In the wake of a presidential election, especially one as polarizing as this, comes an onslaught of political discourse telling me how to react. Claims that I need to be grateful for a Biden-Harris administration and that I should applaud the achievements of the Democratic party have berated me for days. I wish I could rejoice, but I am only devastated.
As I see it, each presidential election is yet another chapter written in, chronicling the successes of the capitalist state — another flag erected in the name of U.S. imperialism. With celebrations of war criminals at every outdoor bar and on every social media platform, I could not help but feel like the entire city of Seattle was gaslighting me to doubt my own pain. As always I found myself grounded by the words of BIPOC poets, reminding me that history is not forgotten so long as we are alive. And, reading these poems, reminds me that a better world is possible so long as we can imagine it.
As I see it, each presidential election is yet another chapter written in, chronicling the successes of the capitalist state — another flag erected in the name of U.S. imperialism.
Layli Long Soldier is an Oglala Lakota poet who addresses the complicated duality of being a citizen of the United States while being Indigenous. In her poem, Whereas, from her poetry book of that same name, she responds to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans where no tribal leaders or representatives were invited to receive the apology or even heard it be read.
In this poem, Long Soldier confronts the deceitful and coercive language used by the U.S. in their letters, treaties, and apologies to Indigenous tribes and shows how these officious words of duplicity are weaponized by oppressors despite being used for truces or apologies.
The first line reads:
“WHEREAS my eyes land on the statement, ‘Whereas the arrival of Europeans in
North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.’ In others, I
hate the act
of laughing when hurt injured or in cases of danger.”
She finishes the stanza with:
“Yet I’m serious when I say I
reading the phrase, “opened a new chapter.” I can’t help my body. I shake. The sad
realization that it took this phrase to show. My daughter’s quiver isn’t new—
but a deep practice very old she’s watching me;”
Long Soldier recognizes the insincerity of the apology’s facade and conveys her exhaustion of its empty statements that erase the violent history of European settlement in North America. When Long Soldier sees her daughter mimic her laugh as a way to cover up pain, she sees intergenerational trauma explicitly displayed. Resilience can be beautiful, but Long Soldier shows that it can also be dangerous and isolating to trivialize one’s pain.
Federal budget cuts to reservation programs followed the 2009 Apology, including those that provided health care and services to orphaned children. Long Soldier uses the last section of her poem to ask what an apology is without reparations.
As Long Soldier juxtaposes the lifeless, bureaucratic language of the apology with intimate anecdotes from her personal life, I am reminded that feeling tenderness and submitting to emotions is a human way to react. Since the pandemic has forced isolation I have only fallen into my reclusive habits more, but like Long Soldier tells her daughter “If you’re hurting, cry. You must show your feelings so that others know, so that we can help.”
Danez Smith is a Black, queer poet from St. Paul, Minn. who, in their poem, “summer, somewhere,” uses themes of Afrofuturism and abolition to narrate a place filled with nature and healing. Smith uses their vivid couplets to describe a paradise that does not exist, not as escape, but rather a reflection of what is missing in the realities of BIPOC in the U.S.
Smith challenges the dogmatism of authority and race when they write:
“here, there is no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.”
Thoughts of abolition and freedom are no longer conjecture in that better place, and words to describe prisons or oppressors are obsolete. Smith gives perspective when they state that there is no way to even talk about a world with police, which is in stark contrast with the status quo of the U.S. Written in 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration, Smith’s poem takes a magnifying glass to the effects of police brutality and state violence on Black children, and shows that representation is not salvation.
Smith writes about a heaven where boys are born out of the earth and from trees, using a metaphor to compare boys and nature with each other.
“the forest is a flock of boys
who never got to grow up, blooming
into forever, afros like maple crowns
reaching sap-slow toward sky.”
Smith’s imagery of skyward growing trees and bodies of water in rain are inextricable from their narration of boys. I am reminded that people are of the natural world and that nature is healing when we do as well. Smith focuses on the fact that it is a place only reached by a death undeserved — this place is an answer to the prayers of those still living. I don’t think there is romance or a lesson to be learned in the construction of an idyllic “somewhere better,” but it is a way to gain clarity of the reality of this life and hopefully a chance to find a moment of peace.
These poems from Long Soldier and Smith render me quiet and still, like reading them for the first time. Their poems fill my rage, despair, or ambivalence with perspective, as I find an entire world in a single word each time I read again.
When Smith writes,
“do you know what it’s like to live
someplace that loves you back?”
I rack my memories to find those feelings of being loved back, while I also dream of a place or a time when that is reality.
Last updated 11/20/20
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