Our Uncomfortable Dread: From George Floyd to Henry Dumas

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. 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/25/how-many-people-have-police-killed-since-george-floyd

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 selvesthe 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. 

Kef 24

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

pray brothers

beat down

lord have

let me

lord lord

brothers

the houndog moon

howl jesus,

howl!

Street Artist, Feist, U.S.A, 2020

Knock on Wood

i go out to totem street

         we play

         neon monster

                  and watusi feet

killer sharks chasin behind 

         we play hide

         siren!

                  and out-run cops

they catch

         willie

         and me

                  splittin over fence

they knock

         in willie’s head

         hole

they kick me watusi 

         down 

                  for dead

like yesterday

         runnin feet in my brain

         won’t stop willie lookin blood

                  beggin me

cut off blackjack pain

so whenever you see me comin

         crazy watusi

                 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

         with fist

me and willie play togetherin
         and we don’t miss

Thought

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.

Say Their Names, Kaushalya Bannerji, copyright 2021