a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
When you approach that standing pole
in the distance–
in a schoolyard,
at the court house,
palace of governors,
Don’t you dare raise a flag
rotted with bloodstains and horror,
decay and despair,
and don’t even ever come here,
with a flag,
unless that piece of cloth, by virtue of the
virtues it symbolizes,
raises a face to the light,
a child to his feet,
a mother from her knees,
declares peace in the street.
And if your color guard
makes me (feel) so insecure,
my safety unsure,
that I want to hide and not be seen,
then wash it away, the tints are
tainted, and we will sorrow for
what swirls away in the rinse.
And if your stars, emblems,
and stripes seem hopelessly
disarrayed by design,
perhaps the generals, fighters,
and document signers forgot to include
“Equal” and “All People” and
“Someday No War” in the fabric
The last thing I need
is to see something waving
that flips me off,
deems me underclass,
hanged by the neck.
Better to keep such banners
down low and folded,
and save the parades for that
spangled day when
no hate is raining upon us.
June 26, 2015
Dedicated to Bree Newsome, Rev. Charles Moore, and all freedom fighters, but most of all in memory of these innocent believers: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.
I noticed you, hardly remembering if you wore a beard before or not. I am so glad that at least I recognized the glint in your eyes, above the “Brother from a Black Planet” mask you wore so confidently.
You were possibly smiling.
I wish that I could have returned the hug I saw you were making possible with your widening open arms as you took more–beyond the 6 feet I so carefully maintain–steps towards me. I ended up walking backwards, stepping away, and I hated that. I would never do that to you in real life. In life lived before COVID. I hoped I had not offended you, but to make sure, I quickly explained, “I do this to everyone I see and recognize. I end up stepping back from them, and now I’ve had to do it to you.”
I could not believe this. I was smiling, but in real life (pre-pandemic), I would have been saying “Gotcha!” and rushing forward to slap my hands on your shoulders and pushing myself into your brother bear chest. But there is no “Gotcha!” and no punchline now. We have to really be careful, cuz even joking punches can be misconstrued, have you cast as adversarial, by anyone watching from even a greater distance than my conversation with you now requires.
Who might be judging me, being with Black organizer men and not hugging them, me looking like I’m either being oddly deferential or perhaps afraid of them as I step back? I don’t feel fear of the Brothers, I don’t hesitate to be out and in public, space and good words with them. But the ugliness—to me, it feels contrary to our natures—of maintaining large social distances reminds me of the Ugly Americans who are permanent tourists in our nation. The ones who have skimmed the periphery of multicultural, diverse anything, and have more than socially distanced from movement politics and movement people, and our cultural celebrations and commemorations, high holidays and traditions. We are the toured, we are the cultural attraction they are repelled by. Their scrutiny has made me want to throw shade back, scowl and hiss, but wouldn’t that make me the chimp in the zoo cage who only retorts or reacts but never actually asserts?
I want to assert with a huge smile on my face. I want to boldly glow my composure and hold my space, my ground, surrounded by brothers, sisters of the movement. I am not walking away, I’m here, I’m staying, because I am not ugly and I will not be alone when there’s a beautiful crucial movement to walk into, and it is only a few steps back I take, as if to calibrate my ready stance, to flex my toned muscles for the true, eventual, and decisive steps forward.
I waited on the Amtrak station platform, pulling fingers through my hair and trying to decide when to pick up the dime flattened against the pavement at my feet. I stood near a triumvirate of performance brilliance in the form of Sharon Bridgforth, Dr. Joni Jones, and the one and only Laurie Carlos (award-winning playwright and director, perhaps best known as the woman who brought us “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf”). I had earlier greeted them with hugs and a handshake for Laurie, since this was the first meeting for us. I was hoping Laurie and I might have long and provocative conversations during our train ride, but she informed me that she had booked a bunk in the sleeper car and intended to go right to sleep after boarding.
Still eyeing the dime, but not wanting to look desperate, I started to work on my tangled hair, newly-washed and damp. I swung a 360 to see the folks around us, intuiting that someone was eyeballing me, with maybe a little derision. I’m sensitive that way. Sure enough, I saw a wrinkly elder-couple with a combined age of maybe a century and a half and they were whispering and indicating with unsubtle eyebrows, darting pupils, the usual facial squints. It was a comment about me, it was a comment about the trio of Black women next to me. It was about the four of us, all women of color.
Oh well, I’m used to that. As my mother used to say, “Let ‘em look, maybe they’ll learn something.” I continued to comb my hair with my fingers, and kept my composure. When to get that dime.
Next thing I knew, I became unwitting, unwilling eavesdropper of a loud conversation between that wrinkly pair and two other people, equally white yet a little younger. The younger male, of steely eyes and determined mouth, was speaking louder than I cared to hear.
“They think that it was wrong, even though it happened a long time ago. But with what the Japanese did to Pearl Harbor, it was necessary.” “Yes, it was necessary,” echoed the younger woman, who met my gaze as she turned toward me. “I mean they blew up Pearl Harbor, it was them who started the whole thing, and now they talk about how terrible it was, to be put in those camps. And they say they’re still angry about that.”
Oh, no, I thought, they’re blatantly defending the U.S.-sanctioned internment camps, the camps where over a hundred thousand American citizens of Japanese descent were forcibly detained and segregated in the early 1940s. That’s what they were discussing. Why today, I wondered? Why on September 21st?
The younger male–maybe 55 years old—continued. “I don’t know why they have to keep bringing it up, to this day. But I did meet one guy, Japanese, he was in the Service with me, and he wasn’t bitter, which was good, ‘cause if he had been then I wouldn’t have gotten along with him. No, he was a nice guy.”
“Uh-huh.” “Yeah, that’s good.” Nodding their heads, his companions listened and agreed. And I imagined the subtext to their assenting grunts: “Good Japanese don’t get angry. They don’t bring up internment camps with resentment, so that makes a good Japan man. If they know what’s good for them they will keep things in proper perspective, like we do. Like accepting that this country had to distrust and suspect you, even to the point of forcing you from your homes and putting you in camps. Good Japanese don’t get angry about what had to be done.”
As I contemplated their smug contempt, my mind seethed and I felt my shoulders stiffen with resolve to speak, to contest, to refute. I turned towards the younger man, to assess his face, and to see how his companions showed their approval. I began to surmise how they might receive my words, if I retorted. But I hesitated and it seemed they were also frozen in time, as if they fully expected me to speak.
What would become of me, if I spoke? Would they silence me with glares and stares–might I be instructed to mind my own business? What is my own business? Is it tacos and telenovelas? What if I made a raging outcry about their prejudicial arrogance? What might Sharon, Laurie, and Dr. Joni think of my public display? Would they be made uncomfortable by my outburst? Would the white people try to shame them together with me, by association? Why is there always a struggle to stand public with others?
I felt the words forming, the ones I most wanted to say: “I don’t want to hear what you are saying, you should lower your voice.”
I didn’t want to absorb their opinions silently, as if in assenting agreement. But to have voiced a complaint to try to silence their mouths would not have done a thing to change their set minds. That would have taken much more time, more patience, a grueling endurance of their comebacks and retorts. And my train was due to be coming soon. I simply wanted to not hear what they espoused–not at that moment, standing in transit.
And more, I didn’t want to be wishing them ill. Sometimes I get so tired of writing people off, because they don’t get it, or they don’t get me, and I feel a line between me and them has been drawn until the end of time. This morning, I had felt at peace, and I didn’t want enmity or enemy. I wanted that man to just shut up. To shut up about not caring about the sadness and bitterness of others. To shut up about getting angry at Japanese-Americans who resented an historic oppression. To shut up about wrong things needing to happen, policies put in place, which created indignities for fellow human beings. Shut up speaking your prejudicial hate cluttering and crowding out the truth–a hate that doesn’t hasten justice. Shut up your mind in denial.
As I heard it, the white man didn’t want to be asked to empathize. Could not be bothered to consider another man’s sorrow. As if the expression of this could lead to his own miserable oppression. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten along with him.” This pronouncement, a simple spoken sentence, haunted me. Made me surge palpably with grief and anger.
Suddenly, I felt as if all the memorials (to Vietnam vets, to exterminated Jewish families in Europe, to murdered women in Juarez, to African-Americans lynched in the deep South) were crumbling to dust, evaporating as windblown ash, in fulfillment of some mistaken mandate to disremember and be cleaned of culpability. To somehow be inured to injustice and, beyond that, to deny others their grief, their history, and potential for healing.
How dare this man proclaim his “I don’t want to hear it” attitude so proudly within my earshot this morning. Did he and his cohorts presume we wouldn’t care, because we weren’t discernibly Japanese? They were standing so close to us–a Chicana poet and three righteous Black artists, who together could have kicked metaphorical if rhetorical butt–yet seemed to regard us as if we had no means of contestation. As if we were minorities with our minds on mute? Had these white people any idea that a 21st century politicized Chicana might give a damn about more than the Mexican in her blood? Don’t be talking shit about my people, which includes my Asian-American, my African-American, my indigenous American allies! If you pick on them, you pick on me–THAT’s the kind of Mexican I am in this country that needs to act grown!
But I didn’t turn to speak any of this to him or them. I did no renunciation. I did no re-education. I did not sound off this time.
I counted the seconds ticking. I wished for the train to come. I hoped to not see my arms rise with fists. I tried to be in control, to steer my feelings along the lines of the cracked pavement. I still had a dime to pick up and pocket. I still had a moment to become serene. An eternal moment to reshape my heart in the form of forgiveness and understanding, even as I clung to sparks of my temper.
My face burned. My ears felt dirty, as if stung by toxins. So sorry I had to hear their shit.
The train arrived, and I staggered with my luggage. I did not push anyone. I did not follow the elderly wrinkled couple to their selected seats, but steered myself in the opposite direction.
How safely they tucked themselves into the seats of their choice, how pleasant they might have felt their morning lives to be. How special the truths they refused to see. How unfortunate that they persisted with a Berlin Wall in their hearts, a detention center in their self-enslaved minds. How my feet kept walking and walking away, yes, a different way. Taking conscious steps of my own, to follow the only path left for me. A path that moves me forward without blinders, my footfalls loud as rolling thunder.
(Executive Order 9066, which called for the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps in the U.S., was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.)
Tammy Melody Gomez is a performing artist, writer, and grassroots activist whose literary work—essays, poetry, microfiction—has been published in collections including Bikequity: Money, Class, and Bicycling (Microcosm Publishing, 2017) and Entre Guadalupe y Malinche: Tejanas in Literature and Art (UT Press, 2016). “SHE: Bike/Spoke/Love” (2007), her NALAC-funded play, depicts the Latinx bicycling culture, and her one-woman show, “Saliendo Abierta,”premiered at the Mexican American Cultural Center (Austin) in 2009. As director of Sound Culture, Tammy is active in creative placemaking and literary curation in north Texas. Tammy is profiled in Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (UT Press, 2003), and is a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. She was a 2015–2018 Black Earth Institute Fellow. Tammy was recently (March 2021) awarded a Texas Vignette grant, which honors female artists in the Lone Star State annually.