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.

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

Comrades in Arms

I once had an only date with a small, anxious man. He was nervous and … ferret-y: fidgety like the way ferrets move. He was a few years older than me, an inch or two taller, very slender, white. We went to dinner at a Burmese place in the East Village. Then we walked around for a bit then said our goodbyes at the subway.

I knew in the first five minutes that we weren’t a match, that we wouldn’t see each other again. I imagine that he knew it, too.

At one point after dinner, as we walked up First Avenue, several young men ran past us. There were maybe six or seven of them, and they ran on either side of us. They were fast but seemed aimless, as if they were running just to be running.

I found them beautiful to watch, like gazelles, so effortless and full of energy. But they spooked my date. And it’s understandable that someone would be alarmed by having a group of people run up on them at night. Sure. It’s more surprising that I wasn’t alarmed. But my date stayed freaked out long after the young men had flown past us. His state of alert was so high, it began to make me nervous.

Finally, he stopped walking and, when I turned to look at him, said: “If there’s any trouble, I can’t protect you or fight for you. I’ll just run.”

I remember being surprised, amused, and pitying. There’s so much wrapped up in a pronouncement like that. Over time I’ve come to realize how wrong and unfair my reaction to him was. At the time, all I could think was – welp, if there had been even the thinnest chance of a second date, or even a curiosity kiss to end this date, it just shriveled up and died on the vine.

I certainly don’t ever expect my dates to step up with sword and shield or dive in front of blows or bullets if something awful goes down when we’re together. And mostly that is because I don’t think about things going that kind of sour. That isn’t a way my life has ever played out. But even with men I’ve been in relationships with, I have never assumed that they would physically protect me. I mean, if something happened I’d be right there, so I’d expect that I’d defend myself. I’d expect us to fight together against whatever.

That said, for you to tell me you’d run away, that you’d flee to save yourself and abandon me? Um, no. Just no.

Of course, my response to his honesty was based on stereotypes about what it means to “be a man,” to behave in a “manly” way. The shriveling up and dying of any hint of desire I might have felt for this man was caused entirely by the fact that I was trained to expect the man by my side to play the role of knight in shining armor.

I barely knew the man I was on that date with. He could have had any number of past traumatic experiences that made the idea of a street fight so petrifying that he couldn’t keep walking without letting me know that he wouldn’t be putting himself in such a situation.

I told this story to my sister not long ago, and she burst out laughing. I mean, yes. That’s my response, too. Even now, I’m sad to admit. Because our conditioning means that it’s a funny story. Even today. Even with everything we know. Because who says that? But still. Our laughter also tells me how much work I still have to do, how far I haven’t come.

How stunting is it that we don’t allow men to feel things it is entirely natural and human to feel? What do we do to men – and to the women and children around them – when we don’t allow them to be vulnerable, to be afraid, to not want to be fighters? I think we see the answer to that question over and over again – Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, James Holmes. Sadly, that list is so very much longer.

I want, also, to be clear that I am not a fighter. I am not anything at all like a fighter. If someone had attacked my date and me on the street that night, I would surely have faced the attack with bewilderment. I would have said, “Hey!” because I’d have been surprised that something awful was happening to me, and “hey” is my go-to exclamation. And then I’d have said, “Hey!” again, I guess, as I saw my date take off. That date was years before the accident that messed up my knees, so it’s possible that I would have run, too. But it’s more likely that my surprise and shock would have stalled me long enough that my attacker would have gotten whatever they’d come for – my purse, my life, whatever.

I am not anything at all like a fighter. And I’m lucky because I’ve never had to be one – or, only just a couple of times – and, too, society doesn’t expect me to be one. Even with my height and size, I can “play the girl” and not have to know how to throw or block a punch.

I could learn how to fight, could learn how to defend myself. And society makes room for that. As a woman, I have the room for that. Men don’t get the same degree of space.

What do we think we’re gaining as a society by depriving men of the right to their feelings, of the ability to be comfortable with their fears? When will we see that whatever we gain is significantly outweighed by everything we lose?


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, Pt. 2

Today, I’m taking even more liberties with the form. I don’t know if this poem can even be considered to be an erasure poem at this point. I’ve done two things that don’t follow the rules: I’ve brought in a line from a whole other poem, from the poem I made on the 12th., and I repeat it or parts of it throughout this poem. I’ve also chosen to focus on only a few pieces of my source text and repeat and rearrange them over and over.

I won’t lie: this was a more interesting way to work on the poem, but I’m still not sure it works as well as I’d like. And I’m definitely not sure that this “counts” as a true erasure poem. But it’s today’s work, and I’m sticking to it.

Considered Chattel, Pt. 2
(An erasure of Jezebel’s article about the removal of the J. Marion Sims statue from Central Park.)

Advancements
came at the expense
of hundreds of Black slaves
without their consent.

A controversial statue —
J. Marion Sims, a 19th century physician.

The city has agreed
to remove Sims,
whose gynecological advancements
came at the expense of hundreds,
Black slaves
— considered chattel —
on whom he experimented.

Sims bought or borrowed
at least a dozen enslaved Black women
(when Black women were considered chattel),
used their bodies
to practice and perfect his techniques,
without informed consent
or anesthesia.

Sims is credited
as the “father of modern gynecology.”
The father.
Sims’s advancements,
netted by barbaric means,
shed light on the history of racism
in the medical industry.
Bought or borrowed
enslaved Black women
— Black women were considered chattel —
used their bodies
used their bodies
used their bodies
to practice,
without consent
without anesthesia.
Barbaric.
Sims’s advancements
shed light on the barbaric history
of the medical industry.

Advancements in racism.
When Black women were considered 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

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

______ 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.

Summarizing Deadly Distraction

 

I struggled to find a source text tonight. I tried to avoid politics, and specifically Trump’s Friday the 13th actions. No such luck. In the end I had to find my way back here. It’s hard culling text from his words. I have worked so hard to avoid hearing him speak, to avoid reading his transcripts. I had quite the gag reaction reading this speech.

Precision Strikes
(An erasure of Donald Trump’s address to the nation, 4/13/18.)

I ordered forces to launch
weapons combined
now under way.
Innocent people responded,
again.
Weapons, innocent civilians,
escalation.
A pattern of weapons.
Thrashing and gasping,
actions, crimes, horrors.
Suffering (even small amounts)
can establish production and interest.
The response,
all instruments of power,
stops the most responsible.
I will say what is necessary.
Friendships take greater resources,
indefinite presence, contributions,
no illusions.
We purge everywhere there is
peace and security,
a troubled place,
fate.
The darkest places,
the anguish, the evil.
Righteous power and brutality.

Say a prayer
for dignity and peace.


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