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Lines of Thinking - May 2018: Three Poems on Silence

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of silence since listening to the inspiring talks given by Tamika D. Mallory at the Coretta Scott King Legacy Luncheon and Birthday Celebration at Antioch two weeks ago.

A co-chair of the Women’s March and a Brooklyn-based activist, Mallory challenged audience members to translate their moral opposition and outrage to ongoing acts of racism, sexism and oppression into a sustained activism focused on changing the lived experience of those realities for people in our communities most brutally affected by them. In other words, when we see something that looks like injustice, say and do something about it. Don’t be silent; don’t stand by.

In a second talk, Mallory described the instructions she gives to her teenage son on how to dress and behave when going out with friends or at any time or place where he might be endangered because of his race, gender, clothing or objects he might be carrying in his hands or pockets. She tells him to do whatever a police officer tells him to and never to talk back to them or to any white person. She noted the seeming contradiction: breaking silence in one instance; keeping it in another. How do we know in which circumstance to speak out and take a risk, and in which to hold our tongue?

Clearly parents must be committed to the safety of their children and to teaching them about silence as a tactic for personal survival. But collectively we see just as clearly that many of the conditions that imperil whole groups of people will remain unchanged if we remain silent when we witness or experience injustice. By building a movement to overcome the need for a silence of survival and by becoming allies and activists who oppose racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, we give hope, voice, velocity, shape and mass to change. In speaking out together, we bring new power to our quest for justice.

Here are three poems that explore the experience of silence. The first is by Langston Hughes from his Collected Poems; the next two are from Rudy Francisco’s latest book, helium.

 

Silence

By Langston Hughes

I catch the pattern
Of your silence
Before you speak.

I do not need
To hear a word.

In your silence
Every tone I see
Is heard.

 

Adrenaline Rush

By Rudy Francisco

Volcano surfing
is a sport in which a person
rides down an active volcano
at speeds up to 50 miles per hour
using nothing but a wooden board.

When I heard about this activity,
I thought to myself,
it must be nice to feel so safe,
you have to invent new ways to
put yourself in danger.

When the body
thinks it may be swallowing its last breath,
the adrenal glands release hormones into the blood,
the skin becomes a cocktail of sweat and fear,
the heart gets claustrophobic,
the lungs become newlyweds
holding hands in a crashing airplane.
This is called an adrenaline rush.

I was 18 when I started driving.
I was 18 the first time I was pulled over.

It was 2 am on a Saturday.
The officer spilled his lights all over my rearview mirror,
he splashed out of the car with his hand already on his weapon,
and looked at me the way a tsunami looks at a beach house.
Immediately, I could tell he was the kind of man
who brings a gun to a food fight.

He called me son
and I thought to myself,
that's an interesting way of pronouncing "boy.''
He asks for my license and registration,
wants to know what I'm doing in this neighborhood,
if the car is stolen,
if I have any drugs
and most days, I know how to grab my voice
by the handle and swing it like a hammer.
But instead,
I picked it up like a shard of glass.
Scared of what might happen if I didn't hold it carefully
because I know that this much melanin
and that uniform is a plotline to a film that
can easily end with a chalk outline baptism,
me trying to make a body bag look stylish for the camera
and becoming the newest coat in a closet full of RlP hashtags.

Once, a friend of a friend asked me
why there aren't more black people in the X Games
and I said, "You don't get it."

Being black is one of the most extreme sports in America.
We don't need to invent new ways of risking our lives
because the old ones have been working for decades.

Jim Crow may have left the nest,
but our streets are still covered with its feathers.
Being black in America is knowing there's a thin line
between a traffic stop and the cemetery,

it's the way my body tenses up
when I hear a police siren in a song,
it's the quiver in my stomach when a cop car is behind me,
it's the sigh of relief when I turn right and he doesn't.
I don't need to go volcano surfing.
Hell, I have an adrenaline rush every time an officer
drives right past without pulling me over

and I realize
I'm going to make it home safe.

This time.

 

Silence

By Rudy Francisco

I’m learning
that I don’t always
have to make noise
to be seen,

that even my silence
has a spine, a rumble

and says, I’m here
in its native tongue.