Comics are a gateway drug to literacy. —Art Spiegelman
Friday, July 6, 2018
from 'The New Yorker':
What Antwon Rose’s Poetry Tells Us
About Being Black in America
July 4, 2018
In America, when a police-involved killing is caught on camera, the ensuing news coverage often omits a key voice─that of the victim. But, two days after the Pittsburgh-area police officer Michael Rosfeld fatally shot Antwon Rose, an unarmed seventeen-year-old black high-school senior from Rankin, Pennsylvania, hundreds of protestors, family, friends, and community members gathered on the street for a memorial and stood in silence to hear Antwon speak from beyond the grave. At the memorial, an activist took the stage to recite a poem, “i am not what you think!,” that Antwon wrote during his tenth-grade honors English class, when he was just fifteen─old enough to understand the dangers of the world, but too young to face them alone. Rosfeld, who shot Antwon three times as he was fleeing a traffic stop, now faces a homicide charge.
The reason Antwon ran from Rosfeld is perhaps best explained by the first line of his poem: “I am confused and afraid.” In the line that follows, Antwon acknowledges the limitations of his fate and that of many young black men in America. “I wonder what path I will take. I hear there’s only two ways out,” he wrote. Those “two ways” are the well-known expectations that many Americans have for young black men: death or incarceration.
There was an audible gasp from the crowd when the activist recited the final lines of the first stanza: “I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain / I am confused and afraid.” Several days after the memorial, Antwon’s mother, Michelle Kenney, buried her son.
“i am not what you think!” was also recited during Antwon’s funeral, a few days after the memorial, during which he was celebrated as a “bright light” within his community. The poem has since become a rallying cry in the movement against police brutality. But, though Antwon’s words eerily predicted his future, the power of his poem isn’t limited to its prescience.
Like many black writers throughout American history, Antwon chose poetry as a means to express the feelings of fear and death─and hope and survival─that are unique to the black experience. Black writers have relied on poetry for creative self-expression for centuries, challenging the structural and grammatical constraints of traditional prose. For black writers, poetry has offered a sense of freedom seldom found in black life.
That tradition has thrived and evolved. Last year, hip-hop and R. & B., two descendants of poetry within the African-American community, became, as a group, America’s most popular music genre. In April, Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his album “damn.” Lamar’s lyrics tell stories of death and survival while being poor and black in America. On the song “fear.” he rattles off dozens of ways that he might die─including by the hands of the police. “I prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges,” he raps. “Body slammed on black-and-white paint, my bones snappin’.” Gil Scott-Heron, widely known as the “godfather of rap,” was similarly obsessed with black life and death, as evident on “Comment #1,” a song on which he repeats the question, “Who will survive in America?”
But long before hip-hop became the cultural phenomenon that it is today, poetry was the preferred canvas for African-American writers concerned with the black experience and how it relates to fear and death. Langston Hughes used his poetry to illuminate the perils of black life. “Who But the Lord?” was written seventy-one years ago. “Now, I do not understand / Why God don’t protect a man / From police brutality. / Being poor and black / I’ve no weapon to strike back— / So who but the Lord / Can protect me?” he wrote. In “On Liberty and Slavery,” George Moses Horton─born a slave, in 1798─prayed for freedom from fear: “Come Liberty, thou cheerful sound, / Roll through my ravished ears! / Come, let my grief in joys be drowned, / And drive away my fears.” And nearly a hundred and fifty years after Horton, Audre Lorde’s “Litany for Survival” mentions the word “afraid” or “fear” ten times. But the feminist theorist and civil-rights activist was decidedly more matter-of-fact. “And when we speak we are afraid / our words will not be heard / nor welcomed / but when we are silent / we are still afraid / So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive,” she wrote.
Throughout his poem, Antwon uses repetition of words and phrases for emphasis. The line “I am confused and afraid” is repeated four times, and his tone becomes more desperate with each mention, as if he were concerned that the reader might forget just how vulnerable he felt. In every other line, Antwon continues his catalogue of “I” statements, but follows “I” with a discrete action and fearful confessions: “I pretend all is fine,” “I feel like I’m suffocating.” His words bring into focus the cruel irony of what it feels like to be a young black man in America, a country in which he is told that he is free but is treated like a “statistic.”
The third and final stanza of Antwon’s poem includes a line that complements the title. “I understand people believe I’m just a statistic / I say to them I’m different.” For black adolescents across America, the threat of becoming a “statistic” looms large, particularly when black men are jailed at five times the rate of white men. Antwon tells the reader that he is “different,” but he was not treated any differently from the other young unarmed black men who have been gunned down by the police in America.
On the night of Antwon’s death, Rosfeld stopped a car that matched the description of a vehicle involved in a shooting. He began taking the driver into custody when Antwon fled. According to the criminal complaint filed by the Allegheny County Police Detectives, Rosfeld initially claimed that he saw Antwon carrying a gun. He later admitted that he did not see one. According to the Washington Post, Antwon was the four hundred and ninety-first person to be killed by the police in 2018, six per cent of whom were, like Antwon, unarmed.
“I dream of life getting easier / I try my best to make my dream come true / I hope that it does / I am confused and afraid.” These are the final lines of Antwon’s poem. His dream did not come true, but it lives on through those who are marching in his honor, filling the streets and demanding change, shouting Antwon’s name—perhaps even loud enough for him to hear.
A. T. McWilliams is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and writer based in San Francisco.
A. T. McWilliams is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and writer based in San Francisco.
Thursday, July 5, 2018
Judge: Students Have No Right to Literacy
A federal judge late Friday ruled that students at several Detroit schools have no legal right to literacy, dismissing a lawsuit filed in 2016 that took issue with the schools’ “slum-like conditions.” Judge Stephen Murphy III, in U.S. District Court in eastern Michigan, conceded in his 40-page ruling that “when a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury—and so does society.” Despite this, he concluded that literacy is not a right and threw out the suit, which had been filed by Los Angeles-based law firm Public Counsel on behalf of Detroit students.--from the 'Daily Beast'
Wednesday, July 4, 2018
The final paragraph of Richard Ford’s great American novel. Frank Bascombe is back home on the Fourth of July, his odyssey completed:
And I am in the crowd just as the drums are passing—always the last in line—their boom-boom-booming in my ears and all around. I see the sun above the street, breathe in the day’s rich, warm smell. Someone calls out, ‘Clear a path, make room, make room, please!’ The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others.
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
I war with myself over whether to keep getting the hardcopy Times every day, or to just read it online where it’s more current and the background light is bright. My back-of-the building second-floor apartment has terrible light, and leaning into a reading lamp with a big newspaper can get cumbersome. But we’ll see.
One great thing about hardcopy newspapers is that they hang around all day. You can grab a section whenever you want. It’s not out of sight like the online version is.
I learned the wonder of reading from devouring the sports section of the morning and afternoon papers we got delivered to our house when I was a kid. It has frequently crossed my mind that the lack of fathers in many homes in the poor parts of the city means that there’s no Daily News or New York Post on the kitchen table with their big splashy sports headline on the back to lure a young kid into the wonder of reading.
Monday, July 2, 2018
There are some mornings like this morning when I want to stay in bed or at least stay home. I wanted to listen to the radio to sports talk about LeBron. I wanted it to be a snow day. I wanted to be a kid.
But I got up and made my bed and got ready and headed down to Chambers Street with my sign in its big Kinko’s bag.
When I’m sluggish at the start, I tell myself to hold the sign in a holy way. I don’t mean religiously holy. I mean holy in a way that honors the next person coming toward the sign and me. It works every time. I hold the sign straighter. I stand straighter.
Sunday, July 1, 2018
She looked like a smaller Venus Williams, with oversized round wire-rim sunglasses on. She had just walked past the sign and me from behind on Friday and she turned back to me in a dancing way and with a wide shining smile said: I told you this another time, I like that sign, I like that sign.