Spoken word activist Loyce Gayo
This is the most spiritual poem I have ever attempted to review for this blog.
This year, America has dealt with race issues so profound that the black and pro-equity community has given itself no rest in protesting a system that has been crooked from the very beginning of the existence of the United States. The country was built on injustice, and today, many years after it has become the world’s most advanced, there is heartache for why it is not the most equal.
That this poem needs be written at all by Loyce Gayo, a spoken word artist I met in March on the campus of University of Texas at Austin a week after it won her the CUPSI 2014, is a testimony that stands against everything America holds true today. The land of the free is not exactly. When we got introduced by my very good friend and guest blogger on my Ghana blog, @notasinglestory, Loyce may have still been recovering from the emotional roller coaster of this poem’s performance. She later told me “Writing and reciting this piece has been the most spiritual experience I have ever had. It was and still remains a difficult reflection.”
That Loyce, a young poet, not American but Tanzanian, has to find herself in the place where, like a messenger accredited and sent by the motherland, she needs to scream these words to the hesitant listening ears of a systemically near-deaf America, is both heartbreaking and sorrowfully necessary in 2014.
This is the most spiritual poem I have ever reviewed.
Loyce cries when she performs this poem and if you listen well enough, not only will you be moved to perhaps understand a little of the passion she recites with, but a bit of your heart will cry too. This performance was the winning finalist of the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) 2014.
This year, Eric Garner, a black father of five minding his own business, was choked to death by a white policeman during an arrest in Staten Island, NY. The legal system found a trial for the offending officer Daniel Panteleo unnecessary. This year, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot at least six times, including twice in the head and four times in his right arm, to death by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. The legal system found Darren Wilson, the white police officer who committed the crime, not guilty enough for a trial.
I have included a video of Loyce’s winning performance and a text of the poem, hoping you can follow through as you listen. Afterwards, the review follows and even though it is the longest review I have ever asked you to read, this is important for posterity and one of my most engaging pieces of critical work. Read along as you watch. *I have added numbering to aid review.
HOW WE FORGET
We forgot we were worshipping beings,
We forgot you black Jesus
We forgot the king of kings
We forgot crowns do nothing for kings but put weight on their heads and a target on their backs
5 We forgot they tax our heads and put weight on our back
We forgot Sodom and Gomorrah were leveled by brimstone and divine judgment,
But Mississippi is still standing,
We forgot burning cities,
We forgot cities are still burning
10 We forgot colors are seasonal,
And that this skin will fade too
I forgot my skin,
Or perhaps I just ran out of fucks to give!
We forgot that some kid’s utopias,
15 Is a roof that won’t whisper the night to the sleeping bodies below,
We forgot bodies sleep below,
We forgot bodies float, bodies hang,
We forgot Barbecue Postcards, Strange Fruit and hooded men.
I forgot my rage.
20 And the pulse it leaves underneath my tongue
I forgot my tongue
And how it used to fit so perfectly in my purse next to my womanly duties.
I forgot my purse,
And my high heel stilts,
25 I forgot balancing is no longer an act,
When you’re hiding behind imported hair,
A downloaded smile,
A voice trained to jump through hoops of flames for your snaps and applause,
You don’t get it.
30 Shoot, you already forgot you woke up this morning,
You forgot to close the faucet when you were scrubbing that pot, that
plate, that spoon or your left butt cheek or whatever,
But you remember how that song goes right?
You remember how it went.
35 You remember you wanted your Grande Chai tea Latte with 3 Pumps, Skim Milk
Lite Water, No Foam,
And served at a hundred and twenty degrees.
You remember how spiritual of an experience that was?
I forgot where I wrote this,
40 I forgot if I was just ranting,
Or if I had forgotten to close the faucet when I was scrubbing that pot that plate that spoon
or my tongue, or whatever
But I remember how this goes
I remember how spiritual of an experience this is
45 I forgot my heart was a burning city
Shoot, you already forgot, I forgot my tongue, remember?
We forgot that some kids walk past their utopias every morning,
Suburban bricks standing tall in proclamation of what statistics say they will never truly attain.
We forgot that some kids try so hard to forget tomorrow is even coming,
50 We forgot that there were kids smiling in barbecue postcards
Next to strange fruit and hooded men
Or perhaps we never had any fucks to give, you know
Sometimes I forget how hard it is to remember.
This poem is to the ear what a deliberately-mistaken sensory perception like an optical illusion is to the eye. All through, the poet tell us a series of things we forgot, in a way, reminding us of them as though we should remember them now, and then a few lines later, hits us with the reality that we just forgot again! The resonance of this style with the reality of America’s amnesia of race issues is deeply and tragically concise.
The poem begins by reminding us ‘we were worshipping beings’, and I find this a necessary line in introducing lines 2 – 4, which come to us with multiple layers of imagery. In line 2, we are reminded of ‘black Jesus’, a good time to bring our minds to the fact that this poem is going to be about race and black. In line 3, ‘We forgot the king of kings’; in the bible, Jesus from line 2 is known as the Kings of kings; but look across the landscape of American civil rights and you see a king, a King, Martin Luther Jr.; and then immediately you get a sense that this poem addresses an issue as grave to the poet as the story of the Bible.
In line 4, we forgot that with being a leader (denoted by the use of ‘crown’) for the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. bore the mark of a target. He was assassinated in the course of doing his ‘biblical’ assignment of leading black America to equality: isn’t it rather, leading white America to sense? Jesus, 2000 odd years before Luther, had borne a crown of thorns and had been himself a target in his mission to lead a lost humanity back to oneness with God. This line packs so many layers of meaning. Martin Luther and the leaders of the civil rights movements were some sorts of Jesus.
In line 5, ‘we forgot they tax our heads and put weights on our back’, evoking the burden of being black in America. The imagery of ‘weights on our back’ conjures the biblical episode of Christ having to carry his own heavy cross on his back on the way to being crucified. We are kings to bear this burden like the king of kings, like Martin Luther King, like Jesus, because this is what crowns do for kings.
Sodom and Gomorrah, a city so wicked that it gave English language the word ‘sodomy’, was leveled by fire and brimstone. It baffles our poet that Mississippi, not any less guilty, is still standing (line 7). What is the sin of Mississippi? The Ku Klux Klan’s most militant and violent chapter, The White Knights, was from Mississippi. Atrocities too evil to fathom were meted to black people in Mississippi. Black people’s hell in the days of the civil rights movement was Mississippi.
But we forgot! We forgot cities that burned (line 8) and that cities are still burning (line 9). More light is thrown on this line further down when the poet calls her own heart a burning city (line 45); the hearts of all black people still suffering violence and discrimination are burning cities; cities burning with rage. We forgot colours are seasonal (line 10) and eventually all skin will fade (line 11). Even then, before we were done talking about it, the poet had already forgotten her skin (line 12). We probably had too. Or maybe it wasn’t forgetfulness but just a defiant loss of steam for fighting for something so important; perhaps she had truly just run out of fucks to give (line 13). Why keep worrying when nobody listens and nothing changes?
The poet goes on to tell us about the fact that all some kids want to attain (their unattainable) is a proper roof over their heads, which is not the open sky that will ‘whisper the night to [their] sleeping bodies below’ (line 15). A fallen body with the sky whispering down on you night like you will whisper night to a child going to sleep right before you turn off the lights; only this time, night is a reference to death and sleeping bodies is a steely attempt not to scare you, because those bodies are asleep forever, dead. ‘We forget bodies sleep below’ (line 16), a subtle reminder that some have died for a skin that fades. In lines 17 and 18, brazen cruelty is euphemistically shared with us in a way that will shock you when you understand it. You have no idea what it is until you refer again to Mississippi and the KKK. This is where Loyce, in her performance, probably recalling her own personal experiences of hate and racism, lets tears tumble. “We forgot bodies float, bodies hang/ We forgot Barbecue Postcards, Strange Fruit and Hooded Men”. Bodies float, like birds on a current, because the KKK (hooded men), hanged black people by their necks, like Strange fruit dangling from trees. There is an original poem titled Strange Fruit (published 1937) that was written by Abel Meeropol and set to song by many different artists. The most famous version of that song was sung by Billie Holiday. The lyrics are contained in an International Journal linked here.
She forgets her rage (line 19). The rage that makes her heart a burning city and which she now tells us leaves a pulse underneath her tongue because she is a black woman (making it all the more of consequence), who the system expects to keep her mouth shut! She creates this effect by saying her tongue fits so perfectly in her purse beside her womanly duties (line 22). And guess what: she even forgets the purse that holds her tongue. Beautiful use of words for a tragic cause.
The entire poem is an attempt to draw America’s mind to the greater race issues of its life which it has conveniently thrown away just so it can live out its fake life more bearably. In which case she forgets her high heels stilts (line 24), a deceptive façade that makes her look as tall as she is not, while she hides behind imported hair (line 26) that makes her look as hairy as she is not, a downloaded smile (line 27), because face it, many times when you send those Laugh Out Loud emoticons, you’re not even smiling. Balancing is no longer an act (line 25) when we wear our fakeness. Balancing becomes our reality. The crookedness becomes our straight.
But we remember songs. And our long order for a cup of tea to the very detail of its flimsy temperature; trivialities. But Loyce dares us, as if we were not going to admit it, that this triviality was for us so spiritual an experience (line 38). Is this what we call spiritual? An order for a cup of tea? We’re left embarrassed, but the poem isn’t done.
She forgot where she wrote the poem and whether it was just a rant, or whether she had closed the faucet while scrubbing everything and her tongue but she remembers this poem even as she recites it, and that this poem is for her that most profound spiritual experience (line 44) which we seem to have misplaced and replaced with an order for a cup of tea. By properly forgetting the wrong things and rightfully remembering this poem, she sets our foolishness straight. She is on an unmistakable mission to thrust our forgotten dire race issues back in our faces and on our lips, as this poem has thoroughly and masterfully done.
When Loyce says she forgets her heart is a burning city (line 45), it feels definitely like she hasn’t really. Because after all, she has spent the entire poem till now showing us that burning heart. There is an epiphany when we’re smacked in the face next with the fact that we ‘already forgot [she] forget her tongue’ (line 46). This line is the hard-hitter that makes us see that even right now, we’re guilty of all she has been accusing us of since the poem began. We’re guilty of the poem. We couldn’t even remember she forgot her tongue a minute ago. How could we remember black men who died yesterday? Or last month? Or last year? Or last decade? This has been the driving message of the poem – Loyce uses examples loaded into her own poem to catch us forgetting. That America forgets so much that, it has let black people die without anything close to a national memory working for their protective honour and preservation.
The remaining lines are a call-back to lines 14 to 18 about kid’s utopias and hooded men and barbecue postcards with a background of strange fruit. The only addition, very poignant, is the fact that in this call-back, she tells us there were ‘kids smiling in barbecue postcards/next to strange fruit and hooded men’ (lines 50 -51). There were no smiling kids in lines 14-18. I will show you the picture of the premise of these words from a Ku Klux Klan postcard. Step this way to a page of KKK lynchings and hangings and find for yourself that one picture that shows smiling, young white kids posing in front of the camera, while KKK stood behind them and black men hanged. Did America ever have any care for this? Where is the proof? The caucus against says there has never been any care. Because there has been Tamir Rice. Then, Eric Garner! Then Trayvon Martin! And this whole list of blacks killed by cops since 1999, while the (in)justice system supervised!
Another addition which Loyce herself stresses is important to add to this review, are lines 47 to 48, in which “We forgot that some kids walk past their utopias every morning/Suburban bricks standing tall in proclamation of what statistics say they will never truly attain”; effectively a lie about the economic perspective of privilege. She says, “Minorities are at socio-economic disadvantage. And yet the American dream, so loudly professed, still doesn’t spare a second to ALSO remind black bodies, this was and never will be for them”.
Her closing line is an attempt to sympathize with our forgetfulness. It is the poet who has remembered all the important things while we forgot. But she turns the spotlight back on herself, in a certain self-indictment that gives an excuse for our forgetfulness: “sometimes I forget how hard it is to remember” (line 53)! Unspoken, but attempting to say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s ok if you forget. I’m being hard on you by demanding you remember so much. Asking you to remember that our skin colour made us different before you and the law, asking for equality, asking for space because #WeCantBreathe, asking you to probably finally find a couple of fucks to give!’
This is the most spiritual poem I have ever reviewed.