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Poet Danez Smith issues a wake-up call to white America

Video by Button Poetry.

Poet Danez Smith has left the Earth.

That’s how “Dear White America,” a sprawling testimony to the effects of racial violence in the U.S., begins. Smith, who uses the pronoun “they,” wrote the piece in 2014 for a show with Young Gifted and Black, an Oakland-based youth performance ensemble.

“I was really angry at the time,” they said. “I really wanted to be anywhere but America — anywhere but Earth.”

This year, Smith won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and last year placed second at the World Poetry Slam. As a performer of spoken word and performance poetry, they said those forms allow poets to call an audience to action. “[Spoken word] is always centered around the idea that you need other people to do it, which is really beautiful, and really necessary — that this artform requires you to engage,” they said.

“Dear White America” engages the audience in a wake-up call and an indictment of the country’s systems that have enabled violence against black people, they said.

“We were, and still are, in this wave of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence, and non-indictment for officers or for citizens that have murdered black people in this country,” Smith said.

The poem shifts between different points in history, covering “the landscape of the violence that has happened to people,” Smith said. That landscape is more diverse than well-publicized incidents of police violence, they said.

“The state of black people in this country is still so heightened — not even just when we talk about police brutality and murder rates, but the conditions in which black people continue to have to live,” they said.

The piece also draws on Christian imagery, which Smith said is a nod to the relationship between Christianity and race. “I can’t divorce the idea of slavery from the church. I can’t divorce whiteness from its church,” they said. “[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] said that the most segregated hour in our country is high noon on a Sunday. I think that still rings very true.”

Now, recent student activism — including at the University of Missouri, where protests over the university’s response to racist incidents led to the resignation of president Tim Wolfe last week — is drawing a new wave of attention to the barriers people of color face in America, they said.

“Even the places where we go to be successful or be exceptional in these ways, you’re not even safe there,” they said. “Nowhere you go in this country, maybe this world, is really safe for your psyche, as a black person … It must be our charge to expose and dismantle our selective empathy and apathetic relationship to violence against black and brown bodies in this nation, this world.”

Smith said they hope the piece can be a tool for the activist movements that are trying to upend systemic racism in the U.S. “I think that’s the duty of artists, in times of protest — we’re trying to provide something useful for people,” they said.

Watch Smith perform “Dear White America” above, or read the poem below.

Dear White America

I’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system that revolves too near a black hole. I have left a patch of dirt in my place & many of you won’t know the difference; we are indeed the same color, one of us would eventually become the other. I’ve left Earth in search of a new God. I do not trust the God you have given us. My grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. Take your God back. Though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. I want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, I want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children. I have left Earth, I am equal parts sick of your ‘go back to Africa’ & ‘I just don’t see color’. Neither did the poplar tree. We did not build your boats (though we did leave a trail of kin to guide us home). We did not build your prisons (though we did & we fill them too). We did not ask to be part of your America, (though are we not America? Her joints brittle & dragging a ripped gown through Oakland?). I can’t stand your ground. I am sick of calling your recklessness the law. Each night, I count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, I count the holes they leave. I reach for black folks & touch only air. Your master magic trick, America. Now he’s breathing, now he don’t. Abra-cadaver. White bread voodoo. Sorcery you claim not to practice, but have no problem benefitting from. I tried, white people. I tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. You interrupted my black veiled mourning with some mess about an article you read on Buzzfeed. You took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & asked ‘why does it always have to be about race?’ Because you made it that way! Because you put an asterisk on my sister’s gorgeous face! Because you call her pretty (for a black girl)! Because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! Because there is no Amber Alert for the Amber Skinned Girls! Because we didn’t invent the bullet! Because crack was not our recipe! Because Jordan boomed. Because Emmitt whistled. Because Huey P. spoke. Because Martin preached. Because black boys can always be too loud to live. Because it’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time, my niece’s & my nephew’s time… how much time do you want for your progress? I’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something & until then I bid you well, I bid you war, I bid you our lives to gamble with no more. I’ve left Earth & I am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. I am giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shot or shackle or silence or impoverish choke or lock up or cover up or bury or ruin

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllThis, if only this one, is ours.

Danez Smith is the author of “[insert] boy” (2014, YesYes Books) and “Don’t Call Us Dead” (2017, Graywolf Press) and winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and Button Poetry Prize. Smith is also the author of two chapbooks, “hands on your knees” (2013, Penmanship Books) and “black movie” (2015, Button Poetry). Smith’s work has appeared in Poetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Buzzfeed, Blavity and Ploughshares. They are a 2014 Ruth Lilly — Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, a Cave Canem and VONA alum, and recipient of a McKnight Foundation Fellowship. They are a two-time Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, placing second in 2014. Smith is a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective. They are an MFA candidate at The University of Michigan and currently teach with InsideOut Detroit. They are from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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