(NOTE: check out a more recent version of this poem at the beginning of my TEDx Talk)
First of all, thanks once again to Button Poetry for the massive signal boost. The work that they’ve done over the past two years has been really important, in ways that I don’t think a lot of us are recognizing in the present.
As for this poem, I wrote it after #Ferguson, but it’s more broadly about how we respond to injustice, especially when we’re not directly affected by that injustice. How do white people respond to racial violence? How do men respond to sexual assault statistics? How to wealthy people respond to hunger and homelessness,? Etc.
To be clear, I think there is a continuum of responses– some of the stuff highlighted in this poem is negative, some of it is fine, some of it is positive, a lot of it is connected– but it’s all about highlighting what I think of as “the urgency gap,” how we’re so quick to treat other people’s life-and-death struggles as an intellectual or emotional exercise.
I’m guilty of this too. Part of the reason I wrote this poem is that it’s a reminder to myself that signal-boosting is good and necessary, talking about privilege is good and necessary, writing poems is good and necessary– but we can’t lose sight of the central importance of organizing, working collaboratively to act on these problems. All of those other responses and actions are necessary to support that organizing work, but the issue, as I see it, is that they’re not enough by themselves.
And far too often, they’re all we give.
Related: my post from last week “This is Not a Think Piece: Turning Outrage into Action from Ferguson to the Twin Cities,” a collection of resources, interviews, links to organizations and more for anyone who wants to get involved in organizing against police brutality.
Related: my post from right after the Zimmerman verdict, about a lot of the same issues.
Upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, waist-deep in quicksand, I need a second to process. After all, this is fiction made flesh; it’s like a cartoon, like going to the zoo and seeing a mermaid. So my first response, naturally, is to tell him:
Hey, um, I’m pretty sure that I read somewhere that quicksand isn’t actually dangerous, that this idea of a patch of sandy water sucking a person down into oblivion is just a tall tale, a trope to build tension in early 1960s westerns. In real life, yeah, I mean, you can get caught in some mud, but it’s not really that hard to get out. So are you sure you’re sinking in quicksand?
He sinks. My words don’t seem to have any effect. So being an open-minded, progressive individual, I reevaluate. Maybe quicksand is real. So what now?
My second response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, chest deep in quicksand is, before I actually do anything, to make sure that I have the whole picture. I mean, what was this guy doing out here in the jungle all alone? Did he step into that quicksand on purpose? Was he asking for it? Does he have a criminal record? Maybe I should wait until all the facts come in.
He sinks. And again, being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. I want to help.
So my third response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, neck deep in quicksand is, obviously, to recite a poem. To throw some positive energy his way. To describe, out loud, just how heavy my heart is. I take a piece of paper out of my backpack, and with a pen, I write “quicksand is bad and I am an ALLY to those who fall in it.” I pin that piece of paper to my chest. I take out my phone and I tweet “when are we going to wake up? #quicksand.”
He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide that this isn’t enough, that we, as a society, need to address the root causes of people sinking in quicksand. So my fourth response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, forehead-deep in quicksand, is to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege as someone who is not sinking in quicksand. I vow to take a class, to be more mindful of how I navigate the world.
He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide that the time for words has passed; now is the time for action. So my fifth response upon stumbling, by chance, upon a man, disappeared into quicksand, is… is…
We can’t allow ourselves to forget what happened here. I know that we need to do something, to put up a sign, to educate people, to build a bridge over this patch of quicksand. I just don’t have any wood. I just have this backpack full of paper and pens and rope; what can one person do?
I imagine my lungs filling with mud. Black earth. Brown water. The hike back to my hotel will be full of reflection. I offer my thoughts, and my prayers. It is the least I can do.