Some years ago, when Comerica Park and the Detroit casinos had just been built, a reporter from Royal Oak heard about InsideOut Literary Arts Project and made a visit to one of our schools to do an article. Later, during the Christmas season, she was on a "casino crawl" in a shuttle that went around to the newly-opened casinos. As the shuttle passed Cass Technical High School, still at that time in its original building, one of her fellow passengers sneered, "Yeah, Cass Tech, home of the best and brightest. Right." The reporter spoke up with indignation. She had just visited the iO students at Cass. She knew how bright and thoughtful they were, and she didn't mind taking this fellow to task for his ignorance, forcefully, and in front of the other passengers.
I have remained grateful for this story, although I know the "Detroit sneer" all too well. As a resident of Detroit since 1968 and a white person, I have had for years to fend off the all too predictable "Well, where do you really live?" when I say I live in Detroit. It's "down in Detroit" to many, or a place where, in the words of one TSA official, "nobody lives anymore." And while Detroit has become an object of buzz and curiosity and a destination of choice -- at least in certain areas, for well-heeled renters, buyers and businesses and elsewhere for newly arrived artists, makers and entrepreneurs -- I remain fearful that the sneer has not gone away, for the Detroit sneer is, of course, the sneer of racism, and if we have seen anything writ large in our country in recent weeks, it is the danger and brutality that this society wreaks on its Black citizens, young men in particular.
The events in our country since the Ferguson decision have left me shaken. A child of 12, a father of six, one shot, one choked, both left untended for precious minutes. It was horrible to see the body of Eric Garner lying on the sidewalk, so cavalierly patted and prodded by the police, as if he were nothing but an object, a situation, a thing. The same callous behavior was evident in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, where Cleveland police shackled the boy's sister and threatened his mother, even as they ignored the child lying on the ground. I cannot look in Tamir's innocent eyes without tearing up and without thinking of the many Black children whose lives are changed now by the knowledge of the world they live in. A friend's daughter suddenly asks to sleep with her parents for fear of what might happen to her brother. Another friend struggles to answer her daughter's question, "Will it always be this way?"
A YouTube video recently making the rounds shows a little girl, maybe four or five, in her car seat, crying inconsolably because the classmates she has tried to befriend don't want to play with her. "They don't like Black people," she sobs, in much the same way I imagine the little girl in Toi Derricotte's poem "Workshop on Racism" sobbed. There are two Brianas in this child's class, and the children taunt her, calling her "The Black Briana. ...I don't want to be the Black Briana!" she screams. The mother is helpless to protect her, and the poet teaches us that "already at five the children understand/black is not a color, it is/ a blazing skin."
Toi's poem, brief as it is, has stayed with me since I first read it, and I am grateful to the writers like her (poets especially) who help me to understand. In this historical moment, poets are speaking out. Breauna LaRease, a proud alumna of InsideOut, is one of many taking part in "Black Poets Speak Out," a tumblr site organized by members of Cave Canem: A Home for Black Poetry. Cave Canem -- an organization that provides Black poets with retreats, fellowships, publication opportunities -- was co-founded by Toi Derricotte in 1996. I had the pleasure of getting to know Toi as one of the first guest poets who came to my high school classroom. Her impact on my students, on my life and on the literary life of this country has been incalculable. I'm proud that as a relatively young poet, "our" Breauna was accepted into Cave Canem's highly selective program, and I applaud the appropriateness of her choice of "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay in speaking out now.
McKay, one of the early forces in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the poem in response to the "Red Summer of 1919" that saw an increase in hate crimes, race riots and violence against Black people.
Nearly 100 years later, Claudia Rankine's 2014 National Book Award Finalist Citizen: an American Lyric also responds to racial injustice. Here, on the PBS NewsHour, she explains how her poems examine the minute "micro-aggressions" of interpersonal racial experience, as well as the macro aggressions that permeate our society, and help us to see that we are far from a "post-racial" world. As a white person, I will never know the sting of racial aggression, micro or macro, but I can learn to recognize my biases, to educate myself and even dare, as Rankine's brilliant work suggests, "to see in color." That is, for certain, one of poetry's great gifts -- it teaches us to see into another human soul.