La Petite Histoire de mon Rendu Compte*

I am away at a conference. Mid day yesterday I stood outside the hotel waiting for my lunch companions. A patrol car pulled up, and two women jumped out along with the officer. The women were conference goers, too. I knew from their bright, new conference totes. They posed in front of the cruiser, and the officer took their picture. The hotel’s shuttle driver came out, saw them, and asked, all smiles and laughter, if they’d been arrested. More smiles and laughter as they explained how they’d gotten lost and the officer had found them on some who-knows-where road and brought them back safe and sound. He was, apparently, “just so nice, sweet as he could be.” Everyone laughed some more. The officer posed for a selfie with the ladies and left. The driver waved and left. The ladies went into the hotel.

It was a cute scene. A funny scene. But I felt some kind of way watching it. Yes, here is where I say that everyone in that scene was white. Here is where I say that where I am for this conference is pretty white. And all of that is fine. So entirely fine.

But here is also where I say that, when I imagined myself lost on some who-knows-where road in this town, when I imagined a police car pulling up to me as I tried to find my way back to my hotel, I could only imagine Marlene Pinnock, could only imagine a scary, violent plot line for my story. No smiles and laughter, no poses in front of the cruiser, no selfies with the hero officer.

I’m willing to believe I would have had the exact same experience with that officer that I witnessed. I’m willing to believe I would have walked back into the hotel with a funny story to tell my friends. I’m willing to believe that because why not think the best of people. I’m willing to believe it because … oh my God how much do I want to believe that.

But how many times, just in 2015 alone, has a should-have-been-harmless encounter between a police officer and a Black person ended with that Black person’s death?

And that’s what I thought about as I watched that scene play out. I thought it when the officer stepped out of the car and gave me a careful once-over before turning to smile at his smiling passengers. I thought it as the women passed me to enter the hotel and didn’t respond to my smile and nod but shifted away slightly and took themselves inside. I thought it as the officer drove off, giving me another long look as he passed.

I was once rescued from a broken elevator by two police officers. This was back in the 80s, back in the bad old days of my life in an apartment building that attracted a lot of police attention. Those officers were surely in the building because of the crack factory in 1F and just happened to hear my cries from down the shaft. I was so happy to hear their voices as they talked crazy-claustrophobic me back to calm, so happy to see them when they finally got me free. There were smiles and even some laughter.

There are a lot of things I think of when I think of white privilege. A LOT of things. Yesterday it just slapped me hard, the freedom those women have to feel safe and at ease with that officer because they know he’s going to serve and protect them, and it would never occur to them that he wouldn’t because they are good people, nice people, law-abiding people, and of course he would drive them back to their hotel.

And I am a good person, a nice person, a law-abiding person. And that officer might have driven me back to my hotel, too, even without my shiny conference tote bag marking me as a sanctioned stranger to his town. He might have. But I no longer have the privilege of believing that without a second thought, of being able to take my safety with him for granted.

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It’s probably a given that I would return to this blog on a Slice of Life Tuesday.
Please check out the slices other folks are serving up over at Two Writing Teachers!

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* I know it should be be “réalisation,” but I’ve always just liked “rendu compte” better. And, too, there’s no excuse for making the title French. But that’s how it came into my head when I finished writing and needed a title. Which is random and strange, but I generally like random and strange, so I went with it. (Désole de ne pas désole.)

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May 13, 1985/2015*

My mind and heart are struggling with this 30-year anniversary. With the fact of the 11 lives lost on May 13th, with the fact of what happened to the people of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, but also with the clear connection to the ways we see police departments interact with — and act on — communities of color today. And Black communities in particular.

When the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE house on May 13th 1985, I was more than 3,600 miles away, at the start of a months-long hitch through Europe. I had just left Paris, after a couple of weeks of reconnecting with teachers and friends I’d met during my junior year abroad. I’d had a good day of hitching and was settling into Bordeaux. With no radio or television, I didn’t know about the bombing until the next day when I grabbed a copy of the International Herald Tribune and an Orangina and went to find a sunny spot to enjoy both.

Sitting in a pretty park under cool springtime sun, a photo and news story tilted my entire world.

I don’t remember how many times I read that article. I don’t know how long I sat staring blankly trying and failing to process what I’d read. I sat there long enough and looked lost and distraught enough that a man approached to ask if I was okay, to ask if I was injured in some way. Eventually I clipped the article from the paper and kept it in my journal. A place marker: this is your country, this is the state of things in 1985 in your country, this is a way a local police force in your country chooses to deal with a group of Black people it doesn’t like.

Because that was the horror, that was the reason I read the article over and over. How could it be happening in 1985 in my country? I remember repeating again and again, “But it’s 1985. It’s 1985.”

And now it’s 2015. It’s 30 years later, and we see municipal police departments describing the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve as “enemies,” we see police departments armed with military equipment and perfectly comfortable using those weapons and tools on civilians, we see more and more and more Black bodies, and we see the ones we’ve lost accused of orchestrating their own deaths. Every piece of this echoes what we saw in 1985 at 6221 Osage Avenue.

In 1985, firefighters were told to “let the fire burn,” to allow the fire caused by the police bombing to burn until it spread and destroyed almost two city blocks. Today, we see police officers shoot unarmed Black people and leave them where they fall while they call their union reps or alter crime scene evidence, or just walk away. In 1985, a residential neighborhood was bombed by the police. In 2015 — perhaps in an effort to protect property and serve landlords — police gun us down in the street.

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White Supremacy, always the hardest worker in any room, has been busy — up from slavery, out through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, five steps ahead of the Civil Rights Movement, exploding over 6221 Osage, down through to today. White Supremacy doesn’t sleep, keeps its eyes wide open at all times. We get angry, White Supremacy takes three steps forward. We get comfortable, White Supremacy takes five. Bombing the MOVE house was horrific, but it wasn’t enough. White Supremacy needed those snipers firing on folks trying to escape the inferno, needed to let the fire rage and take down 59 other houses to prove a point, make an example,  needed to leave that neighborhood in limbo and decay for 30 years to be sure we got the message.

I’m not saying this fight isn’t winnable. No. I’m saying we can’t get comfortable, we have to be as vigilant as White Supremacy, keep our eyes wide open, keep watch on all the doors and windows.

White Supremacy wanted the Philadelphia Bombing to teach us a lesson. Thirty years later, we are making clear that we’ve learned a lesson. Not the one implicit bias, internalized racial hatred, and White Supremacy would have had us learn, however. Thirty years later, we are calling bullshit on the lies and the violence. We are creating  a Movement for Black Lives, and we aren’t sitting down and shutting up when white people get their feelings hurt or are forced to examine their motives, their privilege, their dismissal of our deaths.

In 1985, I didn’t know what to do with the pain of the Philadelphia Bombing other than grieve in silence. In 2015, my pen is firmly in my hand. I grieve, but I am no longer silent.

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* I suppose it is too much to expect Google’s doodle for this day to be #BlackLivesMatter. But perhaps it’s fitting that the doodle honors the woman who discovered the earth’s core. The issue of state violence against Black bodies is definitely at the core of who we are as a nation.

No Talking

Try

There is no talking to me when I’m like this, when my jaw is set, when I know I’m right. Even when I’m wrong. I stand firm behind the wall of everything I know, everything you haven’t done your homework to find out. I tell myself I know exactly who you are, that I know how you’ll come for me, that I’ll be ready. All my words ammunition-belted across my chest. Ready. There is no talking to me when I’m like this, when my body aches from the tension I hold, when my shoulders are tight with the anger I swallow. Yours. Mine. I need to listen — just listen, not only to you — need to open at least one door. I need to listen, uncurl my fist, remember the feel of my open hands. There is no talking to me when I’m like this, when I’m so tired of the death and denial, when there has been too much silence for too long. Your silence. Mine. There is no talking to me, but you’ll have to break first. Cast your rusty voice, find the fissure, your words in your hand — sharp as pickaxes. Keep talking.


As I did last year, I’ll be following along with the Poem-A-Day challenge at Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides Blog. Today’s prompt is to write a historic poem. You can post your daily poems on Brewer’s page. The top poem from each day will be included in an anthology later this year!

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Are you writing poems this month? Where can I see them?
Let’s share this craziness!

I know a place.

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “place” poem.  I decided to be literal about it an choose a physical place, but I also decided to choose a place that would push me to start thinking again about a writing project I set aside last summer and haven’t made time to go back to.  I have this annoying habit of setting limiting and strict rules for myself for no good reason.  I mean, it’s a pretty good bet that, no matter what idea I come up with, there will be some external voice telling me I can’t do it or it’s a bad idea or that someone else has already done it and I can’t do it as well as that person so I may as well quit.  Or some such.  So if those naysayers are already out there, and are all ready to take me down a few notches, why do I use up my valuable energy doing their work for them?  Feh.

Last summer, a propos of nothing, I began writing a memoir.  Not Adventures. That was already under way.  No, this was a more traditional, prose-only memoir.  And I had a LOT to say … but then I stopped myself because, as my internal censor pointed out, “You can’t write two memoirs at once, and you’re already working on the comic.”  Who says?!  Right, but I listened to myself last year and put the memoir aside.  Tonight’s poem, though it is hardly a return to the writing of the memoir, it is at the very least a shot across my internal censor’s bow, a warning to let her know she needs to pipe down and let me do my work.

I Know a Place

Troy.
A weight,
hidden, dense.
All my secrets
kept.               Long afternoons,
long
bike rides.
Books read, hills
climbed. My bully / 
my friend at my side.
Jean —
taller,
stronger, hard —
she knew things I
avoided knowing.

Her
story
twists around
mine. But it’s time
to let myself go, leave
her
alone.
Walk away
from her story
learn  to tell my own.

Jean,
is your
memory
shaded purple
and grey, same as mine?

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Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer.  “Support” can be as simple and cost-free as sending the Indiegogo link out to your friends and telling them why they might want to help me get to VONA.  Any and all help is appreciated.  In the first week, I’ve received almost 40% of my goal amount! I am encouraged and humbled by everyone’s generosity.  Thank you all!

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Re-imagining

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “back to basics” poem — resetting, relearning, restarting …

Find
a new
meaning, a 
definition
of family. One
tree,
many
limbs. Searching
lost histories,
re-imagining.
See
us now.
Family.
Each has a name,
all living on, here.

Starting to wonder if I’m holding myself back, forcing each of these poems to be only a single stanza when they could be much longer.  Waiting until the lat minute to start writing and pushing myself to post before midnight is constricting.  Yes, of course that’s true, but these last poems have seems the worse for it, stunted out of necessity.  May have to revisit and revise …

And still thinking about yesterday’s realization that I haven’t been the poster child for self-deprecation this month with all my poems.  I think this change is, in large part, due to all the mental space that’s been taken up by the family history I’ve been uncovering.  I’ve been so focused on searching out connections, on finding pieces here and there, deciphering the handwriting on 150-year-old census documents … there just hasn’t been room to remember to put myself down!

As much as I’ve enjoyed this year’s poem-a-day challenge, I’m also happy enough that April’s coming to a close.  I want to release the daily pressure and setting into some of my more “normal” writing. (Who knows what I mean by that, but we’ll see come May.)

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Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer. Thank you!

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Something’s Happened

Every year that I’ve given myself the challenge of writing a poem a day for April, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what a crazy endeavor that is because I’m so not a poet. I go on and on day after day about how much I’m not a poet. And it’s true that I don’t think of myself as a poet, but it is also quite obviously true that I continue to write poems in spite of that self-perception.

I started this month in much the same way — talking about how not-a-poet me was back again, planning to sully the internets with my feeble attempts at poems.

But then that stopped. And stopped really early on. And I didn’t notice, didn’t see that it had stopped. And I didn’t feel any compunction to badmouth the work I was posting — and even had the audacity to post beyond the confines of this little-visited corner of the web.

What happened? Are the poems I’m writing this year better than each of the past years? Hardly.  Much more interestingly, I think what’s happened is that I’ve stepped out of my way — at least a little bit — and given myself permission to just write my poems without having to fire up the neon signs of disapproval every time I post one.  It’s a nice change, I won’t lie.  As nice as it is completely unexpected.

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Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a family poem.  About time the prompts got in sync with my one-track mind!  I’ve been writing family poems since I found that first mystery relative at the Underground Railroad Museum.

Fold
my hands, 
bow my head,
give thanks, give praise.
We’re here, still alive,
still
hoping,
still calling
across the gulfs
of time and silence.
Now
finding
one, one more.
Fill the spaces,
bring every child home.

I didn’t go to church today, but I thought about it, a lot. On my way out of town to have an early Easter dinner, I passed the wide open doors of a church about 15 blocks from here.  What I could only think of as a clarion call flowed out to the street: a single horn playing a beautiful fanfare, calling me, calling me, welcoming me in.  It was a church I’d never noticed before, and I wanted to let myself be drawn in.  Never mind the train I had to catch.  Never mind that it wasn’t “my” church.  I wanted to climb those steps and walk in, wanted to share that song and the soon-coming moments of silence and prayer with the room full of strangers.  I wanted to send up my quiet “thank you,” amid the praise songs.

I went to the train, stayed with my original plan.  But I’ve been hearing that trumpet, remembering the feel of that pull all day.

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Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer. Thank you!

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Say my name.

The Poetic Asides prompt for today is “color,” to make a color the title of your poem and go from there.  I like that idea, and have written a few poems in the past about colors.  Specifically two poems about the color blue.  And so I immediately thought of blue when I read that prompt. But I’m not feeling the colors today, my mind still — big surprise — caught up in the past, in the anticipation of what I might find Tuesday when I go to the family search center downtown.

I am drawn again and again to those slave schedules, to the lists of unnamed people.  That’s where I want to start, but how?

Call
my name —
place me, ground
me. Connect me
to your past, to mine,
give
me Home.
Call my name. 
See that I’m here.
A name: full, weighted,
mine.
A name
to carry,
show that I’m real,
place me beside you.

Almost.  This one didn’t fall into my brain as easily as the ones I’ve been writing the last week or so. Feels a little heavy and awkward.

natpoetrymonth1

Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer. Thank you!

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.