In an effort to further the awareness of and involvement in the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut campaign, all of our posts this week will be of poets championing other poets who have posted videos in support of the movement. To read a brief introduction from Mahogany Browne, one of the campaign’s co-creators, click here. To see the tumblr page with all of the video contributions, click here.
Today’s post was written by Jamila Reddy in reflection of Marcus Wicker reading Ross Gay (below).
What struck me the most about this poem is how brilliantly Gay captures the full-body experience of terror. I keep returning to the word terror, not only to describe the actual fear I feel occupying this body these days, but because the brutality directed at Black bodies is best described as terrorism.
I pride myself on being a writer who resists the cliché of explicitly defining terms, but language—specifically the naming of things—is crucial here. Terrorism is defined as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” In the context of recent events (the countless murders of Black people at the hands of White officers and vigilantes), I cannot help but rely on the word terrorism to understand what’s happening in our country.
(The word genocide is also appropriate here, and it is not lost on me that the lack of intervention from national and international governments is connected to this word’s absence from the conversation.)
The opening of Gay’s poem describes the journey of terror through the body:
emerge, sometimes just the knees,
but, at worst, through hips, chest, neck,
until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs
and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped
to squeeze words from my taut lips
His assessment of rage “like a virus” is critical, and helps us understand the relationship between the body and mind. James Baldwin explains, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”
Rage in your body can, and will, destroy you if you let it. The mirrored deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers and the recurring failure of our justice system is psychological warfare—a systemic attempt to crush our hope, to extinguish our spirit’s fire.
(Since language is the point, psychological warfare: intended to demoralize the enemy, to break his will to fight or resist, and sometimes to render him favorably disposed to one’s position.)
They are using the body to target the mind.
As African slaves were treated as three-fifths human, the violence against Black Americans is mental slavery, intended to reduce us to less-than-human by compelling us to live small, half-lives.
Listening to Black poets firmly say, “I have a right to be angry,” illuminates the sad truth that we must defend our right to the full range of the human experience. This is psychological warfare at play: we are expected to remain complacent, docile, safe.
Gay’s need to control his rage is an act of survival; he need not confirm what the officer already believes to be true, lest rage be the last emotion he feels.
The line: his eyes scanning my car’s insides, my eyes, reminds me of W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness, “the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” This theory feels more relevant now than it ever has been; We see ourselves as we know ourselves, and we see ourselves as we are seen: violent, dangerous, less-than-human.
When Gay says,
I imagine things I don’t want to
and inside beg this to end
before the shiver catches my
hands, and he sees,
and something happens
He describes the phenomena of Being While Black: existing in the world with a constant awareness of how to survive.
This is the question: how to survive.
I am afraid, these days, for many reasons. I am afraid that if we are not diligent, we may start to see ourselves the way we are seen. Even more so, I am afraid that we might shrink ourselves in order to survive.
In the face of being made to feel small, it is our responsibility to live big, full, lives.
As a Black poet, one way I do this is through my writing. What poetry does is take each small moment from our lives and magnify it—give each of them a name. I rely on language as a source of my strength: a constant reminder that the chaos inside of my head does not belong to me.
Gay’s poem reminds me of this important truth: The law will not protect us; we must protect ourselves. In order to resist rage moving through the body, we must first understand that it does so. In order to understand that it does so, we must first have the language to describe it.