Updated: Aug 19, 2020
‘Black Death’, the systematic murder of black people in the Western world, whatever you want to call it, has been at the forefront of black literature since some of the first published works. ‘Black Death’ has its own associated images; the poplar trees, lynching scenes, dash cam footage etc. I would even argue that statues commemorating Confederate leaders or colonial officials such as Cecil Rhodes are markers of ‘Black Death’ given that these figures’ lives pivoted around the systematic murder of black people.
The existence of ‘Black Death’ is irrefutable but what has been the subject of debate is how writers, the media and the general public should treat the subject. Too often we, as consumers of images of ‘Black Death’, can be complicit in the acts we are watching. By sharing videos of the murders of Eric Garner or George Floyd are we not perpetuating the same violence, endorsing it in some way? Are we murdering those men time and time again? There is, of course, somewhat of a balance. Whilst the proliferation of these images are required (still) to aid mass consciousness there comes a time when the propagation of ‘Black Death’ reaches beyond awareness raising to something far more sinister. Philip Williams wrote a great article back in 2015 outlining the ways in which media reporting can sensationalise the narrative of ‘Black Death’ where consumers feed off black outrage, stoke those fires and place black viewers in a constant state of mourning. One can’t help but think of the Freddie Gibbs line, ‘slave movies every year/ yeah, the massa gon remind us.’
‘Black Death’ can be somewhat of an exhibition. Literally sometimes. Williams’ article refers to the Michael Brown exhibit in Chicago and I can’t help but think how useful the Fons Americanus by Kara Walker at the Tate really was? Writers have often been acutely aware of the role they play in perpetuating ‘Black Death’ and I wanted to highlight two poems by Danez Smith and Eve L Ewing that treat the subject with sensitivity and precision. For copyright purposes and as to not rip off the artist, I have only included the first part of the Danez Smith poem from his collection, Don’t Call Us Dead.
Summer, somewhere (Danez Smith)
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. I won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy
color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven, we can’t recall our white shirts
turned ruby gowns. here, there’s no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
Beautiful, isn’t it? Danez does not perpetuate images of ‘Black Death’ in this extract of the poem, this is not mourning nor does it take the position of the voyeur. This is deification; the brown boys revel in their innocence and childhood in a place unlike heaven and unlike earth where the environment, the language, the context of being supports the brilliance of these children. There are moments in this extract where the speaker laments loss, wishing for some form of restorative justice; ‘spitting’ back a father or two; but ultimately the speaker, who shares some form of kin with the reader, or at least a shared understanding, concludes that we all know the history. There is no need to go into the detail of ‘ruby gowns’ for the poem to be effective. This is how to write a poem that talks about ‘Black Death’; by providing emotional catharsis, comfort and being sensitive to the trauma.
I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store
looking over the plums, one by one lifting each to his eyes and turning it slowly, a little earth, checking the smooth skin for pockmarks and rot, or signs of unkind days or people, then sliding them gently into the plastic. whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woollen arm into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire before realizing the danger of bruising and lifting them back out, cradling them in the crook of his elbow until something harder could take that bottom space. I knew him from his hat, one of those fine porkpie numbers they used to sell on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but he had carefully folded a dollar bill and slid it between the ribbon and the felt and it stood at attention. he wore his money. upright and strong, he was already to the checkout by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand, looked at me quizzically for a moment before remembering my face. he smiled. well hello young lady hello, so chilly today should have worn my warm coat like you yes so cool for August in Chicago how are things going for you oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt it goes, it goes.
Eve L. Ewing’s poem, I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store, attempts to provide something similar. Where some writers might have chosen to focus on the brutal mutilation of Emmett Till, Ewing recounts a fictional yet endearingly real narrative of the speaker bumping into a very much alive Emmett shopping at the grocery store in his home town. We are encouraged to see Till’s humanity, to indulge in the mundane and to be reminded that this should be the average shopping trip, that Emmett must have had plenty of these; it goes, it goes; until it didn’t. Although there are occasional clichéd images, such as the one of Emmett turning the plum in his hands, Ewing has constructed a gorgeous portrait of Emmett Till that contrasts greatly with the one that is often disseminated. I just clocked the Till/checkout pun anyway, once again, we are not the voyeur of black death. In this poem, Ewing creates an enduring image of Emmett Till, an immortal one of sorts that edifies this young black male as he lived; kind, ambitious and with a youthful flair for the dramatic.