It’s been 6 weeks since I have been on the blog. I have been watching the state of the world with eyes that want to look away, but can’t. It seems we are on a collision course with hopelessness and destruction, vaccine or no vaccine. Human rights are being violated and lives taken with impunity, due to governmental inaction (India, Brazil, Peru) and governmental action (Colombia, USA, Israel). From patients to protestors, the poor across the world are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s cost.
It is a year since the murder of George Floyd in the United States, and in Toronto, Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Last year, people overcame their fear of covid19 and took to the streets en masse after a fear-laden set of global lockdowns stopped all social presence in its tracks. Since that time, people have been amassing at numerous events in response to local and international news all over the world.
There have been hundreds of Black and Indigenous and Latino people murdered by police in the last few decades in the U.S. and Canada. To list and say their names would take some time.
In order to honour the memory of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Sandra Bland, and Brionna Taylor, among so many others— I’ve decided to go back to the 1960s, back to amazingly powerful Henry Dumas, taken from us at the age of 33, when he was shot in a case of “mistaken identity” by a New York City Transit Cop.
Henry Dumas 1935-1968
He was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas and spent his childhood in New York City. After serving in the military, he attended Rutgers University and ended up eventually teaching language workshops at Southern Illinois University.
As a Black Power militant and civil rights advocate, his poetry is rooted in the fullness of Black experience; to be a son, a lover, a father, a subject of history. At the time when he was writing the use of the “n” word was as contested as it is today. But for many, writing from the ironic corners of Black America, the use of this noun both underscored the derogatory and the resilient, if not the redemptive. In her recent piece on Henry Dumas, “Some Requiem”, Harmony Holiday says of his work,
“Come, it is time to be born,” Dumas announces in “Pane of Vision.” “Do you remember the sweet pain of turning around?” he asks in “Green Hill, Golden Mountain.” Dumas is always addressing us, as if we’re old friends who have crossed the threshold of bones into the West together and dream of returning to a land we cannot name except by feeling its terrain. He wants us all to turn around in unison. His poems call us toward the fantasy of feeling like our true selves and imagine where we might have to travel to accomplish that, what we will have to risk and forfeit, and then they take us there in simple disguises.
Below I share 3 poems of this great U.S. writer, fighter for Black liberation and historian of the feeling of being Black, in the eyes of White America. In this, he’s been classified as an Utopian poet because he shows us “our true selves …the tenderness and the terror… there is no repudiating him or looking away from his warnings.
These poems are for George, Michael, Tamir, Eric, Brionna, Regis, Sandra, Adam, and so many many others. They are for all of you, who’ve ever been terrified for yourself or your loved ones as they/we/you— live their simple, human lives, in the face of institutional white supremacy and social, political, and economic exclusion.
lay sixteen bales down in front on the plank
let me set and bay at the houndog moon
lay sixteen bales down of the cotton flank
pray with me brothers that the pink
boss dont sweat me too soon
beat my leg in a round nigger peg
lord have mercy on my black pole
lay sixteen bales in the even row
let me sweat and cuss my roustabout tune
lord have mercy on my shrinkin back
let me go with the jesus mule
lay sixteen bales for the warp and loom
beat a nigger down and bury his soul
boss dont sweat me too soon
pray with me brothers that I hold my cool
lord have mercy on this long black leg
let me ride on the jesus mule
lay sixteen bales of white fuzz down
lay sixteen tales of how I got around
lord have mercy on this sweat and stink
lord have mercy
lay sixteen bales
the houndog moon
Knock on Wood
i go out to totem street
and watusi feet
killer sharks chasin behind
we play hide
and out-run cops
splittin over fence
in willie’s head
they kick me watusi
runnin feet in my brain
won’t stop willie lookin blood
cut off blackjack pain
so whenever you see me comin
you call me watusi
i keep a wooden willie
blade and bone out that fence
a high willie da conquieror
listen! up there he talkin
wooden willie got all the sense
i go out to siren street
don’t play no more
me and willie beat a certain beat
aimin wood carvin shadows
sometimes i knock on wood
me and willie play togetherin
and we don’t miss
Love came to me and said:
What do you want of me?
Save me I said, Save me.
Love knelt down beside me
and love said:
If you knew the price
of coming to you,
you would ask nothing
but would give.