Village Voice: Poems For A Potential Turning Point In America’s Relationship With Race

06.12.20

The question of race in all its complexity is something that we continue to not take a closer look at in America, it just keeps being swept under the rug, and how today now we’re taking a closer look than we have in a long time. There seems to be this idea that racism is an African American problem to solve, and the reality is that everybody in America needs to be talking about race, and I love that we’re seeing that in the street, that the demographics of the people out there is really striking and wonderful to see.

I joined Boston Public Radio for another installment of the Village Voice on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, to reflect on race and share one of my own poems, “Easy Lynching,” along with “juxtaposing the black boy & the bullet,” by Danez Smith, and of course: “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.

Easy Lynching on Herndon Avenue
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 snapshot—
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.

juxtaposing the black boy & the bullet
Danez Smith

one is hard & the other tried to be

one is fast & the other was faster

one is loud & one is a song with one note & endless rest

one’s whole life is a flash

both spend their life

trying to find a warmth to call home

both spark quite the debate,

some folks want to protect them/some think we should just get rid

of the damn things all together.

Still I Rise
Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.