More Poems for Michael Brown: June Jordan’s “Poem About Police Violence”

The world needs our poets. I think of what Jordan, Cortez, and Maya Angelou would be saying if they were alive. However in looking at “Poem About About Police Violence” written by Jordan in 1974, perhaps they already said it all.

Poem about Police Violence

Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?

. . . I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rapid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle
(don’t you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue
and scuffle my oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again
(Again)

People been having accidents all over the globe
so long like that I reckon that the only
suitable insurance is a gun
I’m saying war is not to understand or rerun
war is to be fought and won

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
blots it out/the bestial but
not too often

tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently

– June Jordan –

Jayne Cortez and the Response to Violence

There It Is

And if we don’t fight
if we don’t resist
if we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is

-Jayne Cortez, from Firespitters


With apologies to the great poet Jayne Cortez (who died late last year). I edited her poem “Give me the Red on the Black of the Bullet” with the name of Trayvon Martin (and details of his case) in the place of Claude Reece Jr. Cortez’ poem, written in the 1970s, was dedicated to Reece Jr., a 14 year-old victim of police violence. Had Cortez lived, being the political fire spitter that she was, I am sure that she would have written a poem honoring Trayvon.


GIVE ME THE RED ON THE BLACK OF THE BULLET

(For Trayvon Martin)


Bring back the life 

Of Trayvon Martin


I want the bullet from his chest

To make a Benin bronze

To make an explosion of thunder

To make a cyclone


I want the 17 years of Trayvon Martin

Shot on the 26th day of February

Shot in his chest

Shot by a “wanna be” police officer

Shot for being black


Give me the black on the red of the bullet

I want to make a tornado

To make an earthquake

To make a fleet of stilts

For the blackness of Trayvon Martin

The blackness called dangerous weapon

Called resisting arrest

Called nigger threat


I want the life of the blackness of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a protective staff for startled children

To make hooks and studs

For warrior masks


Give me the bullet with the odor

And the smoke and the skin and

The hair of Trayvon Martin

I want to make power

To make power

For the blackness of Trayvon Martin

The blackness called pent-up frustration

Called unidentified negro

Called nigger revolutionary


I want the life of the blackness of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a protective staff for startled children

To make a Benin bronze

To make an explosion of thunder

To make a cyclone

I want the bullet to bring back the blood

Of Trayvon Martin

I want to make justice


I want to make justice for

The blackness of Trayvon Martin

Bring back the bullet with the blood of the blackness

Of Trayvon Martin

I want to make justice

I want to make justice for the blackness

Of Trayvon Martin.


Expressions of Rage: Meditations on the Killing of Michael Brown

What do you do when you have rage? What do you do as an academic, who calls herself a cultural critic, but in some ways has so much emotion invested in what is happening around you that you do not know how to intellectualize a response?  I applaud poets like Claude Mckay who wrote his poem “If We Must Die” as a response to the race riots of 1919. He is angry and thoughtful at the same time:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs

Making their mock at our accursèd lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

 

In fact Brittney Cooper in her stunning essay “In Defense of Black Rage” at Salon.com reminds us of Mckay’s words while also making an intellectual case for the emotion of rage.  A key takeaway from her essay is

But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls.

and, also 

Every week we are having what my friend Dr. Regina Bradley called #anotherhashtagmemorial. Every week. We are weak. We are tired. Of being punching bags and shooting targets for the police. We are tired of well-meaning white citizens and respectable black ones foreclosing all outlets for rage. We are tired of these people telling us what isn’t the answer.

 

The answer isn’t looting, no. The answer isn’t rioting, no. But the answer also isn’t preaching to black people about “black-on-black” crime without full acknowledgment that most crime is intraracial. The answer is not having a higher standard for the people than for the police. The answer is not demanding that black people get mad about and solve the problem of crime in Chicago before we get mad about the slaughter of a teen boy just outside St. Louis.

 

We can be, and have been, and are mad about both. Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic.

I am reminded of Elizabeth’s Alexander’s question, “Can you be Black and look at this?” that becomes the title of her essay in the collection Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.  This question, though she asks this of viewing the Rodney King videos, in particular, becomes the question we all must ask ourselves when confronted with any sort of racial violence. Not only can we be black and look at the killing of Michael Brown, but can we be black without in someways participating in the killing, without also becoming victims of sorts?  It seems that in this case we are both witness and participant. In the end we aren’t just looking.  

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