An open letter from Danez Smith, whose poem "alternate names for black boys" has been sadly all too resonant with recent events.
We Must Be the New Guards: Open Letter to White Poets
"But when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security,--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
- The Declaration of Independence
To my kin and colleagues in letters and art, I come to you out of ink, of breath, of patience, & almost emptied of any belief that there is anything this country that doesn’t seek to end me, keep me and my black & brown loved ones from living lives that are not designed around your comfort and benefit. I’m not mad at you. I, in my best mind, believe in a borderless world of unified citizenship, not a utopia, but a place where justice is birthright and peace is promised, protected. But we live in a history well versed in repetition, where the people who built this country on burdened, wound-red backs are the same people today waiting for some declaration of independence, equality, or ceasefire.
The skin tone of the oppressed along color lines in this country’s history reads like bad alliteration, our skin a hard sound echoing endlessly in a unjustified fear we have renamed “self defense” or “probable cause.” I’m not saying that self-defense doesn’t exist, but I question what men like Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman were defending themselves against except a fear they nursed since elementary school, a fear that screams “SHOOT” somewhere deep in their minds, their hands.
I did not come here to talk about these men. I came to talk to you, my partners in verse who build a life’s work documenting their brief time on this earth. I come you to asking to question the landscape of our pastoral muse. I ask you to question to what makes you safe? What frees you to write odes of the low country of America, to mention the trees and not their wicked history, to write the praise song of night, but not sing of what dark bodies hide cold in daylight? My family, and I pray we can call each other family, I am asking you to do what you do best: Write.
We must be members of the New Guards for those whose futures have been deemed questionable and expendable. I am asking you to explode the canon with what we must make sure is remembered in this nation. We cannot leave the duty of elegy for black bodies and calls for our fellow citizens to rise, even if wounded or enraged or scared, to the catalogues of solely black artists. We must write the American Lyric like Claudia Rankine so fearlessly writes, no matter now brutal or reflective it might be for you. There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.
And this is not the only fight we must rage, there are many suffering the awful weight of a society and judicial system that has edited “for all” from “with liberty & justice”. We must create work that refuses to leave this world the same as when we entered. We do not have the luxury of only writing the selfish confession, we must testify in our court of craft that these poems we write are bold, unflinching, and unwilling to stale idle in a geography of madness. We must demand of ourselves to write the uncomfortable, dangerous, shift-making poems. How much longer will we write casually in the face of a beast? Submit your facts to the candid world! I ask you to join me and others in utilizing verse to not rewrite our shared, grizzly history. I end this letter by not begging you “please”, but by telling you “you must.”