JIVE POETIC: I just reread your poem in No, Dear #BlackPoetsSpeakOut! One of my favorite lines: "What if this hero was a different shade of power?" Interactions with police usually create this consideration in my brain. Your piece did an effective job of capturing and redistributing this anxiety.
AMANDA JOHNSTON: Anxiety and paranoia are conditions that have been passed down from generation to generation with the reinforcement of an abusive / lethal criminal justice system. In your poem "When Invited to Discuss Richard Pryor + Doggerel Poetry," I see that same anxiety manifest in the line "I mean post-traumatic stress looks like a stand up comedian / bent over enough freebase to set himself on fire." This line is working overtime in structure, language, and image. The idea that we are in a constant state of PTSD that triggers under pressure of power's gaze (stand up comedian with a constant audience / young couple on the side of the road with police). Power is thrust upon the subjects of our poems in different ways, but the outcome is still an anxiety to perform the right way or suffer consequences. As a Black poet, I'm constantly aware of the risk involved with writing through my lens / body and how power and trauma exist in the literary sphere, which is to say I see how Part II of the poem speaks to that reality with the dissection of "Doggerel" and the power behind it. Now the question I have is: Is a power reclaimed/assumed in Part III with "an ambush full of people watching you watch Richard Pryor, so they can know when to laugh" because they are waiting for permission or is the power still set in the gaze because of the anticipated performance?
JP: “Anxiety and paranoia are conditions that have been passed down from generation to generation with the reinforcement of an abusive / lethal criminal justice system.” I agree with you, and have been giving this some thought. I’ve always wondered what happens to internalized stress and abuse that goes unresolved in the body. This curiosity led me to read about epigenetics, and how we might pass the effects of trauma on to future generations.
You mentioned a line from my poem: “I mean post-traumatic stress looks like a stand up comedian / bent over enough freebase to set himself on fire.” Thank you for picking this out. It was difficult to commit this line to the page. For me, PTSD is a complicated condition to diagnose when investigating the black experience in America. Post-traumatic stress disorder might imply that the traumatic events are in the past. To be black in America is to navigate post-traumatic stress, while simultaneously being introduced to new, continuous, and congruently traumatizing stimuli; it is also to know these traumatic events will, potentially, be ignored or denied by the ruling majority.
Military personnel go off to war, and return housing trauma that could be triggered when reminded of the battlefield. To be black in America is to maintain permanent residence in an active war zone. We can’t go home from racism or hide from its operatives. Our skin is often looked at like the uniform of an enemy combatant. I understand how your daughter might have felt on that Texas roadside. I’ve been in that position: accosted by power, and left feeling lucky to be set free when I’ve done nothing except be born a suspicious shade of black. I think about how easily the white boyfriend in your poem could have, unintentionally, triggered an attack on your daughter. In parallel situations, I’ve seen white friends escalate interactions with police by reacting without considering how this system will protect the order, and distribution, of its privilege at our expense.
You asked if power was reclaimed/assumed in Part III of my poem. In this country, the authority of rich-white-maleness rations the access to power. In moments of structural breakdown, I think the gaze that supervises localized power ultimately intervenes, reclaims, and redistributes power back into its own favor; because of this, we have to provoke, resist, and fight to agitate this oppressive system into moments of frustration, fracture, and failure. Some of our best weapons, in my opinion: awareness, exposure, and sabotage. We don’t have to pull all of these knives at once; they aren’t even the only blades out there, but they are good to have.
Increasingly more hostile exchanges with the same professor from the Richard Pryor scenario prompted a group of us to compose a chain of complaint letters. One of the results: a conversation with a white male authority figure. Lucky for us, he understood our position, and took action, but what if he didn’t? This makes me think about the last line of your poem. “Would she be so lucky, or was it luck, if the absence of pain is just a heavy hand in repose?” This line is virtuous and painful because we live in a world where some of us aren’t allowed to walk with the assumption of safety. The title of your poem captures this by stating: “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted.” It immediately makes me think about all of the times that she was, or will be, targeted. The normalization of violence against our bodies is so culturally ingrained that we feel the sensation of luck when white supremacy grants us mercy. How traumatic of a thought is that?
After rereading your poem a couple of times, I found myself wondering if there were companion poems for this piece. It stands solid in its singular form, but it feels intense enough to springboard a series. I’m interested in hearing more about how black women experience law enforcement.
AJ: Today I read an article on The Root about a woman, Dailene Rosario, being tased by New York police officers. She was 17 and pregnant. I think of when I was 17 and pregnant with my daughter Zayna. I know this could have been me. I think of Renee Davis, 23, mother of three and five months pregnant who was killed in her home by deputies on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation in Aburn, Washington. I think of Korryn Gaines, 23, who was killed by Baltimore County police in her own home in front of her children. Her son was wounded in the gunfire. I think of the Mothers of the Movement standing on stages during the presidential election, stumping for Hillary Clinton and standing front and center at the Women's March after Trump was inaugurated and how deep the manipulation of our dead children goes, how we must do everything to survive always at the mercy of white privilege and supremacy. I think of how small those stages are and can't begin to hold all of the mothers whose children were killed by those sworn to protect them. I think of Samaria Rice risking her life to not stand with leaders and remind the world that the system and all political parties failed her son, Tamir Rice, 12, when he was killed within seconds of police arriving at the park where he was playing in Cleveland, OH. I think of her statement on the 2-year anniversary of her son's murder:
"These two years have felt like hell and many sleepless nights, when I close my eyes to try to get some rest all I can see is my son getting shot," Rice said, later adding, "Our tax dollars are paying these killer p*gs."
I think of the violence, fear, and aggression in that asterisk silencing a Black mother still grieving her murdered son for the comfort of those who killed him. I think of the week I've been silent, unable to reply to your email, sitting in the pain of your last line to me: " I’m interested in hearing more about how black women experience law enforcement."
And it's like that. A complete shutting down and making the physical choice to turn back in your seat and face it knowing they will kill you, your children, and the children you ever thought you were going to have. They will kill your partners and say you are unfit and broken after they break your home and heart. I think of all the Black women raped and assaulted by a police officer in Oklahoma City and how he cried (I will not say his name) in court when he was found guilty and sentenced to 263 years in prison. I think of the television commercials, corporate funding, and advertising dollars that went into a television play-by-play with the tagline "Did he do it?" and the 13 women he raped and assaulted who had to pass billboards and turn the channel every time they showed his face. I think of the 18 charges he was found not guilty on and the sistas (some teenagers) too afraid to report him. I think of the officer who lifted my name and phone number off a report from two cities over when I was in my early twenties and called my house late at night to make sure I was okay. I remember how unsafe that made me feel. I remember making sure all the locks on my door were latched. I remember praying if they came for me that they would not see my my man because they might kill him.
JP: Sorry for the slow response. I wanted to approach the pain that I read with care and sensitivity. I found myself repeating your phrasing, and the names, as I walked around my apartment. As I did this, I tried to imagine how you must have felt while recounting so much harsh reality. Ultimately, I ended up thinking about the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut action at AWP. Some white people seemed supportive. Others looked at us, and shook their heads, as if our pain was nothing more than inconvenient performance art. While sitting on the floor sharing my piece, Black people came up, gave me hugs, and asked if I was okay. White people didn’t. They just said thank you, and asked if they could publish my poem. Me wiping tears from my eyes didn’t seem to readjust their judgment. Publishing seemed more important to them than allowing me a few minutes to recuperate. When I didn’t respond to their offers, some of them handed me fliers and business cards. Other took my picture without asking. What I was dealing with was real. What I saw on your face when you spoke that day was real. We aren’t imagining this violence and oppression.
AJ: Not imagined and we aren't crazy, as hard and the system tries to make us so.
As difficult as it is to keep living, retelling this pain, I appreciate being in this work/life with folks like you who refuse to look away. Onward!
Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Callaloo, Poetry, Kinfolks Quarterly, Muzzle, Pluck! and the anthologies, Small Batch, di-ver-city and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston is a Stonecoast MFA faculty member, cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts. She's online at www.amandajohnston.com.
Jive Poetic received his BA in Media Studies from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was one of two poets selected by the US Embassy to represent American slam poetry during an international cultural exchange program in Warsaw, Poland. Jive Poetic has collected grand slam championship titles from Pensacola, Florida to Munich, Germany, and served on the advisement panel at the Australian National Slam Summit. He was featured on season four of TVONE’s LEXUS VERSES AND FLOW, co-curates the Brooklyn Slam at BRIC, and hosts the open slam at Nuyorican Poet’s Café. When he is not on tour or hosting, Jive Poetic teaches performance poetry and hip – hop workshops to at risk youth in New York City and surrounding tri-state area. Recently, Jive released his third poetry album, PERPENDICTIVE, and is currently an MFA candidate in The Pratt Institute’s creative writing and activism program.