Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


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

Credit


Copyright © 2020 by Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 11, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem


"Well, John Kinsella and I (Kwame Dawes) have been working for over seven years on poems of conversation that consider how we live, where we live, and the role poetry plays in this. The poems we have read here are from a long exchange written over recent months entitled ‘A Coda to History.’ John in Australia and me, Kwame, here in the United States."
Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella

Author


Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. The author of more than ten poetry collections, he currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Date Published: 2020-06-11

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/coda-history