Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Poetry Break: Javon Johnson's Cuz He's Black & My Poem, Woman with Crow

Screen Shot of Javon Johnson
So as a white woman who is also the mom of a Korean boy, I want to say that the expression and reality that Javon Johnson states so clearly in the poem below is also true for my son and me. I cannot prepare my own child for the atrocities that come alongside the 'crime' of not being white in America. There's no comfort in that the battles my son has already faced and will face are not full scale wars, but know this: he has been hurt and so have I. There's a double edge to all of this in bearing witness while being white. White America has got to get over itself and learn to love.  What our children learn perpetuates the awful and wrong myth of white superiority. There's nothing particularly special about being white, save the unearned privilege that gets afforded.  All of this is wrong. We know it. White privilege is bad for everyone and dangerous for young men and women of color.   
We have to stop it. 

Javon Johnson - Cuz He's Black

"cuz he's black & poor
he's disappeared
the name waz lost"
-Ntozake Shange

So I'm driving down the street with
my 4-year-old nephew.
He, knocking back a juice
box, me, a Snapple, today y'all
we are doing manly shit. I love
watching the way his mind works.
He asks a million questions.
Uncle, why is the sky blue?
Uncle, how do cars go?
Uncle, why don't dogs talk?
Uncle, uncle, uncle, he asks,
uncle, uncle, uncle, he asks
uncle uncle uncle
as if his voice box is
a warped record. I try my best
to answer every question, I do.
I say it's because the way
the sun lights up the outer space.
It's because engines
make the wheels go.
It's because their minds aren't
quite like ours. I say Yes.
No. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. I don't know.
Who knows? Maybe. We laugh.
He smiles at me, looks out the window,
spots a cop car, drops his seat
and says,
"Oh man, Uncle, 5-0, we gotta hide."
I'll be honest. I'm not happy
with the way we raise our Black boys.
Don't like the fact that
he learned to hide
from the cops before
he knew how to read.
Angrier that his survival
depends more on
his ability to deal
with the "authorities"
than it does his own literacy.
"Get up," I yell at him. "In this car, in this family,
we are not afraid
of the law."
I wonder if he can hear
the uncertainty in my voice.
Is today the day he learns
that uncle is willing to lie to him,
that I am more human
than hero?
We both know the truth
is far more complex than
do not hide. We both know too many
Black boys who disappeared.
Names lost.
Know too many Trayvon Martins
Oscar Grants
and Abner Louimas, know too many
Sean Bells, and Amadou Diallos
Know too well that we are
the hard-boiled sons of Emmett Till.
Still, we both know
it's not about whether or not
the shooter is racist,
it's about how poor Black boys
are treated as problems
well before we are treated as people.
Black boys in this country
cannot afford
to play cops and robbers
if we're always considered the latter,
don't have the luxury
of playing war
when we're already in one.
Where I'm from,
seeing cop cars drive
down the street feels a lot
like low-flying planes in New York
City. Where I'm from, routine traffic
stops are more like mine
fields, any wrong move
could very well mean your life.
And how do I look my nephew in his apple face
and tell him to be strong when we both know
black boys are murdered every day, simply
for standing up for themselves? I take him
by the hand, I say
be strong. I say be smart. Be kind, and polite.
Know your laws. Be aware of
how quickly your hands move
to pocket for wallet or ID,
be more aware of how quickly
the officer's hand moves to holster, for gun.
Be Black. Be a boy and have fun,
because this world will force you to
become a man much quicker
than you need to.
"Uncle," he asks, "what happens
if the cop is really mean?"
And, it scares me to
know that he, like
so many Black boys,
is getting ready for a war
I can't prepare him for.

Woman with Crow

            Mary Ann Reilly

for Mamie Till-Mobley

Perhaps it was nothing more
than the suddenness
of a single black American crow
lifting from the branch
that had me thinking of you.
There in the pale wash of November sky
the bird winged North,
its blue-black splay of wings opening
like some long sought hope
and I wondered about us:
two mothers separated by fifty years.

I imagined an afternoon together with you.
A day, nothing too special,
certainly not that August
when Emmett’s bloated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River,
a tortured and slain child—
nor late September
when that jury of white men
delayed the verdict sixty minutes by sipping soda pop
before carrying out certain Mississippi justice.
Not these, perhaps a different day
when memory might soften slightly
(if such days do come)
when we might sit,
two women in comfortable silence
interrupted by talk, tea.

I would have been nervous.
My clammy, too-white skin
bearing first an apology
for all that has come before
and comes with me
knowing too well the inadequacy of words—
sounding so slight
against this history of such relentless wrongs.
Perhaps you would have helped me to know
how we might begin to get said
what Williams knew must be said.

Sometime that afternoon
I might have mentioned how my mother
told me Emmett’s story,
the one I never heard repeated in school.
Seated at our kitchen table
with late afternoon tea, my mother claimed
history was rewritten on your loved child’s loss
when you said, “Open it up.
Let the people see
what they did to my boy.”
I knew those men
who mowed lawns on weekends
their shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow
and their women, so taken with their whiteness,
were a savage plague unrelenting.

America, thirty years gone by—

How could I know then
from the privileged whiteness
of home that tonight I would stroke
the sweet, unmarred cheek
of my own adopted boy
so slight
so innocent in his sleep, in his waking
knowing it would be only dumb luck
not his mother’s guiding hand,
not his father’s watchful eye
that keeps this child of color

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