Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Race and the poetry of John Beecher

One of the most common complaints I've heard when discussing poetry that deals directly with issues of race or racism is how inaccessible these poems are or rather how they fail as poems precisely because they rely on a racial or ethnic crutch.  I often wonder what is this racial crutch?

I am thinking now of a piece I read by Aracelis Girmay in which she discuss the issue of race and audience or more precisely the perceptions of white audiences when reading so called "ethnic poems." Aracelis writes: 

The racial crutch becomes clear now: an "ethnic poem" is problematic because it raises issues of privilege. To write of race or racism is to write from outside the margins of a "white center,"a center in which those who belong hold the only human experiences by default. A poem written outside this center cannot possibly succeed as it automatically rendered lacking of the aesthetic or human values that would make it universal; its existence outside this circle of privilege prevents those within the circle from ever appreciating it "humaness."

beecher.jpgBut it is not only those whom belong to the circle who over-impose these restrictions on poetry that deals with race. I am also often confronted by poets of color who find it troubling to read poetry written by white poets in the voices of minorities or which deal with issues of race. Which brings me to the poetry of John Beecher (1904-1980). Take for example the following poem: 


The field boss claimed his privilege. Her knife
quenched all his lust for black girls. She got life
in the Big Rock and swung a chain-gang pick
a quarter century before she broke.
To save her keep they kicked her out, paroled.
Root, hog, or die! Thereafter she despoiled
our garbage cans of what our pampered pets
repudiated. We capering white brats
dogged her around, mocking that tethered gait.
She shambled, rolling-eyed down every street
in Birmingham, mumbling of "Jedgment." All
our minds were shackled by her chain and ball.

The poetry of John Beecher doesn't appear in any anthologies nor is he a part of the cannon, he is in essence a forgotten poet but his poetry nevertheless can teach us a multitude about race and poetry. Beecher not only unveils the classism prevalent in his lifetime but also the racism that comes with it. Many of his poems speak from the perspectives or voices of black Americans, often using racial epithets. John Beecher was not black, he was white. Which reminds me of James Baldwin's saying "as long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you." Beecher certainly did not see himself as just white nor do I see myself as just Mexican.  Perhaps because I write from an ideological perspective it does not bother me to hear/read white writers speaking from the perspectives of minorities just as I do not see myself not able to speak from the perspective of "whiteness." As long as these poems help to break this center which renders only certain experiences as human or universal by default and excludes the great majority of the earths peoples--the poor and the brown--I will not be made uncomfortable by this type of poetry. Again, perhaps because I write from an ideological perspective I can say that I am more at home with the poetry of John Beecher than with other Latino writers whom refuse to speak about race or class. 

To read more poems by Beecher click here.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Re-membering Joe Gaetjens

Just something I wrote, re-membering the image of Joe Gaetjens.

Joe Gaetjens
Belo Horizonte, Brazil 1950

                In the world of soccer as in everything else the English are inexpugnable giants, unmovable jugglers of the ball and globe. The U.S. on the other hand is as insignificant as the sigh of a flea. At the 1950 edition of the World Cup, the English national team, gods and creators of the sport, are the indisputable favorites to take home the trophy. England had just trounced the Italians 4-0 and the Portuguese 10-0 two weeks before, the U.S. in contrast reach Brazil having lost their last seven matches with a combined score of 45-2. On this day destiny has decreed the U.S. a sacrificial lamb on the English’s way to the final. On the 37th minute of the game the unthinkable happens; the blind reclaim their eyesight, the moribund hold of their deaths and babies hurry up their births to witness as U.S. midfielder Walter Bahr takes a shot at the British goal box and Joe Gaetjens, Haitian dishwasher from New York, leaps head first twelve feet into the air, spearing the wind like a swallow. In midair Joe kisses the ball with his head, the ball sails past the English defense and into the back of the net, leaving everyone on their asses spinning.  And so Joe Gaetjens commits the unforgivable sacrilege of bringing down the soccer gods. In the U.S. the score will go unnoticed, in England—thinking it an error in typography—the papers will publish a U.S. defeat of 10-0.
                At the height of the Duvalier reign of terror, Joe returns to Haiti a national hero. Although Joe is as unmoved by politics as is a rock, his family is not. Gun to his back, Joe steps into the Fort Dimanche Prison where the Tonton Macoute—bogie-men who kidnap and disappear unruly children by serving them up for breakfast—disappear him forever.

The Resurrection of Joe Gaetjens
Port-Au-Prince, 2010

                The night before the earthquake nobody could fall asleep.
                The morning after nobody wanted to wake up.

                Of all the places gobbled by the earthquake the National Stadium still stands, its gates guarded from apparitions—dead or alive—wandering among the rubble. More than forty years after the murder of his father, Leslie Gaetjens, recently arrived from the U.S.—stands at the gates. At the mention of his father’s name a smile splits the guard’s face from ear to ear, and so the gates are opened. Not a speck of dust blemishes the burning green of the field. Surrounded by Haitian officials and stadium staff Leslie poses for pictures. Until one man—an old employee of the stadium reveals a photo of his own: yellow and almost faded the photo shows a smiling Joe Gaetjens being carried—on the shoulders of his teammates—after having scored the goal the beat England.
                For more than fifty years, in a corner of the stadium, Joe Gaetjens has been awaiting his rebirth at the eyes of his son.