Poet Richard Blanco Grapples With ‘The Hidden Racism In America’

01.16.18

In the latest installment of “Village Voice,” Blanco examined one of his own poems from the book “Boundaries,” titled “Easy Lynching On Herndon Avenue.” He was inspired to write it after seeing a present-day photo taken of Herndon Avenue in Mobile, Alabama, the site of the last recorded lynching in the United States in 1981. (The street was later renamed after the man who was murdered, Michael Donald.)

Blanco was shocked at the street’s quiet, ordinary appearance — “as if nothing happened here,” he wrote in an email. It made him think about, as he writes, “the hidden racism in America.”

“The focus is on this as a figurative way to discuss how racism in America is at times swept under the rug, invisible,” he wrote.

This episode aired on January 16, 2018 on WGBH Boston Public Radio.

EASY LYNCHING ON HERNDON AVENUE

By Richard Blanco

What I’d rather not see isn’t here: no rope,
no black body under a white moon swaying
limp from a tree, no bloodied drops of dew
on the twenty-first of March 1981. That’s
in another photo, like a dozen other photos
I’ve gaped at wanting—not wanting—to turn
away from the snapped necks of the hanged,
and the mob’s smug smirks, asking myself
How could they? Why? Questions not here,
not in this photo—a crisp and tranquil snap-
shot—murder washed out by time, history
left uncaptured. What’s left now is easier
on our eyes: only pale morning light seeping
blue into the sky—a backdrop to the necks
of tree boughs bowing like swans, innocent
of any crime on Herndon Avenue, pictured like
any other street: clean sidewalks (no blood),
utility poles strung with wires (no rope), a few
pavement cracks (no broken-boned body).

Easier to imagine only this: groomed children
waiting for the school bus grinding to a halt
that March morning, the twenty-first, 1981.
Their backpacks zipped with undoubtable
history and equations, cartoon lunchboxes
filled with fresh ham sandwiches and sweet
grapes. Sport-coat fathers dashing to work,
worried about paychecks and the greenness
of their lawns. All-day mothers left tending
silk pillows never fluffed enough, scrubbing
sinks never white enough, wiping windows
never spotless enough. Easier not to ask if
anyone saw him, if anyone knew the boy
whose mama had named Michael—Michael
Donald. Easier to think no one was friendly
with Mr. Hays and Mr. “Tiger” Knowles who,
on the night of March twenty-first 1981,
drove around looking for something black
to kill at random. They spotted him, age 19,
walking home (the body), strangled him first,
then slit his throat (the blood), chose a tree
to hang him (the rope) on Herndon Avenue.

Why? Which tree was it that shook with
his last breath? Easier not to look for it,
not find it, not make ourselves imagine Michael
still hanging on Herndon Avenue, his death
still alive since March twenty-first, 1981.
Easier not to look at his shut eyes, wonder
what his favorite color or superhero was, if
he liked to skateboard or draw, if he heard
his mama’s cries: My boy—Jesus, my boy!
Easier to believe the last words on the lips
of his murderers must’ve been: Forgive us,
to trust this kind of thing doesn’t happen
anymore, stay blind (no rope, no blood,
no body) to the life of a boy named Michael
invisible in this photo, that is, until we dare
to look hard and deep and long enough.