When officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown last August, Sasha Banks wanted to use poetry to hold the country accountable.
“I remember feeling so exhausted by my own rage, and also I was a little afraid of my own rage, with this country,” she said.
Banks organized Poets for Ferguson, a 24-hour live stream from Sept. 27-28, 2014, where poets all over the country read their work in response to events in Ferguson, Missouri. Many of the poets read pieces about their experiences with police brutality, although the event did not require it, she said.
Banks, who is also a jazz singer and pianist, first began performing poetry after a student at Dartmouth found her chapbook online and invited her to an event. Since then, she has worked to help build a community that empowers poets through language.
“I think what poetry has the power to do is to put a voice to something, to make something real just by naming it,” she said. “There’s so much power and validation in being able to speak on something, and a lot of people don’t know they have shared experiences unless they hear someone else talking about it.”
Poets for Ferguson raised approximately $5,000 for Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, an organization that helped give financial aid to protesters in Ferguson who were arrested. Several months later, after a grand jury did not indict Wilson for the killing, Banks wrote “God Bless america,” an answer to violence against black people in America.
“The way that Black and Brown people are murdered in this country is so unapologetic, I wanted to meet that violence with the same kind of aggression and mercilessness,” she said.
Banks said she wanted to contradict the notion that America, as an institution, is untouchable. “I wanted to vandalize what we know as America, as this big, untouchable great thing that was founded on all of these noble principles, and to call that down,” she said.
The layout of the poem reflects the relationship between patriotism and violence — two interconnected sides of life in America, she said. “I wanted to, in this poem, talk about that relationship because I think it’s inherent. It’s something you’re born into when you’re born in this country and you are a person of color,” she said.
You can read “God Bless america,” or hear Banks read the piece, below.
God Bless america
God bless america,lllllllllthis bitter and slender-necked stepsister
land that I love;lllllllllllllllthat I fear will kill me in my sleep or lynch me as I
stand beside her andllllllbraid the blonde ropes of her hair, will not let me
guide herlllllllllllllllllllllllll‘cross the canyon she has stretched between us. All
through the nightlllllllllllmy screams float above her cup like steam. I, the darker sister
with a lightllllllllllllllllllllltoo dim behind the eyes, still smile with teeth dangling like stars
from above—llllllllllllllllllwhile her heel is thrust in my face. My bone’s break is heard
from the mountainslllllllin Georgia and
to the prairieslllllllllllllllllin Texas. She feeds me limb-by-limb
to the oceans,llllllllllllllllback to the wet mouth of the Atlantic
white with foamlllllllllllldespite the spilt blood below. Sinking ‘til sunk, I pray
God blesslllllllllllllllllllllllmy re-membered body, be made whole in one name, like
america,llllllllllllllllllllllllthe sister who denied me and kept her beauty. This
mylllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllfickle family of bruise-blooded brothers I will call no
home sweet homellllllllrelative, no sibling, no flesh of mine.
Sasha Banks is a poet whose work has appeared in Alight, Austin IPF, Kinfolks Quarterly, B O D Y Literature, and has been performed in Tulane University’s Vagina Monologues. She is the creator of Poets for Ferguson and a MFA candidate at the Pratt Institute. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.