While My Lame Uncle Prays

Outside the cathedral Aunt Lena makes the sign to carry in protest against the British governor, at mass. It is a good sign, the wood handle ripped from her rabbit hutch, our Sunday dinner last seen hopping seaward, a kind of sacrifice.

She colors her slogan in red: Limey Set Sail! The choir inside chants Amen.

My uncle is among the first to see the protest. He leads the charge against us, his walking stick held like a sword.

I don't move when he spots me, my rump ready for the cane. Auntie cuts in front — her sign a shield — wood against wood, over my head for a moment, almost a cross.

This poem wouldn't rile the stp.unchest conservative. The riot happens outside a cathedral in a foreign land, advocating the overthrow of another culture and using the church to symbolize another echelon of power. Even though violence ensues, in which the narrator is caught between warring sides of his family —the rebel aunt and the royalist uncle — one can argue that the anti-British/anti-Catholic stance almost qualifies as patriotic in that America was founded on similar political and religious notions. Thus, this type of revolutionary verse was acceptable even during a conservative era.

Overtones of conservatism were extant in 1992. So revolutionary verse was still regarded as untimely because of conventional politics. But racial issues were about to loom large over the horizon. A year earlier Rodney King, an African-American, was videotaped being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. A trial against the officers ensued, and when the verdict was announced, riots erupted in that and in other cities. At the time, Harry Johnson — manager of corporate communications at Polaroid — became so upset by the verdict that he look the morning off and composed this poem:

DAMN YOU, AMERICA!

News item: Four white Los Angeles police officers, following a three-month trial and seven days of jury deliberations, were found not guilty of using excessive force on the evening of March 3, 1991, when they subdued Rodney King, a black man, by shooting him with a stun gun and striking him 56 times with their police batons.

No, I wasn't in the courtroom.

No, I wasn't privy to all the evidence.

No, I didn't see everything the jury saw.

No, I didn't hear everything the jury heard.

No, I am not in a position to second-guess their decision.

Yes, I try to believe the promise of America. Yes, I try to believe that the rules are fair, that justice is blind. Yes, I try to believe —God knows, I try to believe — that America works nearly all the time, for nearly all the people.

But, don't ask me to believe today.

Today, I believe something different.

Today, I believe that America lies.

Today, I am disappointed. Shocked. Angry. Enraged.

Today, I am a skeptic. A cynic. An unbeliever.

Today, I am not an American.

Today, I am a black man.

Today, I know what the black man has always known. Today, I know that America —deep in its heart — doesn't know what to do with me, doesn't know how to deal with my audacious blackness. Today, I know that for many white Americans, slaves forever to the emotional apartheid that infects their very souls, I am not different from Rodney King.

Today, I know that nothing that I do — not the way I dress, not the way I talk, not the way I comport myself, not the way I invest my life — will ever make me any different from Rodney King in their eyes. Today, I know that nothing I have ever done, nothing I will ever do —

not the tears that I cry, not the blood that I shed — will ever make any real difference. Today, I know that the bruises to my black man's ego, the pain in my black man's heart, the scars on my black man's soul will never heal completely.

Today, I know that I am not an American. Today I know that I am a black man, living at the margin of a place called America.

Damn! Damn!

Damn! Damn! Damn you, America!

Once more, you have lied to me!

More than any political poem I have read, this one proves how timely and powerful revolutionary verse can be. For starters, an excerpt of this poem was picked up by The Wall Street Journal and appeared in that nationally distributed newspaper on May 1, 1992. Soon after, National Public Radio and other media outlets were reciting or reprinting the poem. It went out over fax machines across the country. (In fact, that's how I received my copy of the work.) Thereafter, it was recited in churches and in small groups whose members wanted to experience what Harry Johnson did on that fateful day. In the space of a few days, Johnson reached millions of people with his one political poem —more people than Pulitzer Prize-winning poets reach during the span of their careers.

Three factors were involved:

1. Timeliness. The nation was ready to hear Johnson's poem because it occurred after the Los Angeles riots, coinciding with the public's outcry against treatment of African-Americans.

2. Message. Johnson expressed his political views with strong words that literally seethed on the page.

3. Media. If Johnson wrote a letter to the editor expressing similar views in similar tones, his piece likely would have appeared in one or only a few publications. But he combined elements of timeliness and message with the powerful medium of poetry, and mass media carried his voice across the country.

These, of course, are elements that make for publishable revolutionary work: a voice that speaks when others are prepared to listen and one whose message is funneled through the enduring medium of verse.

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