Earlier this month I posted, Continuing Education, my thoughts born from Joiya Morrison-Efemini’s poem Education. I heard from Joiya after the post and she was so gracious. Joiya said her favorite line from the post was, What kept coming across was this sense of a collective history that Africans in America have that seemed almost oral in nature, something innate.
The sentiment, my answer to Joiya’s poetic question, What do you want to know?, came from watching television specials on being Black in America, after the murder of George Floyd. I agonized over how to put that sentiment into words – one of the reasons why I pulled an all-nighter! I wanted to both honor what I was hearing, and express my desire to identify what I wanted to understand. That Joiya recognized all of that means the world to me. Thank you, Joiya.
I believe there’s a difference between understanding and knowing. Understanding is in the head and heart so one can sympathize and empathize. Knowing is cellular, it becomes part of our DNA.
Men can wear belts that mimic labor pains, but I still doubt they get the full knowing of what real pregnancy, labor, and delivery are like. I think it’s wonderful they have this opportunity and I do think it gives them a better understanding of what their loved one goes through. But it’s still not the same.
At one point during my daughter’s cancer treatment, I was told to let her go because her chances of surviving a needed surgery were basically non-existent. By a miracle she survived. Yet, as close as I came to losing my daughter, I would never presume to know the pain and grief of a parent who did. I can come close, but teetering on the edge of that abyss is different than falling into it.
I’m reading through the books I highlighted in my earlier post and as expected, they’re hard to read. I physically react with nausea, panic, and deep grief from Harriett Jacobs’s retelling of slave beatings and mental abuse in, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Her descriptions are blunt and honest, yet even Ms. Jacobs admits to pulling back in places because it’s too difficult to write, and to spare the reader. Despite my understanding and strong reactions, I still don’t know.
In 2016 riots broke out in Charlotte, NC, over the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Black city police officer. Leaders in my town organized a panel discussion on race relations in our city, and how the Black community and police department could better work together. Hubby and I attended. The one story that was repeated over and over was about young Black men being pulled over by police and asked to get out of their cars.
Their stories reminded me of an evening years earlier when my hubby was told to do the same thing. The two of us, with our two children, were pulled over at gas station along a poorly lit highway. There were two patrol cars, one in front and one behind our car. One officer immediately asked hubby to get out of the car and go with him. The other officer came to my window, asked me several times if I was okay, how the children were. Eventually they explained there’d been a domestic call and my husband fit the description of the man they were looking for.
I think we all get that initial panic – or irritation or embarrassment – when we see blue lights in our rearview mirror. That night I was curious and concerned, there was a heightened sense of alertness, and protectiveness. But never once was there paralyzing fear. Never once did I think my husband would not come back to our car, or be harmed in any way. Never once did I fear my children were in danger, or would see something they shouldn’t.
But fear was what those mothers talked about that night during the public forum.
After the Mother Emmanuel Church shooting in Charleston, I was invited to participate in the Poets Respond to Race Tour. The tour and following anthology were created by two Columbia, SC area poets – Al Black, who is white, and Len Lawson, who is Black.
Al and Len traveled through the Carolinas and Georgia doing readings and leading discussions on race relations, racial inequality and social justice. The poem I wrote for my local event is titled In the Absence of Color.
In my poem I write about growing up in a small town that was all white – so white even our food seemed all white with mashed potatoes, egg noodles, chicken . . . and pork chops, the other white meat. Then years later enjoying all the great food, laughter, and music at a local Soul Food Cook-off, where I was the only person at my table who was absent of color. I write about attending a home-going for a Black friend’s mom. I couldn’t join in the powerful singing, but I’d lost my mom too, so the mom-shaped hole in my heart matched my friend’s. After the shootings in Charleston and those that followed, I couldn’t mourn in the same way as those Black moms, who hear the sound of bullets echoing back for decades, but I know the embrace of young sons so I could weep with and for those moms.
After I read my poem, a woman came up in tears. She was the white wife of a Black man. She thanked me for expressing what she felt, that even as deep as her understanding and knowing went, there was a depth of knowing she’d never reach.
But not fully knowing doesn’t keep us from fully connecting.
Joiya writes in her poem Education
‘. . . I can say, “Some white people . . .”
of the time
the words that follow
could apply to any person
of any race. . . .”
I end In the Absence of Color with this hope:
“Our points of connection, our honoring our differences,
our work to go beyond that which is only skin-deep.”
It’s a hope I hold on to.
Hand in Hand Poets Respond to Race is available through Amazon. In this collection of poetry, curated by South Carolina poets Len Lawson and Al Black, fellow poets speak to the role of race both in their 21st century worlds and the worlds they inherited from the past. Beautiful and profane, these words and the images they evoke allow the reader the opportunity to assess where we are as a culture, how far we’ve come, and how far we need to go.
Kim,thanks again, for an insightful post! I listened to Len Lawson read his poem, “Groundhog Day,” recorded on Facebook (on Feb. 2, 2021). In the poem he begins each morning knowing that as a young black man, by that day’s end he will be pulled over and shot by white cops. The repetition made it even more horrific, horrifying–unbelievably heart-breaking. I wish it were not so true to life!
Thank you. Another one that I agonized over finding the right words.
Len is an amazing poet. I can’t imagine putting the weight of that knowledge on my shoulders every morning before heading out the door. Yes, we wish it weren’t so true to life, and unbelievable too the number of people who refuse to believe it is. Like on the back cover of Hand in Hand ‘. . . it’s about how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.’