Addressing Racial Injustice Through Allyship: Teaching to See by Using Poetry

Sharon Rudnicki

Introduction

    In 2016, America was treated to two excellent television series that focus on the life of O.J. Simpson, FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. By delving into Simpson’s murder trial against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ unchecked police brutality in an honest and thoughtful manner, both shows succeed in explaining why the majority of white Americans were so shocked when Simpson was found innocent of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and why the majority of black Americans were elated when the verdict was read. While it would seem that everyone was watching the same trial and considering the same evidence, this was clearly not the case. What most white Americans, including myself, did not see was how most blacks historically saw the LAPD – as a group of powerful, government employees who had no regard whatsoever for the civil rights of black people and who were never held accountable for using excessive force or even killing black people whom they encountered on the job. Even when cameras captured every moment of police brutality, as in the case of Rodney King, the justice system failed, thus perpetuating the message that black lives didn’t matter. These television treatments of Simpson’s trial hopefully allowed many white Americans to see – and, therefore, understand – the reaction of many black Americans to the verdict. Black Americans could see – because they had seen – police plant evidence, lie on the witness stand, and abuse their powers. The issue for the purpose of this article is not whether Simpson should have been found guilty or innocent or whether the prosecution should have prepared better or whether Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers conducted themselves ethically. Instead, the purpose is to show how English teachers can take a lead role in educating students to see the lasting effects of slavery on the African American community; reading selected poetry can prompt greater understanding and bring students who have not been affected by racism to a place of action and allyship.

American Slavery

     In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the difficulties black Americans have had protecting their bodies, both from acts committed by white people in power and by members of the poor black community who use violence to assert  a semblance of status and power. By using the form of a letter written from father to son, Coates writes,

You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.  And I could not save you from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns. Prince Jones, murdered by the men who should have been his security guards, is always with me, and I knew that soon he would be with you.” (90)

     For the 15% of the students at my all-girls’ school who identify as African American, Coates’ words are not shocking. However, for many of the remaining 85% of students at my school, it is unimaginable that a father, today, in the United States, would feel powerless to protect his child. While our school has been educating faculty and students about white privilege, it is understandable that my students have a hard time talking about race when the country as a whole struggles to do the same. It is difficult to see an issue from another person’s point of view when the majority of our schools and neighborhoods are not integrated. And while most of my white students can share experiences of how it feels to be viewed suspiciously as potential shoplifters when they go shopping, they do not experience being the subjects of the gaze because of their race. When a parent is pulled over by the police for speeding, they may fear that their parent may have a pay a hefty speeding ticket. However, I doubt it would ever cross their minds that an encounter with the police may result in bodily injury. So how can students who are not black gain a fuller understanding of Coates’ words? Is the Black Lives Matter movement only a result of the past few years of police brutality? If slavery ended so long ago, how could it possibly be relevant today? In 11th grade, students at my school study American history. Reading literature allows them to see human faces beneath the textbook and to connect with other people’s experiences on a more emotional level. In my English class, reading poetry written by black Americans not only validates these writers as artists worthy of study in a high school curriculum, but also allows all students to reach a new critical understanding of how our country’s history has shaped the experiences of the black community.

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“We Made it for You” — Spoken Word by Daniel Ellis

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

Truth in the light of histories textbooks. That deny my heritage.

Truth in the light of men’s ignorance. Whom infringe upon the rights of those who’re indigenous.

Truth in the light of broken dreams. As they carried us in chains across the eastern seas

I wrote this to speak truth into the misguided, mismatched, misinterpreted, misread and misrepresented flukes they disguise as the truth of what they truly think I am.

To them I am

A “dolla dolla bill y’all”, a “Get money, spend money, f*** b words”. Another sound cloud rapper they can twiddle to with their screen tapping thumbs, not understanding I did it to promote my people and their message of struggle and pain.

Then claiming to love my “culture” and wear their hair in my fashion because they think it’s “high” fashion.

I am here to speak the truth

You CANNOT say the N-word if you haven’t been called it before.

To them I am

Those pair of nikes. The ones you cop cuz everybody thinks I play basketball and is good at sports.

To them I am the stereotype

breakdancing, rap loving, watermelon eating, unaware, ignorant beast of a man, who in the truth of it all is just trying to live his life like every human being.

I’m here to speak truth.

I get followed in stores. Not because the manager finds me so likeable he needs to be near me, but because of his racial bias he thinks I can’t and won’t buy that sweater on rack 15 at Forever 21.

I’m here to speak truth.

I am the constant criticism of rebellion. The moment I ask for my rights to be given freely and I say “Black Lives Matter”, they still devalue and desensitize. All because they’re afraid of what’s before their eyes. A revolution.

I’m here to speak truth.

They think just because of my skin tone, I should be in a different zone. They think I shouldn’t be here. “Go back to Africa”, they say. “We don’t like you’re kind”. “It’d be best if you didn’t speak your mind”.

When I hear someone say go back to Africa, or that they don’t need black people and say Blacks aren’t American.

Don’t tell me to go home because I will not stay where I’m not wanted . But it makes you think because they wanted us so bad they had to have a nation so in a sense they must’ve wanted us pretty bad? Now I don’t mean that in a good way. We didn’t ask to be here. On the Ivory coast home to the mother shore. Taken from our homes and land. Kicked and pushed. Grasping for return as we were dragged across the damp African sand. We rocked back and forth in a strange and alien place where we were corralled on ships like cattle. The restless waves as they rolled and battled. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Taken from our homes. As some were drowned in water.

Wail and wail in the enduring spirit men and women dreaded to hear it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

We came to a nation that wanted us only to build it for them.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Built on the backs of slaves, the nation of so called freedom.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Forced to believe in a higher power and made to forget our history. How can I believe in a god of the men that denounced my god telling me my God is now their God all whilst wanting me to believe they are God…. it makes you think.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Years of struggle bred resilience to pain. As we learned there didn’t need to be any shame of our pigment, and that it was better to live in it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

They tried to silence us by killing our leaders.

Malcolm X Martin Luther King. On those sad days did we truly sing. In the name of freedom sad songs that defined our people. I sing of the southern fields and slave ships that make me think of the sweet by and by. How I would always cry. Seeing Grammy Nellie tell me of her days in the south. Talking about the day she met Mamie Till and The way Emmett looked without a mouth.

Evil intentions for but a boy. All he had in his heart was joy. Where the days where hot in the endless sun singing spiritual songs of freedom. Some Glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away… Like those black bodies swinging in the southern trees they too will fly away with the winds of change, all in the name of liberation.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Were so close and yet so far, So that’s why we must fight.

I’m here to speak the truth

You’re right, Black people aren’t Americans.

We Are America.

The fruition of strange fruit bred from beautiful seeds that blossom in grow in the harshest of places and spaces. Beautiful Black People who embody the essence of the American dream of progress, ambition and hard work that we made. We are the leaders who’ve climbed ladders and mountains to gain the truth of our struggle. Pioneers of this land. We the people have the right to have rights.

I’m here to speak the truth.

You didn’t make America Great.

We made it for you.

We made it for you.

We made it.

Poetry Selections from Joshua Feliciano

More Than Just Words

Poetry is like a song written on paper
It doesn’t always have to rhyme
It doesn’t always need time
You could make a poem in poetry about everything
It could take seconds and it can take hours
But poetry is like a way of expression
You can always use it when experiencing a side of depression
There are times when you are feeling down
Or maybe you’re just feeling
Up!
Poetry is a place of freedom

 

Life Before Growing Up

Look in all honesty I never had much
I grew up with enough food to survive and the entertainment I needed
But the truth behind it all is my mom shedding blood and tears behind it all
Even as a kid I used to sit and think about it in a bathroom stall
Can you feel my pain?
If not just know this constant pain runs in my veins
Everyday reflecting on what I did and why I did it
Sitting alone in the dark wanting to be a part of the darkness
All this pain laying right on top of my conscious
There’s a whole lot more
But I’d rather keep that in my core for now

 

A Message to Future Me

A message to future me:
Remember that time you graduated high school
Well now life is a bit harder isn’t it
Just keep focusing on your true being you’ll have this in no time
Remember when you struggle just think about your wife and kids
Remember the time you realized it was going to be extremely hard in the military
Well now look back at it, it was pretty easy wasn’t it
Now you have other goals to focus on
Focus on those around you and the ones that were there for you when you truly needed it
Drive forward because your life moments are not what built you to be you
You worked hard for this yourself
Now build from it

 

Sinking Pain

I see others being mocked for what they wear, oh it is too much to bear
Putting on a fresh pair of kicks, people think it’s to pick up chicks
Working hard in classes to get a possible good future, just to get bullied and get a few sutures
Paying attention to what people are saying, just to head home and keep on praying
People acting cool in school, when after the days over they sit around and drool
Kids coming to school unprepared, while teachers not knowing the child’s despair
I see girls wearing lots of makeup, when the beauty inside can raise the stakes up

 

Mother Love

The family photo just sitting there in the distance
Ripped up but not broken
Our family may not be so bright or wealthy
But forever we lay and stand together
We may be grown but my mother will always see us as her little ones
It doesn’t matter if I’m 21 or 50 my mother will always treat me like a child
I love my mother and forever will love her

 

Hope

I hope that I start a fresh life, with a beautiful wife
I hope someday that after I graduate from high school,
my life wouldn’t treat me much as a fool
I hope that someday these crayons I use will evaporate,
so that I could see what it looks like melted and elaborate
I hope that someday my children will grow, for my legacy I will bestow
I hope that someday I can rest easy, rest easily without feeling a bit queasy
I hope that someday the people around me will succeed,
so they won’t become alcoholics drinking tons of mead
I hope that in the light of day, my destiny will shine and lead the way
I hope that sometime soon I have a nice house,
come home to a good morning and my wife in a blouse
I hope that in time of despair, god will help us with time to spare
I hope that one night, god will give me power with all his might
I hope that one morning, I can die peacefully with plenty of people mourning

 

Government

We all know that in politics only one can be the winner
The smartest and bravest will usually be the sinner
This government we follow empties our pockets causing a bruise
These distractions we’re being attracted to are not only to amuse
Everything we’re brought towards to always seems convincing
One by one, each and every person’s information is slowly mincing
In this world, even if we understand a certain matter nothing seems to be comprehensive
Days and days go by and it seems to me everything in life gets more expensive

 

Life Behind the Scenes

Good ol happy moments
Just sitting back and relaxing
Playing video games that teach
So attached to learning like a leech
Reading good books and comics
For a person like me it’s a bit ironic
But a lot of people don’t realize my mind works like I’m sonic
On free times I lay down in bed watching Youtube
Watching videos about literally anything
Analyzing and researching everything
I may be a bit different but I’m very gifted
I help other people when times get devastating
I open up their minds with my words and usually have them contemplating
I am my own king
Living my life on words is better than living my life focusing on expensive things

 

Experiment 89

It was cold, matter of fact freezing in this steel coated room
I stood up feeling weak,starved, and dizzy
I walked on a floor that had sharp but little pieces of glass
I could not feel the pain being administered by these little glass pieces
I see a door close by as I stumble across this risky floor
I look through the glass pane only to discover other patients like myself being tested on
I see another within eyesight being mutated into some sort of creature
It was scaly, massive, and scary looking
Scientists begin opening the doors, patient’s run wild as the beast swallows them one by one
I make a run for it, so close to the door and “Gulp” “Crunch Crunch”

Five poems by Dallas Crow

Dallas Crow

1296 Highland Parkway

St. Paul, MN 5511

dallas.crow@breckschool.org

[pdf version here: Crow-poems]

 

Antigone in Her Tomb

_____________________________________________________________________________

Zeus,

Your will, finally, is unknowable. I am

exhausted, exasperated. Look

where my most willful

vows have landed me. Father, mother, and a brother already

underground, exiled for eternity from our native

Thebes . . . I claim no kin in that city. My

so-called sister mourns alone,

respected by a fool and other frauds, a

quorum of spineless idiots

posing as law-abiding citizens. The

offense reeks—a blind man can see that.

No one deserves such a sentence, least of all

my deceived, much-wronged brother—

left to rot on the desert plain. Generations will

know I would not accept that un-

just decree. I am not sorry, though I admit

I may have misjudged the jury of the gods.

Here I will end my otherwise unending agony,

groomless, convicted, and unconvinced.

From now on, on the surface of this most grotesque

earth, my name will echo, a doer of

deeds, one who believes, who acts, while

Creon—cruel, unjust—will be forever

banished from the rolls of the noble.

Always, always, always,

Antigone

[From Small, Imperfect Paradise (Parallel Press, 2013). Originally published in Arion.] Continue reading

4 Poems by Richard Robbins

Four Poems by Richard Robbins


 

 

St. Francis and the Birds

—a painting by Stanley Spencer

 

The parade will go no

further than the wall, where

the gardener shields her eyes,

 

the ducks, hens, and geese scuttle

toward his frock, each dove

and jay leaning forward

 

on the low tiled roof to

watch the boy lead each one,

saint and bird, toward that town

 

his wings would bend for,

blind daylight place from which

his face must turn away.

 

* First published in I-70 Review Continue reading