Ed. note: February is Black History Month, and we’ve asked a few members of the CalArts community to reflect on what it means to them. Our first guest columnist is Matthew Shenoda, a poet, teacher and CalArts’ first Assistant Provost for Equity and Diversity. He writes:
In honor of Black History Month there is a poem that has inspired me both as a writer and as a person who struggles for human rights. In “jasper texas 1998,” Lucille Clifton–the most recent recipient of the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America–has taken the most inhumane of actions (the brutal decapitation of a man due to his race), and through the technique of persona she has given this terrible moment in American history a most human breath, restoring dignity to the life and memory of James Byrd.
jasper texas 1998
for j. byrd
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
This is a shining example of the efficacy of language, the power of humanity in the face of inhumanity, and the resilient cogency of history and memory. This is the essence of Black history!
Lucille Clifton, “jasper texas 1998” from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 BOA Editions, Ltd. Copyright © 2000.