I am reading Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius for a Centrum poetry class.
She challenges white poets: why don’t you write about racisim?
I write that we are afraid. I think it is more than that: it is shame. Thinking about her words, I thought about one of my mother’s pieces of art and how it makes me uncomfortable. And that my discomfort with it is new. I wrote this poem.
Kim Addonizio asks
Why don’t white poets write about race?
Chickenshits, I think.
Afraid. We are afraid.
My mother called one color Nigger Pink.
She says, “It’s the color that only looks good on black people.”
She looks wicked as she says it and I know that I never should.
She didn’t think she was racist nor a feminist.
One time she says, “Maybe I am a feminist.”
“Why do you say that?” I ask.
“We had a group of women who went to plant trees. None of them could dig a hole.”
“Oh,” I say.
“They didn’t know how to use a shovel!”
She might be horrified how many high school graduates today would call a spade a shovel.
A mentor art teacher says, “Stop being small,” to her. “Get bigger.”
She starts pastel portraits, larger than life.
One that I love is titled “One Fist of Iron.”
Now: don’t lie. What race do you think the person is? And what gender?
Did you guess correctly?
African American and male.
Another friend tells me he is trying to get his father to stop calling Brazil nuts nigger toes.
My mother told me that term too.
And that it was unacceptable.
At my friend’s father’s birthday, I focus my camera on the birthday man.
He holds a bowl of nuts. He says to himself, “I will now eat a politically incorrect nut.” and the camera clicks. I love this photograph because he is 90 and white and reluctantly changing his wicked words.
My mother says there might be hope when a small black child trick or treats her house in black face, in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1990s.
I think there IS hope, even though the race seems slow and painful and there is so much anger
Look in the mirror, white poets.
And write the words.
The photograph at the beginning of this is not my mother. It is her mother’s mother, Mary Robbins White. I have pictures of five generations of women with that serious expression. She was the wife of George White, the Congregationalist Minister who was president of Anatolia College in Turkey. They and my grandmother and siblings were escorted to the Turkish border in 1916. George White and his wife were two of the main witnesses of the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey.
Let us not stand by and witness more genocides.
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