A few weeks ago, during the height of the heartbreaking events in Ferguson, Jelani Cobb tweeted the poem below. In my younger days, I’ve been privileged to read Richard Wright’s work. I believe that Native Son is required reading on college syllabus’ in the US. However, I did not know that he was also a poet…and what a poet.
I am the victim of a haunting. Recent events have wedded themselves with this poem and it has stayed with me ever since. So perfectly does it do it’s job of taking you to the scene of a crime, injecting you, and immolating you.
I gasped with grief when I was done…as I did when I imagined the blood draining and pooling around the body of Michael Brown as his family stood near by in what must surely have been paroxyms of grief – for HOURS. Or, Trayvon Martin….Oscar Grant….Ramarley Graham….a list that keeps growing.
Just wandering along about my business only to be bludgeoned senseless with evidence of hate. On a page, from a screen, screaming at me from a headline, or the eyes of some stranger.
Hate, too, can be a coursing highway that ends in death.
Hatred, a living palpable thing, a gift that is mine from the hands of strangers who neither know, nor care, anything about me…or anyone who looks like me.
Black like me.
I close my eyes and the words disappear but they are seared in my memory. My mind plays tricks on me and invokes their imagery when yet another name is added to what has become a whispered litany.
I carry that with me and yet so many around me say this is a thing of my imagining, defying history, evidence, reason and all human feeling.
I count myself lucky that while I imagine, I have at least not been called to witness…. Or have I?
Between the World and Me
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun….