The first book of poetry I owned was “Those who ride the night winds” by Nikki Giovanni. It’s safe to say that the reason I began writing poetry was because that book was given to me. My early poems sounded an awful lot like a 12-year-old German Catholic white girl from Cincinnati, Ohio trying to sound like Nikki Giovanni. It was not pretty. I think I’ve gotten a little better since then or at least I sincerely hope I have gotten better.
When the AWP conference chose Chicago as its location for 2012 and I saw that Nikki Giovanni would be speaking it sealed the deal for me. I try to keep my “conference” and “workshop” attendance well spaced for the most part, but I made an exception for this one. I’ve never heard Ms. Giovanni read her work in person and there is something magical and powerful about hearing a poet read his or her own work. It was a treat to be able to hear her, to sit there in that ballroom and pick up what she was laying down.
I was struck by her ease and yet her urgency. No matter the words she used I kept thinking that here was a woman comfortable in her own skin, she embraced the space between her cells, she knew not only who she was but what this meant in the big wide world. It was both not being afraid of other people thought of her and yet caring deeply about everything before her. I envy that. I want that feeling.
And then suddenly there was something else-
I realized as I sat in that room that I am still that German Catholic white girl from Cincinnati, Ohio and perhaps I will always be that girl. I was uncomfortable then, but I could not pin down why.
For days afterward I ruminated on this. Why was I uncomfortable sitting in a room and listening to a poet and author I have loved since I was 12? Was it her confidence? Was it her talent? Was it the color of her skin or perhaps, was it the color of my own? I wanted to belong there, but I felt distinctly, “other.” I was uncomfortable. I brought that into the room with me.
And then a week or two later Trayvon Martin was killed. Unarmed, gunned down in “self-defense” in a gated community, this 17-year-old boy was killed after leaving a convenience store. The shooter called 911, reporting him as suspicious. I do not know what could have transpired in those minutes between the 911 phone call and the gun being fired.
Except, that I imagine the fear was palpable, the fear was the sweat on his lip, the shaking hands that pulled the trigger. He claims it was self-defense, but it was not Trayvon Martin who threatened this man. The threat was always the man who shot the gun.
Maybe white people cannot write about racism. That’s what I’m thinking today. Maybe that is what gave me pause as I listened to Nikki Giovanni speak at that conference. As I listened to her speak about equality and about oppression and I placed condemnation on my plate, even though she did not offer it up. I was ashamed of my ancestors. There was no retribution and at this moment I begin to wonder if there ever could be retribution in a society like ours. I begin to wonder if people so gripped by fear can enter into the redemption necessary to bring us all up. Maybe women will never be paid as much as men in our country, maybe black people will always seem “suspicious” to white people, maybe liberals and conservatives will never again agree on basic principles, maybe Christians and Muslims will never be able to see past their own prejudices.
All prejudices are based in fear. And we are fearful people.
As much as I’d like to hope that at some point the human race will become enlightened and embracing the differences between us, the bold truth of it is that we humans will always be afraid of something…or someone or a whole lot of someones. This is why men enslave other men, this is why we demean each other, this is why we try to wipe out entire populations. We are so very afraid, afraid at our core, of what we do not know and afraid at our very human core of being deprived of something, of not belonging, not being accepted, not being loved. In that fear we build our homes and our personalities and our world views and in that gated community we gun down unarmed teenagers for looking “suspicious” and I do not know what we can do about it.
Maybe white people cannot write about racism, maybe it’s an empty task because we do not, cannot, will not, put our money where our mouth is where matters of equality and respect are concerned.
We should be uncomfortable.
Then again I cannot help but believe that it is essential that we talk about it more. It is essential that we confront the “other-ness” we feel in ourselves, the fear we choose when faced with difference, prejudice, history, poetry.
We must talk about it, write about it, confront it, make poetry about it, no matter how uncomfortable we feel. We can’t keep living with fear as our motivator. In the end, that fear will only destroy us all.