Friday, July 6, 2018

        from 'The New Yorker':

What Antwon Rose’s Poetry Tells Us 

About Being Black in America

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.

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