Gun Violence, Academic Poetry, & Who Cares About White Pain?

I started writing the post about poetry below (after the horizontal line) a few days ago.  It’s still worth sharing, because it’s about writing meaningfully when all of this tragedy is happening.  But I have to have to say that now, with the death of the African American man hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park (Atlanta’s “back yard”), which the Atlanta Police Department called a “suicide,” I’m at such a loss—I don’t even know that I could write any poetry about the insanity of death and violence that are perpetrated against American citizens because they’re black and brown.  (Does anything I’d have to say even matter?)

If calling this particular death a “suicide” is not an example of institutional racism, if that’s not racist “criminal justice” and a racist “law enforcement” system at work, I don’t what is.  What African American would choose to hang himself from a tree?  What African American would choose to commit “suicide” through a method that clearly smacks of historical racism and slavery?  The answer:  no one.  The night before the murdered man was found, Klan members were seen hanging fliers in Piedmont Park.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  Thank heavens, the FBI is now investigating this death—but only because Atlanta’s African American mayor Kasim Reed referred the case to them, not because the police did—and let’s not forget that the FBI is also part of a racist criminal justice system.  If they agree with the Atlanta coroner and the APD that this man’s death was indeed “suicide,” I wouldn’t be remotely surprised. Devastated yes, but not surprised.

And let’s talk about Dallas.  Yes, it’s awful and horrifying that five Dallas officers were shot and killed at an anti-violence rally.  No, these officers didn’t “deserve” to die.  But let me tell you, I can sympathize with the shooters’ anger and frustration.  Maybe these five particular cops didn’t deserve to die.  Maybe these five particular cops were upstanding citizens who would never use their power against African Americans to harass and murder them.  But other police officers every day act on their racism and abuse and kill African Americans with impunity.

The fact is, the attack on these cops is an emblematic strike—it’s the way these suspects felt that they had to deal with constant, racist murders of other African Americans by police departments.  It’s fighting the system, when no one else will.  President Obama has said that there is no possible justification for the attack, but it’s hard to deny that “law enforcement” doesn’t profile and target and harass and murder black and brown suspects just because they can get away with it.  When our lawmakers and President can’t seem to get a hold on the police department’s institutionalized illegal acts perpetrated against African American citizens (and other minority groups, such as Latinx, who are also targets of racism), it doesn’t surprise me that African Americans turn to vigilantism for justice.

In an earlier interview about the slaying of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile the President said, “’All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings,” he continued. “These are not isolated incidents, they are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.’”  Yeah?  Then do something about the shootings.  Our society has never been less civil.  Mr. Obama, you’re the President.  You have Executive Power.  Do something.  Demilitarize the police.  Take down the NRA.  Take guns away from people.  Please, I beg you.

If you’re like me and feeling especially helpless and sick right now about all this violence, here are some things worth reading/ doing: writer Justin C. Cohen’s Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person, former police officer Reddit Hudson’s I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth about Race and Policing, faith-based consultant Joshua Dubois’ letter to police chiefs (in .docx form, so you can cut and paste when you download it), and psychologist Karyn Hall’s suggestions for self-soothing (because we need to take care of ourselves in the midst of all this tragedy).

Anyway, with these latest murders in mind, like anything I say is worth a damn, here is the original post…


I am struggling lately with poetry.  Call it a genuine crisis of faith—or aesthetics.

I am trying to reconcile what I think art should do—which is comment on our time, take a stand, reflect reality and emotions and rage—with what my art is doing—or rather not doing.  That is to say, in the light of the constant stream of mass shootings, and shooting violence in domestic relationships, and officer involved shootings (so many of which our white justice system just gives a pass to), how can I write poetry that is meaningful and worthwhile?  How can I make art that responds to the insanity of murder and the American adoration of and addiction to gun-enhanced power that we see every day reported in the media?  How do I respond to that?

When I consider the writing I have done lately, it seems vacuous and crass that I have not responded to these constant shootings.  It seems so much the purview of academic poets (a group I belong to) wrapped in their laurels of white privilege to ignore what is happening around us.  Do we white academic poets need to be shot or to see someone we love shot before we are galvanized to action?  Do we have to live through the horror (if we’re lucky) of gun violence before we use our art for good?  What is art for if not to rally people around a cause, if not to comment on and critique the way we are living our lives?  What is art, if it doesn’t challenge us to change?

I think academic poets are averse to risk and to reaching out in their poetry, and they take a dim view of political poetry as a genre.  Maybe it’s something to do with the perceived sanctity and safety of the ivory tower that we are privileged to write little lyrics about our families or the natural world or trips we’ve taken oversees—but where’s the risk in that?  Where is the connection to the greater world? I see plenty of poet friends on Twitter tweeting their outrage at every example of injustice and murder perpetrated by cops against minorities—but what are they writing?  What are they doing to stop this?  How are they using their art to say no more?  How am I?

Maybe it’s a class issue—maybe academic poets think political poetry is the work of the laboring classes, or the work of oppressed groups, or maybe the work of spoken word and hip hop artists.  Maybe those of us in the ivory tower are just closing our eyes and pretending we don’t see what is happening around us—because we don’t have to.  Because we believe in the myth of NIMBY.  But even in the ivory tower, we can still be taken out by a sniper or a bomb.  So why are we silent?  Why am I?

Which brings me back to my struggle with poetry.  I can’t think I was ever taught in any of my writing classes about how to write political poetry—I think, maybe, while it was never stated overtly, it was certainly implied, that art was “above the fray.” I barely even read any political poetry—at best, the political poetry I read was women’s poetry, and just reading women’s writing, by virtue of writing the very fact of their lives was theoretically a political act (i.e. the personal is political), maybe I thought that was good enough.

And maybe because it’s white privilege that tells us art should be beautiful, and art is “universal,” that I didn’t ever think I needed to use poetry to discuss politics.  As if you could ever divorce art from politics.  The very choice in deciding what to write about reveals our politics, aesthetics, and values. 

I find that my own writing—which honestly, I generally think is pretty good—strikes me now as deliberately obtuse, privileged, and empty.  As I said in my last blog post, people are dying—we do nothing.  Poets have power—so why haven’t I written about this constant barrage of death?  Why haven’t I used my anguish and anger to write poetry that matters, that speaks to these atrocities?  Poetry that pleads for change?

Part of it is, I don’t know how to write it.  I don’t know how to express my fear and distrust with our “justice” system, I don’t know how to say “these deaths are wrong” and “guns are killing us” and “fuck tha police” (N.W.A. said that first, to be fair) and that “racism is evil”…in an artful, meaningful way.  I don’t know how to write about those things so that it won’t come across as facile or false or like I’m an ignorant white liberal who is trying to write Meaningful Poetry So We Can All Learn a Lesson at best—or at worst, write poetry that somehow appropriates the experiences of oppressed groups, a type of colonizing act, making their pain all about me.  I don’t know how to express these things.

Part of me feels that maybe I don’t have a right to write about these things.  Who am I, but a privileged woman with a Ph.D., an academic poet whose life in every way is impacted by and benefits from my whiteness?  If I get pulled over, I don’t fear for my life.  So how can any poetry I write even speak to the horror that is everyday experience for African Americans who get stopped because they’re missing a license plate?  They know one “wrong” word, one quick movement, and the cop who is stopping them will escalate this moment to death. I can never know this.

And maybe I really don’t have the right to write about these things like racism—because I don’t suffer its effects, though I sure as hell benefit from white privilege.  Still, every day there’s another murder (euphemistically called an “officer involved shooting”).  Every day someone dies; Alton Sterling died on Tuesday, Philando Castile died on Wednesday.  And every day I feel sick.  I feel like I have to express my pain about these deaths.  I want to use my art to do so.

And I know these deaths are not about me.  And nobody wants to hear about a white person’s pain—because it can never compare to the pain of racism and its effects on society.  It can never compare to the quotidian fear for one’s life that African Americans suffer.  And yet here I am, poor me-ing about my feelings of artistic impotence, anyway…when people are dying because they are people of color.  Dying every day because of the color of their skin.  I can’t wrap my head around that.  I can never wrap my head around that.

Maybe it’s white privilege again that makes me think I should use my art “for good”—maybe it’s the white savior complex rearing its ugly head that lets me believe that if I wrote a political poem about gun violence—gun violence on a large scale, and this incessant disgusting racism that is killing African Americans in “routine traffic stops”—that anyone would care.

Not writing about it seems wrong.  But I come back to those voices of recrimination in my head that say, Who am I to think any poem I’d write about this subject matter is worthwhile or right?  Who am I to speak about this?  What right does any white person have to express her pain about these murders?

My pain can never compare.  It’s just so much white noise.

How High Does the Body Count Have to Climb Before We Say “Enough”?

Another day, another mass shooting, another cry for gun control, another example of Washington doing absolutely nothing but mouthing platitudes.

Sunday’s horrifying LGBTQIA hate crime at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the utter inability (or disinclination) for our government to enact any kind of sensible, pervasive, and strict legislation in the face of the gun lobby that bribes, bullies, and subdues our Representatives, Senators, and President fills me with an inexpressible melancholy.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

Gun supporters will tell you that there are plenty of laws on the books that regulate guns.  Gun supporters will tell you that it’s not the guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.  Gun supporters will tell you that there’s no way you can predict who will use a gun unlawfully, that the majority of gun owners are lawful citizens who would never think to kill anyone.  Gun supporters will tell you that the Second Amendment provides for their lawful right to own, collect, brandish, and use weapons, and that anyone who wants additional gun laws are in fact impeding their Constitutional rights.

I’m not a Constitutional lawyer.  I don’t know the ins-and-outs of law and the history behind it—and I recognize that it’s a complicated issue that harkens back to pre-Revolutionary times.  So you might say, what right do I have to interpret the Constitution?  I’ll tell you.  The same right to interpret it as all the gun-addicted, death-and-violence-loving, NRA supporters have, who twist the Constitution to suit their purposes.

I can’t see how the Second Amendment (to wit:  “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) which clearly refers to militia (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, esp. to supplement a regular army in an emergency, freq. as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers”) can possibly mean the average American citizen, sitting in his (or her) home, who is not a member of a military force (such as the police, the Army, or the National Guard) hired to defend the country.

I can understand about owning a gun for “personal protection” or owning a rifle for hunting, though I would not personally own a firearm for either purpose.  I don’t understand why the average American citizen needs to buy a military-style AR-15 (or any other assault weapon that can shoot numerous, gratuitous rounds of ammunition in a matter of seconds), or why the average American citizen needs to build a personal arsenal.  We are not expecting an imminent invasion from hostile forces.  No country is declaring war on the United States; there is no expectation of conscription to fight invaders, and thus no need to hoard assault weapons.  How can the average American citizen possibly justify owning one or more of these weapons for either personal protection or hunting purposes?  What purpose can such a weapon serve, other than to kill mass quantities of human beings in as little time as possible?  People are dying.  We do nothing.

To me, the slavish, almost masturbatory desire for guns and violence, the veneration of violence as entertainment, the irrational fears propagated by right-wing radio and television personalities (and people who unquestioningly accept what these warmongers and fearmongers are peddling), the prison industrial complex mentality, and our culture’s toxic masculinity, are literally killing us.

We think the only way to protect ourselves is through deadly force; we don’t care about reason and diplomacy and compromise.  We value property above human life, which is evident in so many states (23) adopting Stand Your Ground laws.  We normalize active shooter training in daycares and college campuses (I attended one last week as part of a day of professional development in academic advising)—as if it’s ok that we have to teach children how to avoid getting shot right alongside teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic.  We listen to media organizations that constantly barrage us with a diet of threats and racist rhetoric, and so we begin to believe we really are under attack. We accept uncritically the language of these media and potential Presidents whose sole purpose is to make money and to accumulate power—they don’t care that they spew hate, misinformation, and racist ideologies.  They don’t care that they whip people into a frenzy of fear, as long as they get a big fat check in the process.  We don’t care that gun manufacturers come out every year with more powerful weapons that promise higher kill counts and sell them at gun shows…to the average American citizen.  The deaths of human beings mean nothing to the gun industry and gun supporters.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting (where 20 children at an elementary school died, as well as six adults) which should have been, but wasn’t, a watershed moment to overcome our American anathema against enacting the fiercest gun restrictions yet, a 2013 article on CNN Money reported that a ban on assault weapons could impact Smith & Wesson stock shares by 40 cents a share.  While Smith & Wesson expressed sadness at the deaths of these children, they nevertheless saw a spike in sales for assault weapons as gun enthusiasts purchased record numbers of these weapons merely on the threat of a ban; projected earnings for the company in 2013 was approximately $580M, by the way.

And it’s not just the gun manufacturers getting rich.  According to a 2015 Fortune Magazine article tracking the political lobbying and campaign contributions spent by the National Rifle Association, the NRA spent over $30M in funding government officials and campaigns, and an additional nearly $20M to “candidates who tweeted ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the San Bernardino shooting.’  Our politicians welcome these contributions and consequently continue to stymie any efforts to make gun laws more restrictive.  It’s quid pro quo.  The Center for Responsible Politics reports that among federal candidates in 2014, the NRA directly pledged nearly $1M among the Republican and Democrat House and Senate members.  Granted, the direct contributions are small, ranging from $250 to $9,900, but our government officials know what side their bread is buttered on.  If the NRA is willing to support our lawmakers, lawmakers are unlikely to vote against NRA interests.  It’s as simple as that.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the lives of human beings were less important than our acquisition of money.  Somewhere along the way we decided that the deaths of our fellow citizens was an acceptable tradeoff in order to “protect” our property.  Somewhere along the way, we sacrificed the belief in a civil society to embrace the law of the jungle.  Kill or be killed.

And as much as it seems like I am tossing the blame at our political leaders and the NRA, the fact is, there are still more of us who believe in restrictive gun control than who don’t—and if we collaborated en masse, through letter campaigns, through lobbying of our own, through marches, through activist means, through voting in third and fourth parties who are not beholden to Super PACs and gun lobbies, maybe we could put a stop to this gun addiction.  People are dying.

But we do nothing.  We are all complicit in the deaths at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at Sandy Hook, at San Bernardino, at Aurora, at Columbine—and all the other mass shootings.  Good, law-abiding people are complicit.  We have learned a kind of helplessness; we wring our hands and pray, but accept becoming inured to the horror of these daily mass shootings because it’s painful and wearying to think about them.  We have adopted a worldview that says nothing we do can matter.  That nothing we can do will change our cultural attitudes and beliefs.  That nothing we can do can stop the killings.  And so nothing changes.

But we have to combat that pessimism that keeps us immobilized.  We have to believe that we can change things.  We must.  Americans are dying.

There have been five additional mass shootings since the massacre in Orlando—five.  Five mass shootings since Sunday.  Five.  I can’t wrap my head around this.  Can you?  Five mass shootings in three days?  This is not war-torn Fallujah.  This is America.  In toto (again, according to the Center for Responsible Politics), there have been 16 mass shootings, 69 deaths, and 100 injuries from guns in June 2016 alone—and the month is only half over!  (Of course, this doesn’t even take into consideration any deaths by guns for “regular” property or drug-related crimes or things like domestic partner violence.  I’m sure the June body count is much higher when you put all the gun deaths together.)  In the face of these shootings, how do we sit back and do nothing?  How do I?

My family’s safety and right to life is more important than anyone’s need to own a gun.  Isn’t your family’s?

Write your Congressmen.  Write the President.  Tell them that the death of Americans by Americans with guns is not acceptable.  Tell them the cost-benefit ratio is too high.  Tell them the sacrifice is too much.  Tell them to embrace stricter gun laws especially for assault weapons, and if they don’t, you’ll support candidates who do.  This is not a Democrat/ Republican issue.  This is an issue of basic human rights.  Don’t we, as Americans, deserve to live, free from the persistent threat of imminent death when we go to nightclubs or daycares or movie theaters?

Writing letters not your thing?  Then volunteer with or donate money to gun control advocacy groups (such as the member organizations of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence or groups like the Violence Policy Center and Everytown for Gun Safety).  Don’t be complicit in the deaths of our fellow citizens any more.  Don’t stand by any more.

Writing a letter to our government officials or volunteering a few hours with advocacy groups may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and I am doing it.  We have to start somewhere.  Americans are dying.  We must, must, must do something.