Kwame Dawes recently wrote a poem titled “Yard Boy” that speaks to the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd. The poem was published “in the spirit of protest and concern” on the website of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of English, where Dawes holds the position of Chancellor’s Professor of English and is the Glenna Luschei editor of the literary journal Prairie Schooner.
“Yard Boy” stages a conversation between the poem’s persona and Kamau Brathwaite, whom Dawes described once as a poet whose “singular gift [is] to engage the world as we encounter it with the clarity of a prophetic voice wholly committed to the task stretching the language to its limits.” During that conversation, the figure of Brathwaite says to the persona the following:
I’ve been wanting to say this. Babylon, you inheritors of the ruins
of ancient philosophies and cities, you who have consecrated
the mythology of the color of your skins, I don’t want
to hear you say you can’t begin to imagine what black people
are going through. Because you are lying. You not only can imagine it
but you expect us to imagine how it is possible for you not to imagine
something as simple as this. Say you are ignorant. Say you’ve been selfish.
Say you have fattened yourself on the compromises of your humanity,
and have weighed us in the balance and let us be the price, Babylon.
Say you have protected your self-interest by willfully ignoring.
Say you are daft. Say you have no imagination for anything or anyone
other than your people. But don’t lie. And don’t ask me to feel
that pain of yours. Imagining is not hard. It’s human to imagine,
to empathize. It is inhuman to say you can’t begin to imagine.
It is so because it is a lie.”
Something catches in our throat as we read these lines. Dawes’s poem expresses so poignantly the pain, frustration, and anger of the current moment. We recommend you read the full poem here.