely not meant for fourth grade reading.

(Nine, of course, is years older than other children have had to learn about lynching. And they have learned through the experience of of dying because of it, of losing a family member to it, of being uprooted from their homes to flee it. I fully recognize the privilege in my own experience, in the fact that I didn’t grow up in a place where I needed, realistically, to worry about lynching. That didn’t eliminate the fear, but the fear never needed to be active, never needed to be daily. I am grateful for all of that.)

As a country, we act as though lynching wasn’t pervasive, wasn’t a tool used to punish, terrorize, and control communities of color. At the same time, we pretend not to see or understand the impact lynching had on communities and the ways that impact is still seen and felt today. And we pretend that we can’t see the way people use calling the police to “handle” Black people today as a proxy for rounding up a lynch mob.

In 2000, when James Allen’s photo exhibit, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America was touring, people expressed shock and horror at the images on display. That seemed, at best, pathetically disingenuous. Who did these people think they were kidding, acting as though they didn’t know about lynching, acting as though they hadn’t thought it was “that bad.” It continues to surprise me how surprised white people are when confronted with the facts of whiteness in this country.

The title of that exhibit and the book that followed referenced the painful truth that, even in death, lynching victims were mistreated – bodies mutilated or dressed, made up, and posed for photos. No sanctuary.

I thought about Allen’s work when I learned about EJI’s plans for the memorial. And part of what I thought – especially after I saw the artist’s rendering of the design last summer — was that finally there would be sanctuary. Finally, these murdered innocents would be held with dignity, with grace. Finally, they would be respected.

The design of the memorial is stunning and majestic. The concept of the double set of county markers is so bold and inspiring. I think about those duplicate markers, the ones that are meant to be taken away from the memorial and placed in the counties they document. The idea of having this way of bringing the monument home to the sites of the killings is so moving. But it will also be very telling. I will be surprised if more than a few of the more than 800 markers are claimed by their respective counties. Those few blank spaces at the memorial will tell a story, but the hundreds and hundreds of remaining markers will tell an even more significant one.

Of course, I want to be wrong. I want to be entirely wrong. I want each and every one of those localities to shock the mess out of me and collect their markers and put them on prominent display in the county seat. I want that more than I can say. It won’t actually mean we’ve turned a corner on race. There will still be decades and decades of work to do. But it will be meaningful all the same. I want that. But I’m not naïve enough to allow myself to expect it.

I was never able to see Allen’s photo exhibit. I waited in the block-long lines in the cold to get into the gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waited three different times. I wasn’t deterred by the cold but by the knowledge that I couldn’t bear the photos. I knew myself well enough to know that, but still tried to force myself into the gallery. Three times. It was an exhibit that needed to be witnessed – by every white and non-Black/non-native person of color, but also by me.

Every time was the same: I’d get within half a dozen people of the gallery entrance – only twelve people were able to be in the gallery at a time – and I’d pull myself out of the line and head back to work.

Several years later, I bought the book. I came on it by chance in a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble. There was just one copy. I didn’t want it. I knew I’d never be able to look at it. But I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, either. Couldn’t leave it to be picked over, to be ignored. It felt wrong to pay for it, wrong to have money change hands over it the way professional photos of lynchings were sold as souvenirs. But I bought it. To this day, I have barely handled it, have only turned a few of it’s pages.

This history is so painful inside of me.

The closer today’s date came, the more news articles appeared about the memorial. I avoided most of them, read part way through a few, chose other articles for erasure poem source text as I worked through my National Poetry Month writing challenge.

But here we are, today, and I have to say something, write something.

I don’t believe I will ever be able to visit the memorial. Just as I can’t look at the pictures Allen collected, my heart and head wouldn’t do well at the Montgomery site. I’m not ruling out a visit, but it seems highly unlikely.

I won’t rule out a visit because the power in that space is undeniable. The weight and pressure in that pavilion horrifies me and calls me, too. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to under that display.

For now, I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, for the Equal Justice Initiative, for the design, realization, and opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is something every white person needs to see, every non-Black/non-native person of color needs to see, and however many Black folks choose to see. And, maybe one day, something for me to see.

The source text for today’s erasure poem is a Times editorial about the memorial.

Building Sanctuary
(An erasure of a Times editorial about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.)

Before you know it,
Hundreds surrounding you,
watching.
Lynchings carried out with impunity.
more than 4,400 killings,
racial terror
lasting more than seven decades.
An accounting
of those lost to history.
Devastating,
unreadable and unreachable.
A growing pressure
to include the role of racism
in American history.
Anyone in this country
has inherited a narrative
of racial difference,
a slow accumulation of evidence
leading to an inevitable conclusion:
America’s “reign of silence”
around slavery, lynching,
racial subjugation.

Deliberativeness,
attention to detail —
only lynchings that could be verified
by two contemporaneous accounts.
Such a damning exhibit,
a kind of liberation,
a kind of redemption.

To face up
to America’s brutal, racist past
with open eyes,
to understand how it lives on today.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

No Wrong Time

“There are folks who don’t think it’s time for a black woman to be governor of any state, let alone a state in the Deep South. But there’s no wrong time for a black woman to be in charge.”

That’s a fab quote from Stacey Abrams, who I love enough to wish I lived in Georgia so I could vote for her. The article I pulled it from is my source text for today’s poem.

A Black Woman in Charge
(An erasure of the Mother Jones article about Stacey Abrams.

Nearly all had power,
Black women,
a who’s who of Black women.
Bedazzled, tall, warm.
Chosen.
A romantic quest,
a leap of faith,
a coalition for women.

Black women
have long been the backbone …
and taken for granted.
Because they’re women
and because they’re Black.

Bet on the future –
people of color, Black women.
Bet on the future –
traveling, talking,
certain.
Bet on a future that understands
wanting something for yourself.
Bet on the future.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

Considered Chattel, Pt. 3

Considered Chattel, Pt. 3
(An erasure of a Times article about relocating the Sims statue.)

Richard J. Moylan,
president of Green-Wood Cemetery,
was outraged.
Women had complained
for decades
about the “Civic Virtue” statue,
but Mr. Moylan
gave it a home.
A muscular 11-foot tall man
crushing writing, feminized aquatic creatures.
Mr. Moylan 
gave it a home.

This week,
he took in another exiled sculpture,
the rendering of J. Marion Sims.

Sims performed experimental surgeries
on slave women
when Black women were considered chattel.
Sims should not be lionized.
A monument
to recognize a serial torturer
of enslaved Black women.

Mr. Moylan thought
this would give an opportunity
to tell the story, good and bad.
An opportunity.

There is a naive optimism
attached to the belief
that we risk forgetting
the darker aspects of our past,
when Black women were considered chattel.
Tell the story.
We risk forgetting,
stand at too safe a distance
from the ugliness.

Implicit in that
is the fantasia that we are living
at some point when terrible things
aren’t happening
to Black men who walk into Starbucks.
Have we overlooked the sins of our forbears?
Or held on to them,
all too closely?

__________

Still messing with the form, still not truly finding my feet.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

Once more for everybody in the back.

One more poem inspired by that Starbucks in Philadelphia White Supremacy:

Weighted by Fear
(An erasure of Renée Graham’s excellent piece in The Boston Globe.)

To be Black
is to always be
in the wrong place at the wrong time
in America.
In America,
there is never
a right place for Black people.
For Black people,
this is what we live
every damn day.

Everything Black people do is weighted,
weighted
weighted
by irrational white fear.
It’s exhausting.
When you’re Black,
you just know.
You just know
not to do anything,
that would further escalate.

Nothing will ever change
until a majority of white people
stop perceiving Black existence as sinister,
suspicious.
Talking about racism
may hurt white people’s feelings,
but unchecked racism
continues to endanger Black lives.

__________

Oh, I’m taking all kinds of liberties with this form now. It’s still wholly, uncomfortably unwieldy in my hands, however. Halfway through the month, and I still feel like I’m losing the greased pig contest.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

Rethinking Love

The Starbucks story has me deep in my feelings. (I’m sure this comes as quite the surprise to everyone.) And then this morning I came across this article in my FB feed. Professor Yancy’s experiences aren’t mine. I have never — yet … and thank goodness — had to endure the kinds of attacks he has, but I have had feelings of rage and despair similar to what he describes, have questioned why I bother to keep trying to force a conversation about race, push people to see the world that I live in. The faster my heart beat as I read his essay, the more I knew I could stop looking for today’s source text.

Rethinking Love
(An erasure of Professor George Yancy’s op-ed in the Times.)

I needed a witness
needed help to carry what I was feeling,
my emotional response
to a different kind of threat.
The kind of threat
that will inevitably impact my loved ones,
that impacts me,
my body
my spirit.

I cannot take this hatred anymore.

They bore witness
to my vulnerability,
my suffering,
the sting of hatred.
They saw the impact,
and the space between us was not the same.

I wanted them to internalize
philosophy, love,
wisdom in the face of danger.
Yet, I seemed to have lost my bearing.
I was pushed to rethink love,
the kind that refuses to hide
and requires profound vulnerability.

Being weary, fatigued, pained
mixed with outrage.
Do I give up on white people,
on white America,
or do I continue to fight?
America suffers from white racism,
lack of courage,
spinelessness and indifference.

For many white Americans,
I am disposable,
more beast than human.
And yet, a braver white America
took off their masks.
They entered that space of risk
and honesty
to tell the truth about whiteness.

We are prepared
to be wounded,
to be haunted by love
and vulnerability,
step out into the water
feel the perpetual achievement
of the impossible.

__________

I’m still struggling with this form. Struggling every day. I had thought it would be a little more malleable in my hands than it has turned out to be. I thought I could use the words in the source text, stretch them to fit my ideas. Instead, I am having to stretch myself. Stretching myself isn’t a bad thing, sure, but it’s exhausting.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

______ while Black, Pt. 2

In a video he posted this morning, Kevin Fredericks (Kev on Stage) talked about the Starbucks “incident.”* He does a great job saying so many of the things I’ve been thinking. But his description of the calculus he has to do as a Black man isn’t only the way Black men have to be in the world. This is a necessary thought process for Black people — how do I make sure these random white folks around me don’t think I’m a threat? I have this conversation with myself all the time.

In 2015, the first year I did the 24 Hour Project, part of my worry about being out all night was that someone would see me walking around and think I was trouble. To fight against that, to make myself look more harmless, I actually dressed up — wore. a. dress. and tried to look more “girlie” — in the hope that looking cute would keep me from being perceived as a criminal. I made myself look more like a possible target for an actual criminal in an effort to protect myself from racial profiling.

People told me I was silly to do that, that I was spoiling my own good time. They don’t see the looks I see on people’s faces when they see me approaching, don’t see the way white women pull into themselves when I step into the elevator with them, don’t see the way store clerks watch me when I’m trying to shop, don’t see all the ways I am told over and over that I don’t belong in a space, that I look like danger, that I am feared for simply existing in my skin.

Do Black men have this worse that women? Yes, I believe that. I believe it because I see the constant encouragement provided in the news, the encouragement to see Black men and boys as beasts, as super-powered monsters driven by bloodlust. I believe it because I have seen that some of the people who respond to me with fear and suspicion adjust their racism once they see me and realize that I’m a woman — my height and size often confuse people, keep them from seeing the obvious ways in which I don’t present as a man.

Yes, Black men and boys have to find ways to navigate these situations just so, and have to do it on a many-times-a-day basis. But Black women — including those who are perceived as women from the first moment — are targeted and killed for being Black in numbers as horrifying as the numbers for our brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, etc.

Kevin talks about the things he does to help white people see that he is “safe” — meaning, not a danger to them. This is a inner monologue all people of color have to have in relationship to white people … and, sadly, one that Black folks need to have in relationship to anyone who isn’t Black.  Because our racist society has conditioned non-Black POC to align themselves with racism, to look at me and see someone who plans to shoplift or be loud and angry or make trouble for them in some way.

As I wrote last night and have written many times, I am tired. Not just tired of these incidents, of seeing police menacing Black folks who aren’t doing anything other than trying to live their lives. I’m tired of the ease with which white folks call the police when they know full well what calling the police can mean. The Starbucks statement said the store manager never wanted those men to be arrested. I call absolute bullshit. You don’t call the police in that situation because you are looking to de-escalate something, because you want to make sure everything stays calm and quiet. You call the police because you are afraid of Black people and you want the cops to come and take care of them for you. If that means an arrest, you’re fine with that. If that means a beating, you’re fine with that, too. If that means one or both of those Black men gets shot, gets killed, well, so be it.

I am so. damn. tired. Why can’t we just live? Why is it so hard to just let us live?

There is so much work to do in this country, so far we still have to go. But this right here — this comfort white folks feel unleashing law enforcement on Black and brown folks — this has to stop now. Today.

__________

* I put that in quotes because Starbucks released it’s lame apology, the horror show in their Rittenhouse Square store was referred to as an “incident.” I want to be crystal clear: there was no incident until Starbucks staff created one. Nothing at all was happening in that coffee shop. A racist employee made the decision to turn a nothing day into one that had the potential for violence and death.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Considered Chattel

Considered Chattel
(An erasure of a Times Magazine article on Black maternal and infant death.)

When black women were considered chattel
babies died so often
parents avoided naming children
before their first birthdays.
Black infants in America,
more than twice as likely to die
as white infants,
a racial disparity wider than
before the end of slavery,
when black women were considered chattel.
In one year, that adds up
to more than 4,000 lost black babies.
For Black women in America,
an inescapable atmosphere
of societal and systemic racism
can create toxic physiological stress.
And that societal racism
is further expressed in a pervasive,
longstanding
racial bias in health care,
dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms,
that explain poor outcomes
even in Black women with the most advantages.

A toxic stress
triggered the premature deterioration
of the bodies of African-American women,
as a consequence of repeated
discrimination and insults.
The black-white disparity in the deaths of babies
is related not to race
but the lived experience of race in this country.

For black women, considered chattel,
something about growing up in America,
the bone-deep accumulation
of traumatizing life experiences
and persistent insults
is not the sort of stress relieved by meditation
and “me time.”

Black people are treated differently
the moment they enter the health care system.

You can’t convince people
of something like discrimination.
You have to prove it.

Black women were considered chattel.

Disrespect and abuse in maternal care —
being ignored, scolded, demeaned,
bullied into having C-sections —
something structural
and much deeper in the health system
that expresses itself
in poor outcomes and deaths.

Chattel.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School