I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and was in the fourth grade when the schools were integrated after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. That’s right, public schools in DC were segregated even though blacks got employment opportunities in the federal government after Truman’s Executive Order of 1948.
Many of my white classmates and their parents were shocked and scared when Black students first entered my class, but I couldn’t care less because I had the good fortune to be raised by color-blind parents who passed on this world view to me. For some reason or another I also began reading the poetry of Langston Hughes at an early age, and loved his poem I, Too, Sing America, which still may be the strongest and most potent civil rights verse ever inscribed.
I thought about Hughes the other day when I picked up a new volume of poetry, Bullets Into Bells, which is due to be published next week. The collection consists of poems about gun violence, each verse accompanied by commentaries contributed by advocates, scholars, everyday people and public figures, all of whom have been involved in the effort to reduce violence from guns.
Some of the poems, such as ‘In Two Seconds’ by Mark Doty, are emotionally-laden to the point that makes it difficult to read the text. Others, such as ‘Kalishnikov Candelabrum’ by Robert Wrigley, create images about how art can be used to define and explain the terror of guns. Either way, what comes from the pages of this collection is an overwhelmingly emotional portrait of gun violence which in many respects is much more powerful than reading a news account about someone getting shot.
Next time that NPR or one of the news outlets that promotes gun violence reduction (or what we used to call ‘gun control’) runs a story about a shooting, note the type of picture which accompanies the text. Either it will be a picture of the gun, or maybe a picture of the shooter or the victims, or perhaps a picture of the sheriff saying something about how the investigation is ‘ongoing’ and there will be an update in time for the six o’clock news. So we read the story, or we watch and listen to the 30-second video, shake our heads and then go on to do this or that. For most Americans, what I just described is the total degree to which they ever have any direct experience with gun violence at all.
Here is where a book like Bullets into Bells can have an impact in a much more dramatic way. Because poetry, like all art, either works or doesn’t work based on the degree to which the viewer or the listener or the reader (depending on the art form) derives an emotional response. And I can tell you that you will react to these poems in strong, emotional terms. If anything, the juxtaposition of poetry with commentaries gives readers an opportunity to restore their emotional equilibrium after the powerful impact of each verse.
And it is the emotionality of these poems that brings me back to Langston Hughes, because his poem I, Too, Sing America, became an anthem for the civil rights movement, to be recited with the same degree of energy and reverence with which we sang We Shall Overcome. I continue to be surprised in a very positive way at the degree to which the public anger about gun violence continues to forge ahead.
Of course there are setbacks, of course there are moments (particularly with this president) when things look bleak and spirits get down. But anyone who believes that the desire to end senseless, everyday carnage caused by guns used in stupid or inappropriate ways hasn’t become a national movement needs to take another look around. And a movement needs words that give us the emotional energy to move forward every day. Such a text might be found in this endearing and splendid collection of verse.