April 28, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthics


I am in Baltimore and I have nothing to say. I have nothing to say because I am trying to listen. I am trying to listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question . . . When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight.

(“Nonviolence as Compliance“)

Coates is scheduled to speak tomorrow at Johns Hopkins University’s inaugural “JHU Forums on Race in America.” When I checked Twitter to see if he’s still coming (a question others were asking, considering the situation), his answer was: “Hell yes.” I am as uncertain about the outcomes of inaugural forums as I am about the outcomes of rioting, but, as I said, I am trying to listen. In a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace, Martin Luther King said : “I think we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” King, of course, was speaking against rioting and violent protest, supporting nonviolent resistance as he always did, but it’s telling that “a riot is the language of the unheard” is the quote from that interview that I and others remember. King continued: “And what is it that America has failed to hear?” I dare you to listen to this clip from almost 50 years ago without asking that question again. And again. And again.

I give extra credit to my undergraduate poetry students at Hopkins for attending literary readings and writing a reflection that connects what they hear with what they have read for class, and when one of my undergraduate students asked if we could perhaps bend the rules and “count” the Ta-Nehisi Coates event as a reading, my answer was something like: “Hell yes.” We’ve spent a semester of “Intermediate Poetry” together focusing on “Sound Effects” (course objective: “to acquire a deeper understanding of ways in which sound and the ‘music of poetry’ shape our experiences as writers and readers of verse”). On the syllabus: Reginald Dwayne Betts, Cathy Park Hong, Harryette Mullen, Marcus Wicker, George Starbuck, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Paul Muldoon, Danez Smith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Hayden, Emily Dickinson, Kazim Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, Patricia Smith, Greg Alan Brownderville, Jericho Brown, Jane Lewty, Sylvia Plath, Tarfia Faizullah, James Wright, Natalie Diaz, Jamaal May, and John Murillo, among others. Each week, my students and I listened. To be honest, this post was supposed to be about listening to poets and poems, but “the only way to be honest is to be haunted.”

 All day and all night, I have been listening to sirens and helicopters, but please don’t let the noise keep you from hearing:


Please don’t let the noise keep you from hearing:


Of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron explained in an interview:

Well you know, the catchphrase, what that was all about, “the revolution will not be televised,” that was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that . . . the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It’ll just be something that you see and all of a sudden you realize: I’m on the wrong page. Or I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note. And I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country . . .  But I think that the Black Americans have been the only real die-hard Americans here, because we’re the only ones who’ve carried the process through the process . . . and being born ‘American’ didn’t seem to matter, because we were born Americans, but we still had to fight for what we were looking for . . .

Four hours ago, Rahiel Tesfamariam’s tweet (watch the accompanying clip):


#Baltimore #FreddieGray

And, in news that stays news, these lines from this poem by Warsan Shire, brought to my attention tonight by Nomi Stone and Safia Elhillo:

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered