from "A Coda to History"

and John Kinsella

28. It Is Not As If

It is not as if I have not been thinking this,
and it is not as if we have not been thinking this.
For what I mean when I will say whiteness, when I will say white
people, when I say the whites with such seeming assurance,
with such total confidence in the clarity of this locution,
as if we all know the etymology of this word’s genealogy,
the lie of a cluster of marauding nations, building kingdoms
by destroying kingdoms, we have heard this all before, O Babylon.
So, yes, when I say this, what I mean is Babylon, as the Rastas
have constructed the notion, in the way of generosity,
in the way of judgement, in the way of naming the enemy
of history for who he is, in the inadequate way of symbols,
in the way of the bible’s total disregard for history, and the prophet’s
dance in the fulcrum of history, leaping over time and place,
returning to the place where we began having learned
nothing and yet having learned everything language offers us.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
It is not as if we have not been thinking this.
And I want to rehearse Thomas Jefferson and the pragmatism
of cost, the wisdom of his loyalty to his family’s wealth,
the seat of the landed aristocrats reinvented on the plains
of the New World, the coat of arms, the courtly ambitions,
the inventions, the art, the bottles of wine, the French tongue,
the legacy, the faux Roman, faux Greek pretension, the envy
of the nobility of native confederacies, their tongues of fire;
the land, the land, the land, and the property of black bodies,
so much to give up, and who bears the sacrifice, who pays
the cost for the preservation of a nation’s ambitions?
How he said no to freeing the bodies he said were indebted
to him for their every breath—the calculus of property;
oh, the rituals of flesh-mongering, the protection of white freedom.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
It is not as if we have not been thinking this,
And Bartholomew de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas,
and his Memorial de Remedios para Las Indias,
the pragmatic use of Africans, the ones to carry the burden
of saving the Indians, to save the white man’s soul—
this little bishop of pragmatic calculation, correcting sins
with more sins. And the bodies of black slave women,
their wombs, studied, tested, reshaped, probed, pierced, tortured,
with the whispered promise: “It will help you, too, it really
will and you will be praised for teaching us how to save
the wombs of white women, for the cause, all for the cause.”
And Roosevelt and his unfinished revolution, O “dream deferred”,
O Langston, you tried to sing, how long, not long, how long,
so long! And Churchill’s rising rhetoric, saying that though cousin
Nazis may ritualize the ancient blood feuds by invading Britain,
her world-wide empire will rise up and pay the price for protecting
the kingdom, the realm, liberty, and so on and so forth. Everyone
so merciful, everyone so wounded with guilt and gratitude,
everyone so pragmatic. It is what I am saying, that I am saying
nothing new, and what I am singing is, Babylon yuh throne gone
down, gone down, / Babylon yuh throne gone down.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
It is not as if we have not been thinking this.
For no one is blessed with blindness here,
No one is blessed with deafness here.
And this thing we see is lurking inside the soft
alarm of white people who know that they are watching
a slow magical act of erasure, and they know that this is how
terror manifests itself, quietly, reasonably, and with deadly
intent.  They are letting black people die.  They are letting
black people die in America. Hidden inside the maw
of these hearts, is the sharp pragmatism of the desperate,
the writers of the myth of survival of the fittest,
or the order of the universe, of Platonic logic, the caste system,
the war of the worlds.  They are letting black people die.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
No, it is not as if we have not been thinking this.
And someone is saying, in that soft voice of calm,
“Well, there will be costs, and those are the costs
of our liberty.”  Remember when the century turned,
and the pontiff and pontificators declared that in fifty years,
the nation would be brown, and for a decade, the rogue people
sought to halt this with guns, with terror, with the shutting of borders?
Now this has arrived, a kind of gift.  Let them die.  The blacks,
the poor, the ones who multiply like flies, let them die, and soon
we will be lily white again.  Do you think I am paranoid?  I am.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
It is not as if we have not been thinking this.
And paranoia is how we’ve survived.  So, we must march in the streets,
force the black people who are immigrant nurses, who are meat packers,
who are street cleaners, who are short-order cooks, who are
the dregs of society, who are black, who are black, who are black.
Let them die.  Here in Nebraska, our governor would not release
the racial numbers. He says there is no need to cause strife,
this is not our problem, he says. We are better than this, he says.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
It is not as if we have not been thinking this.
And so in the silence, we do not know what the purgation is,
and here in this stumbling prose of mine, this blunt prose of mine,
is the thing I have not yet said, “They are trying to kill us,
they are trying to kill us, they are trying to kill us off.”
I sip my comfort.  The dead prophet, his voice broken by cancer,
his psalm rises over the darkening plains, “Oh yeah, natty Congo”,
and then the sweetest act of pure resistance, “Spread out! Spread out!
Spread out!”  We are more than sand on the seashore, so we will not
get jumpy, we won’t get bumpy, and we won’t walk away, “Spread out!”,
they sing in four-part harmony, spears out, Spread out! Spread out!
It is not as if I have not been thinking this,
and it is not as if we have not been thinking this.
It is how we survived and how we will continue to survive.
But don’t be fooled. These are the betrayals that are gathering
over the hills.  Help me, I say, help me to see this as something else.
It is not as if I have not been thinking this.
See? It is not as if we have not all been thinking this.

KD

29.

It needs to be blunt and said as you say it.
I can see and agree and am trying to act, too,
but am embroiled in the whiteness I detest.
Yes, as a pacifist, I detest that whiteness
and see it as the bleaching of shrouds.
It makes me ashamed and angry and I fall
into nowhere and have no feet and can’t find
my way out of it. My hands are the wrong
shape to hide behind. I see the murderers
and stand in front of them, refusing
everything they are. I am weaponless.
I know guns from my childhood
and know their sick laugh, their
self-certainty, their imitations of ‘sound’—
their chatter. Yes, of course it’s death
they make, even when the target
is a symbol or a bull’s eye—names
say it all, underneath—target shooting,
but it’s not selective at the end of the breathing,
the last bottle of O negative blood, it takes all
in its recoil as much as its impact, it kills
life and it kills death and it is given
an ‘out’ through Keats’s white as death
half in love with easeful death’—
a poem I have recited since I was
sixteen, have recited on the verge of death,
as if it was a way through when it wasn’t.
The poem separated from the hand
that wrote it makes a travesty
of reality—the corpses piling
up in the feint light of whiteness.
The poem was part of the problem
born in the eye of empire, the smell
of hospitals and anatomies, and yet
I lament his terrible tragic passing.
I have stood in his deathroom
and only thought of a young person
and their overwhelming death,
the steps flowing with people
as now they are empty of both
Rome and world. I think the same
in the acts of medicine the acts
of insurance and discrimination,
and those who take the brunt of economies,
especially in Western economies
that live off the labour of re-arranged
and redecorated class alienation.
What you say is true and needs
to be said in such a way, Kwame.
I am saying as an aside to all tyranny,
that using the methods of the tyrannical
will lead to ongoing tyranny. Refusal
to do anything for them, to stop using their goods,
to stop giving them anything at all, will soon     bring their collapse.
Total and utter refusal. But then, they are
even prepared for that—bringing
it all down makes the suffering
suffer more via the pain ‘brought
on themselves.’ That’s tyranny’s propaganda.
     White bigots and the bigotry
implicit in any notion of ‘whiteness’
search for validation even where
it is bluntly refused—they enforce
their validation, legitimise themselves
in every conversation. I guess
that might be what Spike Lee
and Chuck D. have been saying
forever—the very notion 
‘white folk’ have any rights
of control or even say in other
people’s (and peoples’) lives needs
undoing. Your poem helps protect
the vulnerable and thwart the murderous—confront
them with its declarations of blackness,
and that’s as it must be, and you must say,
given the traumatic reality, Kwame.
So I listen to Sly Dunbar
not to absorb into what I have
been made from, but to reflect
against and learn from—to learn
is to respect and not just
be awed and entertained, those
shrouds across creativity,
those thefts as deadly
as going armed
with intent. I have literally
placed flowers in the barrels of guns.
I will stand between the gun
and its victim, I will
bury the arms
deeper than rust,
the corrosion,
beyond even air
of the grave, beyond
anything organic, living.
People are meant
to live! I march with you,
I am with you, I stand by you.
     I am not you. I know.

JK

More by Kwame Dawes

Talk

            For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone
of resolve, learn to nod, learn to close
in the flame of shame and anger
in our hearts, learn to petrify it so,
and the more we quiet our ire,
the heavier the stone; this alchemy
of concrete in the vein, the sludge
of affront, until even that will calcify
and the heart, at last, will stop,
unassailable, unmovable, adamant.

Find me a man who will stand
on a blasted hill and shout,
find me a woman who will break   
into shouts, who will let loose
a river of lament, find the howl
of the spirit, teach us the tongues
of the angry so that our blood,
my pulse—our hearts flow
with the warm healing of anger.

You, August, have carried in your belly
every song of affront your characters
have spoken, and maybe you waited
too long to howl against the night,
but each evening on some wooden
stage, these men and women,
learn to sing songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.

Requiem

I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.

Land Ho

I cannot speak the languages
spoken in that vessel,
cannot read the beads
promising salvation.

I know this only,
that when the green of land
appeared like light
after the horror of this crossing,

we straightened our backs
and faced the simplicity
of new days with flame.
I know I have the blood of survivors

coursing through my veins;
I know the lament of our loss
must warm us again and again
down in the belly of the whale,

here in the belly of the whale
where we are still searching for homes.
We sing laments so old, so true,
then straighten our backs again.

Related Poems

Poem for July 4, 1994

For President Václav Havel

It is essential that Summer be grafted to
bones marrow earth clouds blood the
eyes of our ancestors.
It is essential to smell the beginning
words where Washington, Madison, Hamilton,
Adams, Jefferson assembled amid cries of:

       "The people lack of information"
       "We grow more and more skeptical"
       "This Constitution is a triple-headed monster"
       "Blacks are property"

It is essential to remember how cold the sun
how warm the snow snapping
around the ragged feet of soldiers and slaves.
It is essential to string the sky
with the saliva of Slavs and 
Germans and Anglos and French
and Italians and Scandinavians,
and Spaniards and Mexicans and Poles
and Africans and Native Americans.
It is essential that we always repeat:
                           we the people,
                           we the people,
                           we the people.

2.

"Let us go into the fields" one
brother told the other brother. And
the sound of exact death
raising tombs across the centuries.
Across the oceans. Across the land.

3.

It is essential that we finally understand:
this is the time for the creative
human being 
the human being who decides
to talk upright in a human
fashion in order to save this
earth from extinction.

This is the time for the creative
Man. Woman. Who must decide
that She. He. Can live in peace.
Racial and sexual justice on
this earth.

This is the time for you and me.
African American. Whites. Latinos.
Gays. Asians. Jews. Native
Americans. Lesbians. Muslims.
All of us must finally bury
the elitism of race superiority
the elitism of sexual superiority
the elitism of economic superiority
the elitism of religious superiority. 

So we welcome you on the celebration
of 218 years Philadelphia. America.

So we salute you and say:
Come, come, come, move out into this world
nourish your lives with a
spirituality that allows us to respect
each other's birth.
come, come, come, nourish the world where
every 3 days 120,000 children die
of starvation or the effects of starvation;
come, come, come, nourish the world
where we will no longer hear the
screams and cries of womens, girls,
and children in Bosnia, El Salvador,
Rwanda...AhAhAhAh AHAHAHHHHHH

       Ma-ma. Dada. Mamacita. Baba.
       Mama. Papa. Momma. Poppi.
       The soldiers are marching in the streets
       near the hospitals but the nurses say
       we are safe and the soldiers are
       laughing marching firing calling
       out to us i don't want to die i
       am only 9 yrs old, i am only 10 yrs old
       i am only 11 yrs old and i cannot
       get out of the bed because they have cut
       off one of my legs and i hear the soldiers
       coming toward our rooms and i hear
       the screams and the children are
       running out of the room i can't get out
       of the bed i don't want to die Don't
       let me die Rwanda. America. United
       Nations. Don't let me die..............

And if we nourish ourselves, our communities
our countries and say

       no more hiroshima
       no more auschwitz
       no more wounded knee
       no more middle passage
       no more slavery
       no more Bosnia
       no more Rwanda

No more intoxicating ideas of
racial superiority
as we walk toward abundance
we will never forget

       the earth
       the sea
       the children
       the people

For we the people will always be arriving
a ceremony of thunder
waking up the earth
opening our eyes to human
monuments.
    And it'll get better
    it'll get better
if we the people work, organize, resist,
come together for peace, racial, social
and sexual justice
  it'll get better
  it'll get better.

It Was Summer Now and the Colored People Came Out Into the Sunshine

They descend from the boat two by two. The gap in Angela Davis’s teeth speaks to the gap in James Baldwin’s teeth. The gap in James Baldwin’s teeth speaks to the gap in Malcolm X’s Teeth. The gap in Malcolm X’s teeth speaks to the gap in Malcolm X’s teeth. The gap in Condoleezza Rice’s teeth doesn’t speak. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard kisses the Band Aid on Nelly’s cheek. Frederick Douglass’s side part kisses Nikki Giovanni’s Thug Life tattoo. The choir is led by Whoopi Goldberg’s eyebrows. The choir is led by Will Smith’s flat top. The choir loses its way. The choir never returns home. The choir sings funeral instead of wedding, sings funeral instead of allegedly, sings funeral instead of help, sings Black instead of grace, sings Black as knucklebone, mercy, junebug, sea air. It is time for war.

White Things

Most things are colorful things—the sky, earth, and sea.
                 Black men are most men; but the white are free!
White things are rare things; so rare, so rare
They stole from out a silvered world—somewhere.
Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed,
They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed;
                 The golden stars with lances fine
                 The hills all red and darkened pine,
They blanched with their wand of power;
And turned the blood in a ruby rose
To a poor white poppy-flower.

They pyred a race of black, black men, 
And burned them to ashes white; then
Laughing, a young one claimed a skull.
For the skull of a black is white, not dull, 
                 But a glistening awful thing;
                 Made it seems, for this ghoul to swing
In the face of God with all his might,
And swear by the hell that siréd him:
                 "Man-maker, make white!"