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Poetry is Dangerous via Kazim Ali

By Emily Warn

This story came to our attention via the NYU listserv. Kazim thought it was a good idea to post it here, too.
“On April 19, after a day of teaching classes at Shippensburg University, I went out to my car and grabbed a box of old poetry manuscripts from the front seat of my little white beetle and carried it across the street and put it next to the trashcan outside Wright Hall. The poems were from poetry contests I had been judging and the box was heavy. I had previously left my recycling boxes there and they were always picked up and taken away by the trash department.
A young man from ROTC was watching me…..”


“On April 19, after a day of teaching classes at Shippensburg University, I went out to my car and grabbed a box of old poetry manuscripts from the front seat of my little white beetle and carried it across the street and put it next to the trashcan outside Wright Hall. The poems were from poetry contests I had been judging and the box was heavy. I had previously left my recycling boxes there and they were always picked up and taken away by the trash department.
A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body. >
Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has NY plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don¹t have the heart to take off these days, says Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America.
Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us safe.
These are the days of orange alert, school lock-downs, and endless war. We are preparing for it, training for it, looking for it, and so of course, in the most innocuous of places a professor wanting to hurry home, hefting his box of discarded poetry we find it. That man in the parking lot didn¹t even see me. He saw my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent. Ironic because though my grandfathers came from Egypt, I am Indian, a South Asian, and could never be mistaken for a Middle Eastern man by anyone who’d ever met one.
One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description a Middle Eastern man driving a white beetle with out of state plates and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, What country is he from?
What country is he from?! she yelled, indignant.
Ma’am, you are associated with the suspect. You need to step away and lower your voice, he told her.
At some length several of my faculty colleagues were able to get through to the police and get me on a cell phone where I explained to the university president and then to the state police that the box contained old poetry manuscripts that needed to be recycled. The police officer told me that in the current climate I needed to be more careful about how I behaved. “When I recycle?” I asked.
The university president appreciated my distress about the situation but denied that the call had anything to do with my race or ethnic background. The spokesperson of the university called it an honest mistake, not referring to the young man from ROTC giving in to his worst instincts and calling the police but referring to me who made the mistake of being dark-skinned and putting my recycling next to the trashcan.
The university’s bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the suspicious package beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, “We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community.”
What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became ‘suspicious” because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.
It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled.
My body exists politically in a way I can not prevent. For a moment today, without even knowing it, driving away from campus in my little beetle, exhausted after a day of teaching, listening to Justin Timberlake on the radio, I ceased to be a person when a man I had never met looked straight through me and saw the violence in his own heart. ”

Comments (4)

  • On April 20, 2007 at 2:57 pm Tom Thompson wrote:

    The subject heading the poetry foundation put on this post is a bit disingenuous for what is an utterly clear-minded report.Let’s not trivialize what Kazim wrote by using it as a fuzzy excuse to pat poets on the back when we don’t deserve it. That said, I’m so glad this got posted (thank you Kazim for writing, and Emily for posting)… But this has nothing to do with poetry being dangerous; it has to do with one of the ways racism plays out in American culture today. That last line of Kazim’s is totally, completely, magnificently on target. Thank you.

  • On April 20, 2007 at 4:37 pm Kevin wrote:

    I have mixed feelings about this. Mr. Ali experienced all kinds of isms in that one instance. That’s neither fair nor just but it’s very American and nothing new–it’s the changing same.
    This sort of racial profiling, based on fear and racism and whatever else, has happened to me countless times on college campuses. (College campuses have never been safe for people of color.) It’s happened to me more than once as an undergraduate and at my two graduate schools. Each time I was stopped by campus police. Once a white undergraduate female thought me and a friend “looked suspicious” sitting in a car in the dorm parking lot. We had to produce our student i.d.’s when two police cars arrived. No apologies. Nothing. I reported this and many other instances to university officials (at all of my schools), none of whom ever apologized or really looked into the matters.
    Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” How many times have you heard this? How many times have you rallied when injustice affected someone who didn’t look like you, or spoke differently, or came from a completely different walk of life?
    When, poets, was the last time you wrote a poem or a letter to a newspaper or to a news station, addressing all the injustice that rolls down like a mighty river everyday in this country and the rest of the world? Everyday.
    What happened to Mr. Ali is not exceptional, neither is his written recollection, which, sadly, is quite typical of someone shocked that he, too, could be the object of such scrutiny. Yes, it can happen to you. And you. And you. And you.
    So what are you going to do about it?

  • On April 20, 2007 at 10:37 pm emily warn wrote:

    Dear Tom Thompson,
    We used Kazim Ali’s title from his listserv post. But I get the point you’re making.
    Emily

  • On February 11, 2008 at 9:27 pm MSimms wrote:

    Gees…. I am sorry to hear of this… but its nothing new. We’re at war and we’re scared as a nation and we’re tired and we want our people home. You’re the unfortunate receptive of
    patriotism gone wrong.
    I think the best way to dispell this kind of thing is to be peaceful, show no weapons, palm open; let them get to know that you arent dangerous — show compassion and mercy against those who would persecute you– remember Jesus– turn the other cheek… eventually they will tire of this gambit and find a new one :)
    Lets all hope and pray for peace for the sakes of both our nations. But until things calm down over there, its not gonna be much better.
    Praying for the best for all…


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 20th, 2007 by Emily Warn.