These past ten days I was able to bury myself in a community of writers at my last residency as an MFA in Writing candidate at Pacific University. For my graduate reading, I took a long time to craft the following statement, which I read at campus chapel.
“At her reading, Dorianne [Laux] asked us to think about Charleston. I’m sure many of us were thinking about it before we got here. Here’s what struck me: the terrorist who went into a historic Black church, killed nine people, and left one alive so she could tell us what he had done, that terrorist is 21 years old.
Think about that number, that age. For a while there was this idea in the ether that when all the old, racist farts died off the world would be better. And as a woman of color, and millennial, I’m telling you that it’s not true.
We live in a time when everyone agrees that racism is bad, but we will not talk about the institutionalization of racism and how it breeds new racists. This is a time when we can easily condemn a White celebrity chef for saying the N-word, but not an economic policy that makes jailing young Black men profitable. We agree racism is bad, but don’t know what it is, and refuse to talk about it. There is a haunting silence we walk through.
I say this, not just because of my heavy sense of political and civic duty, but because my relationship to poetry is directly tied to my experience as a racialized entity, when I moved to the United States. Eight years ago, I went from being a full person, to being a Brown person. Eight years ago, I went from writing fiction, to writing poetry. I don’t believe it was a coincidence, in fact I know it was not.
Now, since we are in a chapel, I thought it would be appropriate to take some influence from the Bible that these nine people had believed in. And I say to you, regardless of any religious, political, cultural, or racial affiliation: if you are a writer, and believe in the Word, and that the word is good, is necessary, is life, then it is your, as well as my duty, to break the silence.
I don’t mean we all need to bang our drums and scream, there are degrees to this—read the names aloud like Tyehimba [Jess], ask for a moment of meditation and remembrance like Lin, read a poem like Vievee [Francis] and Tom, or, like Dorianne did, just ask yourself and others to think about it.
In Islam, the Shaheed, or the martyr, those who died fulfilling a duty to God, is honored with a place in heaven. I would like to again, read aloud the names of the martyrs, and would like to add the names of three Muslim American students who were killed by an Islamophobe in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this February.
Pastor Clementa Pickney
Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Ethel Lee Lance
Reverend Daniel Simmons
Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor
and from Chapel Hill,
And, ending this note, I want to ask you to think about Charleston, think about yourselves, think about your place in the world, and who you are, and why you are.”