Poetry is also this

This is from the end of an interview with a writer named Clint Smith about Juneteenth that Amy Goodman conducted on Democracy Now! on Friday. Juneteenth recently became a federal holiday, over the nay votes of fourteen GOP sticklers . Though, in fairness to them, it was fewer than the number (21) who opposed gold medals for the outnumbered officers who defended the Capitol on January 6 and FAR less than the number (all but six of them in the Senate) who opposed the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the MAGA riot. The new national holiday commemorates the day in June 1865, two months after the Confederacy surrendered — and two months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — that enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas learned that they’d been freed more than two years earlier.

AMY GOODMAN: Clint, before we end, you are an author, you’re a writer, you’re a teacher, and you are a poet. Can you share a poem with us?

CLINT SMITH: I’d be happy to. And so, when you’re a poet writing nonfiction, that very much animates the way that I approach the text. And so, this is part of the — this is an adaptation or an except from the end of one of my chapters, that originally began as a poem that I wrote when I was trying to think about some of these issues that I brought up.

[reading] Growing up, the iconography of the Confederacy was an ever-present fixture of my daily life. Every day on the way to school, I passed a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard riding on horseback, his Confederate uniform flung over his shoulder and his military cap pulled far down over his eyes. As a child, I did not know who P.G.T. Beauregard was. I did not know he was the man who ordered the first attack that opened the Civil War. I did not know he was one of the architects who designed the Confederate battle flag. I did not know he led an army predicated on maintaining the institution of slavery. What I knew is that he looked like so many of the other statues that ornamented the edges of this city, these copper garlands of a past that saw truth as something that should be buried underground and silenced by the soil.

After the war, the sons and daughters of the Confederacy reshaped the contours of treason into something they could name as honorable. We called it the Lost Cause. And it crept its way into textbooks that attempted to cover up a crime that was still unfolding; that told us that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man, guilty of nothing but fighting for the state and the people that he loved; that the Southern flag was about heritage and remembering those slain fighting to preserve their way of life. But, see, the thing about the Lost Cause is that it’s only lost if you’re not actually looking. The thing about heritage is that it’s a word that also means “I’m ignoring what we did to you.”

I was taught the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but I was never taught how the declarations of Confederate secession had the promise of human bondage carved into its stone. I was taught the war was about economics, but I was never taught that in 1860 the 4 million enslaved Black people were worth more than every bank, factory and railroad combined. I was taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights, but I was never taught how the Fugitive Slave Act could care less about a border and spelled Georgia and Massachusetts the exact same way.

It’s easy to look at a flag and call it heritage when you don’t see the Black bodies buried behind it. It’s easy to look at a statue and call it history when you ignore the laws written in its wake.

I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that’s still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there. Every time I would return home, I would drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains.

Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the first right on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?


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