Those are the ones, without identifiable faces, but
those are the ones who came,
they took their places around the lamp, they
said they were passing through but
asked why we were practically
refusing to let
go. They spoke
in rather hushed tones, with restraint, and
without anger. Both he and she were
weary and most anxious;
they thought from now on nothing more
would happen that might give a semblance
of veridiction to the vast, distant murmer, to
this stony echo (to the ashes, they said).
They were not complaining, they were simply
asking to be believed, he with his hat
on his head, and busying himself with his hands, and she,
prickly (or just proud), beautiful no doubt,
who from the depths of her age, with her graying eyes, and tears
– whereas he dared say nothing – appealed
not for reparation, but simply
for justice, that the laws
familiar to all be applied, the laws
that govern our insignificance, evil in the world,
and our infirmity. It is not credible,
no, she said, what has happened to us,
not credible: you know
this, you know we hadn’t done anything,
and you never mention it, never, never.
And he, barely audible: we
are the witnesses that out of shame you’re challenging.
(December 17, 1988 – February 29 1996)
‘Who among us is standing watch and warns us when the new executioners come? Do they really have a face different from ours? … And there is us, who when looking at this rubble sincerely believe that the racial mania is forever buried underneath there, us who see this image vanishing and act as if we were creating a new hope, as if we really believed that all that belongs only to one time and one country.’
Nuit et Brouillard, Night and Fog, 1956
Photograph: Rails at former Ramp #2, Treblinka
In an interview on Canadian television in 1960, the great James Baldwin describes the experience of systemic racism in places where officially, according to the letter of the law, systemic racism does not exist. Our excerpt starts at 2:43 into the interview:
INTERVIEWER: James, are you suggesting then that in effect, officially, in the South, there is inequality and no freedom for the Negro, and unofficially, but just as effectively, there is no freedom for the Negro in the north?
BALDWIN: The terms are different but the reality is the same. A boy in Birmingham is in great trouble. In Birmingham, he has in a way one advantage, though. It’s very clear in Birmingham that he can’t go anywhere. A boy born in New York can go almost anywhere. Almost. This can drive you mad. This can drive you mad. You can live almost anywhere – if you fight to get in. You can enter almost any nightclub, you can go into almost any bar and nothing will happen, but this “almost” means that there is a bar, there is a hotel, there is a doorman, there is an elevator boy, there is somebody every day, there is that one place you cannot go, which means you went to every door on edge …”
That “almost” gives us something to think about. When a white person says, “Show me the evidence that systemic racism still exists in America”, we should respond, not with data (because racism itself is almost impossible to quantify), but with that little word … “Almost”.
The question we should ask, and we should ask it only after putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, is this: From the perspective of a black person living in America in 2019, has the painful little “almost” described by James Baldwin disappeared altogether? In 2019, that “almost” takes on perhaps a variety of different forms than it did in 1960, but has it truly vanished into air?
Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement exists, because that little “almost” still exists.
For many centuries after
the glass corpses were committed
with a collective shrug
to the bilious waves of boiling oceans
and the flags waved empty and upside down
from the nodding stalks of upheaved cities,
the tenement rows of human cages
are what the victor lice remembered
and mouth-like sphincters
through which things like words
were known to pass — eyes shut
and opened like beetle wings —
and there was a brief dream
from which the children of men awoke
© 2019 David A. Welch
Guilttongue to handthorn
newer forms are needed
to receive the hostile host.
Thumbsmear of boneash,
metallic slatebrow; charnel
salt on back teeth
the hours with devotion.
© 2019 David A. Welch