A Benediction for the End of 2015

I was recently invited to read at the second Grief Rites reading, for the Holiday Edition. As you may know, my father died on Thanksgiving when I was eight years old; I had originally planned to write a new poem about him to read there. But, as happens sometimes, it really wasn’t coming together. Instead, I read a selection of poems written around the holidays last year, and two new pieces written this holiday season. (You can read two of them online, one here and the other here.)

All of the poems I read explicitly address how I feel as a Black person living in America, a country — as I say in my poem “Colonize(d)” — “that would rather see me / shot in the face.” Of the poems I read, one memorializes the 16th St Baptist Church bombing, one memorializes the murder of Michael Brown, and the remaining three deal with the stress of protesting and racial justice work, and the pain of justice denied. They are heavy pieces, and I hesitated to read them.

Some readings, I leave the most radical or race-specific poems out if I am unsure of the crowd, because I have anxiety and chronic pain; baring my soul is hard enough without someone trying to argue with me, a depressingly common occurrence. This time, I read without censoring myself.

During the break, a white woman I’d never met came up to me. She began by telling me what I read really resonated with her, BUT… As it turns out, she was raised in Alabama, and the Alabama of my poem doesn’t exist any more. She insisted that everyone knew better now, that when she was growing up, no one would have done something so awful. She told me that her parents taught her that skin color doesn’t matter, that so long as a person was willing to work hard they would succeed. I pointed out the high rates of police violence against Black people, and she talked around that, reiterating that Alabama wasn’t like that any more, and then tried to say that as women, she and I face the same barriers in corporate America. I cited the racialized gender wage gap, and she said “Not in Dallas.”

She left to visit the bathroom, and then returned to assert that we shouldn’t focus on race, and that we just need to work hard; if we just work hard, we can succeed. She commended me on being strong, utterly missing the point of my poem, “Too Strong,” which is that having to bear up under the pressure of violence and discrimination is exhausting and demoralizing. When she finally went back to the bar, I hid in the bathroom for 10 minutes trying not to have a panic attack, and missed two of the other readers.

While this woman was doing her utmost to convince me I was wrong about the existence of racism, a wonderful friend of mine tried repeatedly to interrupt her, to get her to consider that I might not be open to this conversation, or that it might be painful to me. By the end of the night, I was so tense and overstimulated that I suffered severe migraine symptoms and passed out for 15 hours. When I woke up, I discovered that my contributor copies of Minerva Rising‘s latest issue, Sparrow’s Trill: Writers respond to the Charleston Shooting had arrived in the mail. Two of my poems are included in this special edition: “Placeholder for Home” and “My Black.”

Holding a copy in my hands, I feel so many feelings. This is the first time my poetry has been published outside my own press in half a dozen years, and it makes me feel validated. It reminds me that rejections are a part of the process, that my work can find a home. It reminds me that others are feeling what I’m feeling, struggling as I am struggling. It reminds me that even those who are not feeling what I am can empathize. It reminds me why I struggle. It reminds me why I sometimes feel burnt out.

When I finished work on After Ferguson, In Solidarity, one of our contributors asked me if we would do another anthology for Charleston. I said no; it took 9 months to get AFIS out, and I honestly needed a bit of a break. I started my press in order to put out AFIS, but I hadn’t reckoned with how hard it would be: soliciting submissions from folks, picking which pieces to include, chasing contributors down to get contracts signed, creating a coherent flow, getting the cover art done, fundraising, and more. I learned a lot, most of it the hard way, and I don’t regret it, but I’m also glad I didn’t try to do it again right away. Since I didn’t, I’m glad that Minerva Rising created this special issue, and I’m proud to be included in it.

I want to thank everyone who expressed to me at the Grief Rites reading that they appreciated my work. I hold onto that when I feel the urge to silence my voice, to be jaded and avoidant. The fatigue and frustration can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean my voice must be silenced; I have a community to hold me. I don’t have to do all the work myself.

So, for us all, I wish healing and comfort in the new year. I wish peace and joy and strength. I wish us loving community and found family. I wish us support in creative endeavors, and success in our work. I wish us a better world.

Happy holidays, everyone — I’ll see you on the other side!

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Emptiness in the Aftermath

I didn’t get a lot done during the second half of last week. I didn’t send my regular Wednesday newsletter. I didn’t post my Thursday blog post. I didn’t do my homework, or make my office hours at work. Mostly, I cried.

Today marks four months since Michael Brown, Jr, was shot in the streets of Ferguson, MO, and left for 4.5 hours in the summer sun. Two weeks past from Monday, a grand jury did not indict the officer who shot Mike Brown. A week past from Wednesday, a grand jury did not indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death. In these four months, the Black community has lost Rumain Brisbon, Akai Gurley, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Kajieme Powell, and — perhaps most tragically — Tamir Rice.

But we have also lost Deshawnda Sanchez and Tajshon Ashley Sherman and Aniya Parker and Gizzy Fowler. We’ve lost Mary Spears and Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum. A second mistrial came in for the death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones. A police officer is going to trial in Oklahoma for the sexual assault of at least 8 Black women and girls.

The deaths of Black men and boys at the hands of police are getting more attention than they have in a long time, and that attention is necessary to create change. But we must also recognise that Black women are the victims of state violence as well. Black women disproportionately account for missing persons. Black women are assaulted and killed by police. Their murders are often ignored or covered up. And they are on the forefront of the movement for justice.

Women accounted for 60% of the Black Panther Party. They led many of the actions of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Today, they lead many of the actions on the ground in Ferguson, New York, LA… Black women are expected to never report violence perpetrated on them by Black men. They are expected to wait for their own justice, while fighting tooth and nail for the lives of Black men. It’s exhausting to fight for your own humanity, but even more so to fight for the humanity of a group who should have your back, but doesn’t.

I wrote a poem about this for my upcoming collection, Fallen/Forever Rising, and I’m sharing it here, because I feel like I have little else to give. I’ve felt so wrung out the last few weeks, a kind of exhausted apathy. I’m struggling to find time to take care of myself, and that leaves me feeling as though I’ve gotten nothing done. I need to rest, but I feel guilty when I do. I don’t know how much longer I can go on, and I don’t know what to do.

Empty

Women’s work
we pour from empty pitchers
every last wet drop for
someone not us

We care takers
care given always care giving
none taken no care not us
no one cares

We targets too
double jeopardy for double-dutch girls
endangered Black women dare
in danger we dare

Losing sons and
daughters fathers mothers sisters and
yes brothers each bone deep
pain pushed through

Street struggle
our streets aren’t safe from police
aren’t safe for our brothers
we aren’t safe from

Silent suffering
no don’t tell don’t call don’t no
sister knows no safety
but still she pours

I hate to ask for anything for myself, but if you have the funds to help me out, you can donate something to my Paypal, or buy a zine. I appreciate any help you can give.