Black history, books, People of Color, poetry, Reading

The soul-shaking poetry of Danez Smith’s “Don’t Call Us Dead” and Clint Smith’s “Counting Descent”

Every February I find myself somehow taken by surprise by my overwhelm. Winter’s endless dark, life’s continuous pressures, the world’s relentless disasters, racism’s shameless presence. These forces are predictable, intractable, and irrepressible, as is, it seems, the anxiety that ratchets up to a dangerous hum every February and dares me at every turn to stay the course. And so, it has been a month without writing, but not one without reflection. Many of the volumes I’ve read this month, though, demand attention, and so I wade back into the writing waters, starting first with two absolute treasures.

These two collections of poetry – slim volumes that will crack you wide open – fit perfectly my mood and my focus. Danez Smith and Clint Smith (no relation) are both relatively young black men whose voices are unflinching, unwavering, and irresistible. Both collections feature poems that are alternately personal and political, some which are the length of a breath and others which traverse numerous pages. I feel unequal to offer either much critique other than to say that both poets seem fueled by a mystical well of eloquent rage and soul-shaking composition. Below are a few selections chosen to represent these astounding collections.

Selections from “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith IMG-0210

excerpt from summer, somewhere

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.

history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy

color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven we can’t recall our white shirts

turned ruby gowns. here, there’s no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.

if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.

we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.

paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

dear white america

i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. i want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children. i’ve left Earth, i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africai just don’t see race. neither did the poplar tree. we did not build your boats (though we did leave a trail of kin to guide us home). we did not build your prisons (though we did & we will fill them too). we did not ask to part of your America (though are we not America? her joints brittle & dragging a ripped gown through Oakland?). i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave. i reach for black folks & touch only air. your master magic trick, America. now he’s breathing, now he don’t. abra-cadaver white bread voodoo. sorcery you claim not to practice, hand my cousin a pistol to do your work. i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? because you made it that way! because you put an asterisk on my sister’s gorgeous face! call her pretty (for a black girl)! because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! because there are no amber alerts for amber-skinned girls! because Jordan boomed. because Emmett whistled. because Huey P. spoke. because Martin preached. because black boys can always be too loud to live. because it’s taken my papa’s & my grandma’s time, my father’s time, my mother’s time, my aunt’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time . . . how much time do you want for your progress? i’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then i bid you well, i bid you war, i bid you our lives to gamble with no more. i’ve left Earth & i am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. i’m giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin

this, if only this one, is ours.

Selections from “Counting Descent” by Clint Smith

IMG-0211excerpt from Counting Descent

Mom said that my
head was big because I needed enough
room to read all the books in the library,
which seemed like infinity, even though

I didn’t really know what infinity meant,
but I had heard my teacher say it once
when she talked about the universe
& books felt like the universe to me.

Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class

You, it seems,
are the manifestation
of several lifetimes
of toil. Brown v. Board
in the flesh. Most days
the classroom feels
like an antechamber.
You are deemed expert
on all things Morrison,
King, Malcolm, Rosa.
Hell, weren’t you sitting
on that bus, too?
You are everybody’s
best friend
until you are not.
Hip-hop lyricologist.
Presumed athlete.
Free & Reduced sideshow.
Exception & caricature.
Too black & too white
all at once. If you are successful
it is because of affirmative action.
If you fail it is because
you were destined to.
You are invisible until
they turn on the Friday
night lights. Here you are-
star before they render
you asteroid. Before they
watch you turn to dust.

Black history, books, LGBTQ, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

“when they call you a terrorist” by patrisse khan-cullors and asha bandele

“But there is nowhere that they can be or feel safe. No place where there are jobs. No city, no block, where what they know, all they know, is that their lives matter, that they are loved. We try to make a world and tell them they are important and tell ourselves we are too. But real life can be an insistent and merciless intruder.”

IMG-0140I’m going to try to hold my hyperboles in check here, but it shan’t be easy. “When They Call You a Terrorist” is, quite simply, essential reading.

I’ll start where one starts when encountering a physical book – its physicality itself. I try not to get hung up on covers if I can help it, although I absolutely judge books by them. Graphic design and cover art are a key component to grabbing a reader’s eye and peaking her interest. With this book, the care, the investment, and the telltale signs of faith and love deserve note. From the embossed dust cover to the full color endpapers emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” to the deckle edges to (most breath-takingly) the secret treasure inscribed on the hard front cover in gold lettering – “I am a survivor/ I am stardust” – visible only to those who explore beneath their book’s outer shell, this book is lovingly, deliberately, and respectfully crafted. It says with every fiber of its being, “I am worthy. I matter.”

The introduction reads like poetry.

          “And I know when I hear Dr. deGrasse Tyson say this that he is telling the truth because I have seen it since I was a child, the magic, the stardust we are, in the lives of the people I come from.
          I watched it in the labor of my mother, a Jehovah’s Witness and a woman who worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time, keeping other people’s children, working the reception desks at gyms, telemarketing, doing anything and everything for 16 hours a day the whole of my childhood in the Van Nuys barrio where we lived. My mother, cocoa brown and smooth, disowned by her family for the children she had as a very young and unmarried woman. My mother, never giving up despite never making a living wage.
          I saw it in the thin, brown face of my father, a boy out of Cajun country, a wounded healer, whose addictions were borne of a world that did not love him and told him so not once but constantly. My father, who always came back, who never stopped trying to be a version of himself there were no mirrors for.
          And I knew it because I am the thirteenth-generation progeny of a people who survived the chains, the whips, the months laying in their own shit and piss. The human beings legislated as not human beings who watched their names, their languages, their Goddesses and Gods, the arc of their dances and beats of their songs, the majesty of their dreams, their very families snatched up and stolen, disassembled and discarded, and despite this built language and honored God and created movement and upheld love. What could they be but stardust, these people who refused to die, who refused to accept the idea that their lives did not matter, that their children’s lives did not matter?”

Despite having two authors, “When They Call You a Terrorist” is written in the first person, as a memoir of Khan-Cullors, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. The story is undoubtedly Khan-Cullors’; the beauty of the writing, each carefully crafted turn of phrase, is harder to attribute. I will have to make myself okay with speaking about the writing with vague attributions, broad pronouns, or passive allusions to the work itself. With that said, she/they/it is perfectly rendered, a melodic balance of a story powerfully and needfully told.

Khan-Cullors’ biography is full of seminal events and pivotal characters which could certainly be used as excuses or plied as blame. The poverty, chaos, racism, addiction, mental illness Khan-Cullors witnessed could and have broken many. Khan-Cullors is a phoenix rising from these ashes, but hers is not an argument for exceptionalism. No, hers is a story that dares you to not to understand, to empathize, to see the systemic root of so much ill.

“And if ever someone calls my child a terrorist, if they call any of the children in my life terrorists, I will hold my child, any child, close to me and I will explain that terrorism is being stalked and surveilled simply because you are alive. And terrorism is being put in solitary confinement and starved and beaten. And terrorism is not being able to feed your children despite working three jobs. And terrorism is not having a decent school or a place to play. I will tell them that what freedom looks like, what democracy looks like, is the push for and realization of justice, dignity and peace.”

As a work of literature this book is heart-breaking and beautiful. As a work of cultural and political analysis, it is urgent, imperative, and impactful. I fully admit to being politically disposed and receptive to the book’s ideas prior to my reading of it, but I have to believe that those who don’t understand why Black Lives Matter could come away with changed hearts and minds having read this book. Just as I can’t truly fathom resisting this vital movement, nor can I imagine anyone’s eyes remaining unopen to the realities and insidious dangers of systemic racism which these women so emphatically and courageously share.

“We know that if we can get the nation to see, say and understand that Black Lives Matter then every life would stand a chance. Black people are the only humans in this nation ever legally designated, after all, as not human. Which is not to erase any group’s harm or ongoing pain, in particular the genocide carried out against First Nation peoples. But it is to say that there is something quite basic that has to be addressed in the culture, in the hearts and minds of people who have benefited from, and were raised up on, the notion that Black people are not fully human.” 

A heartfelt thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing a complimentary copy of “when they call you a terrorist” work in exchange for a fair and honest review.