Rest in Peace, Oscar.
I'm a few days late, but New Year's Day was the anniversary of Oscar Grant's death. Check out this great video by Yak Films, made in honor of Oscar. Art, dance, music and film used to try to make sense of a world with senseless violence. Very powerful.
Rest in Peace, Oscar.
'Never place a period where
God has placed a comma.'
I’ve been trying to write about my Sunday, which was a few days ago now. It was a rainy morning, and with Oscar Grant on my mind I needed a place to think and pray. So I went to church.
Yes. That kind of church. Well, maybe not that kind, if what you’re thinking is angry misogynistic homophobic against-everything-I-stand-for church, the kind that makes the most noise and seems to get the most attention. No, I went to another type of church, one where they follow principles of compassion and peace and are open and affirming to all people.
I explain this because I’ve had to “come out” at many times in my life – as queer, of course, which for me can mean admitting I like women in hostile homophobic spaces or admitting I like men in spaces where my belonging as a part of the “gay community” might be challenged. And sometimes saying that I have a spiritual life feels like a type of coming out, too. Though Christians in this country are, at most times, privileged, for me this part of my identity is sometimes another layer I have to negotiate when it comes to acceptance. Just as there are religious circles that are hateful to queer folks, there are queer circles where saying you go to church means you might as well be admitting “but some of my best friends are homophobes.”
Let’s clear this up: like queer folks and immigrants, or queer folks and people of color, or any other intersection of our identities, queer folks and people of faith are not entirely separate and opposite people. There are queer people in churches and temples, leading congregations or just taking part, and expressing their spirituality otherwise all over the place. And, some people of faith believe that part of their call is not to exclude or condemn queer and trans folks (or even welcome us with some “hate the sin, not the sinner”-type judgment), but to welcome and affirm us as we are, to help us on our journey towards loving and accepting ourselves, and, as Desmund Tutu calls for here, to stand up and take action against our persecution.
For me personally, faith serves a similar purpose as writing – it gives me hope. In the moments when I can’t find justice anywhere else, can’t look for it in the criminal justice system or rely on institutions like police forces for it, I look instead to art, to music and dance, to writing, and yes, to some higher power. I look to real people, those real bodies that hold real truths that will reveal themselves if you look for them. And I look to my silly idea that there is something beyond this world. I may not always believe that justice will be served in a court of law, or that hearts can be healed over prison terms, but I do believe that at times bodies and hearts can find healing and balance in the joy, laughter and tears shared over art. And shared in communities of faith.
The faithful people I know are not the angry, hateful ones you see on TV, but loving, compassionate, justice-seeking people I can often count on when I’m trying to find some glimmer of hope. This isn’t to try to preach about my beliefs, but just to spread the word that these folks are out there. We’re here. We’re queer. And sometimes we pray.
More poetry for Oscar Grant. Very raw. I'm shaking off uncertainty and posting the rough drafts because those are the ones with the most heart.
make it right
where can i find you
if not in courts or prisons
you’re not in books of law or in judges’ gavels
i’m finding teeth, gnashed loose,
in buckets of paint
and i’m wondering if they’re yours
strands of hair make the brushes
i sweep over the canvas
nobody’s ever made these brushes
with hairs like ours before
and it makes me paint images that swirl
like the world is made of clouds and spirals
tear me down
and i melt into this canvas
become the page, and here
i find you,
not how i’d imagine you
for what you’ve become now
and any image of you
you tiger lily
called only by names
both vicious and delicate
we can’t take back
the sound of your voice
not even when it echoes while we sleep
not even when we wake
sit up calling
i’m here, i’m here
what do we mean?
where are we
we call out i’m here
as if this place could
feel like home to you
i’m calling calling
but this voice is so soft
never knew i could keep it so near
so near so near
though never quite clear
i’m telling myself nursery rhymes now
tossing my body
turning my cheek
waiting to feel this burn on the other side
in case that could make it right
as if anything
could make it right
you’re not tumbling anymore
be still be still
i think i like to call to you
to tell you it’s okay because
i need to hear the words myself
now, i think
maybe that’s you talking to me,
you want me to hear them too
after all, where you’ve gone
you don’t need my comfort anymore
as you rest
as you rest in peace
and i think this chaos you left behind
all came from your heart
these voices we’re lifting--
voices that may have never been heard
this fight we’re fighting--
calling for justice in your name
only now can you leave this earth in peace
the world, finally,
working as we should have all along
holding your troubles in our hands,
move on forward,
we’ll make this right for you.
Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who killed Oscar Grant, was sentenced to only two years in prison, including time already served. This was the shortest possible term.
This I already knew – let’s seek our sense of justice somewhere other than the courts.
feel your presence here
can i say this is from hands unseen
when at the end of my climb
i see everything i thought i’d lost
my reflection in the glittering sand
of morning dew a name to call
myself written in the glowing moss
upon a rock you know we’d make
a perfect painting, you and i, sitting
side by side eye to eye only
we couldn’t find paint the color of
these tears (i run them clear to make mist
vibrant with all your colors) and we’d
never find a red so dark as your blood
nor one that keeps running
from wounds with open doors.
I’m thinking of Oscar Grant and his family today, as we prepare to hear about the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who killed him. I’m not entirely hopeful that the courts will serve adequate justice, of course, especially after the July verdict. I just hope for some sense of peace for those who knew Oscar Grant, and for the city of Oakland, and for people of color everywhere who are more than a little shaken each time one of our lives is taken so senselessly.
Speaking of injustice, I’ve been writing some of those sidewalk poems to address San Francisco’s passing of Prop L, the sit/lie measure that criminalizes anyone who wants to take a moment’s rest on the sidewalk. If you can call these poems. Some of them are deliberate non-poems, like this one:
that gum your shoe just picked up?
i put it there on purpose. because
you’re an asshole.
Yeah. Expect more of those gems on here soon. I’ll be spending the rest of the day wondering if I have any right to call myself a poet. But writing like this makes me feel a little better, anyway. I recommend it if you’re pissed off about something. Don’t worry about flair. Just write that you’re pissed about it.
Or do something about it -- I hear there's an action coming up in response to Prop L, that anyone in the city can participate in. Here's a Facebook event calling for a sit-in at noon on Monday, November 8, in front of City Hall or on a sidewalk wherever you happen to be. Help make some noise about this.
Anyway. I’m thinking of you today, Oscar Grant. No matter what happens, you won’t be forgotten.
Yesterday's event turned out fabulously. Lots of good people turned out to support the work of CUAV, share conversation, laughs and food, and listen to some really inspirational musical artists.
And I got to read my poetry! I haven't been reading much in public lately, and I was glad for the chance to do it there. I've never felt like I'm much of a performance poet, really, even though people often see me and learn that I write, and that I write about social justice, and they assume that I'm something of a slam poet. I really admire slam poets but I can't do what they do, and I usually think of my work as more meant to be read than heard.
But there was something about the energy in that place yesterday, and in spite of my plans to simply read what I'd written, I ended up delivering it. I didn't think of it as performing really, but definitely tapping into the energy of the folks watching and knowing that maybe what I was saying meant something to them and feeling free to not just read the words but feel them.
I loved it.
These poems appeared on my blog earlier, but I just want to share them here now:
When You Hope for Justice and Get a Slap in the Face
for Wanda Johnson and Oscar Grant
when you hope for justice
and get a slap in the face,
hold your head high.
feel the sting of it,
know the pain is real
and don’t let anybody tell you
it was never there.
know your tears aren’t for nothing,
let them fall to the earth
to water the seeds
that will grow the roots
to anchor the trees
that cannot be moved.
know that you, too,
cannot be moved.
when you hope for justice
and get a slap in the face,
look to the past.
to those who were beaten and left to die,
whose sadness and rage
left them still standing,
and built the ground we stand on today.
look to the future,
where today’s heavy hearts
are tomorrow’s beacons of hope.
our hope may be lost
but our determination can be found again.
This Isn’t a Poem About Justice
This isn’t a poem about justice
I’m not supposed to write about wild and out there things
that you can’t get your hands on
that might not really exist.
But if you promise not to call me crazy
I’ll tell you in a whisper
that I felt justice.
it was soaking the earth
in warm rain falling
and lightning bolts striking the Detroit River
lighting up the sky
like the eyes of a hopeful child.
Promise not to laugh
when I say I looked into the soul of a stranger
Our eyes met,
our energies passed between us
like the shared tremble of an earthquake.
No need to ask did you feel that?
I can’t call him a stranger anymore.
Promise you won’t turn me in
when I speak of bonds formed
on darkened dance floors
between banners calling for revolutions
what I did might have
violated some part of the Patriot Act
and if they lock me up
and torture me
and ask what I know about terror
I’ll say her lips tasted like cinnamon.
We spit justice into microphones
spilled it from paint cans onto canvases
wore it on t-shirts
and fried it into foods,
so it burned our tongues
and slipped from our lips when we spoke.
I say justice is alive as the red rose of so many poems
but its scent thickens the air like the heat of the sun
and its thorns are inescapable.