Take a Break and Read a Fucking Poem: “dear white america”

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This absolute utterance from a young Danez Smith runs through my head every time a cop like Derek Chauvin kills a man like George Floyd in the street, or every time a white person threatens to weaponize the state against a black person for petty bullshit and then the response from white America is: Why do you have to make this about race??? As Smith says in this poem: “because you made it that way!”

(Side note: My GOD has it really been six years since they performed this poem in Detroit? Seven years since Black Lives Matter rose up following the slayings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin? And still we have large numbers of thinking people responding to racist violence in this way? I wouldn’t dare admit surprise, but it’s no wonder Smith’s narrator has “left Earth in search of darker planets.”)

Anyhow, you can find this poem, “dear white america,” in Smith’s book, Don’t Call Us Dead, available at local bookstores.

A few notes:

• In the poem, Smith’s speaker announces his departure from the planet on their own terms, and he reads white America for filth on the way out. The best moments twist the language white people hide behind to justify so much death and reveal it for the nonsense it is: “i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law,” Smith writes, skewering the “stand your ground” law most recently used as attempt to excuse the hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

• Smith channels the fire and some of the rhetorical techniques the mighty James Baldwin used in his writings, and the poet alludes to that influence by quoting him without attribution when they write, “how much time do you want for your progress?” This move draws attention to the fact that so little in this conversation has changed since Baldwin’s time, which in turn draws attention to how little this conversation has changed since W.E.B Dubois’s time.

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• This is just a celebration bullet point for the times Smith uses the punchline structure to deliver an elegy, which is what helps those lines hit so hard:

“i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & i just don’t see race. neither did the poplar tree”

“i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch”

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