I don’t know what to say. I had other ideas for what I might talk about this month, but that all fell away after the June 17th murder of nine people and wounding of one at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This act of terrorism, committed by a troubled 21-year-old named Dylann Roof, has led to all manner of tap dancing around issues of the Confederate flag, gun control, racism, political donations by hate groups, and semantics by politicians, media and the public alike. It would be horrifying enough if this were an isolated incident, but in the aftermath of years of unarmed black people getting gunned down by poorly-trained (at best) and/or racist police officers, insane incarceration rates for black men, and worse, the question of whether or not black lives matter as much as those of whites in America seems already answered.
It has been my honor, during nearly twenty years of editing, to have published fine poems by many of our most sustaining poets, but none is as important or resonant, I think, than Lucille Clifton’s” jasper texas 1998.” I published it while serving as Poetry Editor of Kestrel, and it was later reprinted in Ploughshares. The poem won Lucille a Pushcart Prize, and Ploughshares and Kestrel split the acknowledgement. In any case, the poem is Lucille’s response to the murder of James Byrd, Jr. by three men, of whom at least two were white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. After tying Byrd to a pick-up truck, these animals dragged Byrd behind them for three miles. Byrd, conscious throughout most of the ordeal, was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The gruesome event led, ultimately, to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed on October 22, 2009, and which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.
Here is a link to Lucille’s poem (thanks to The Poetry Foundation). “why and why and why / should i call a white man brother?” the poem asks of us. I don’t know what to say.