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We Got Your Back
I am a poet living in the South and teaching at a venerable southern university with as complex and sometimes embarrassing a history as the South itself bears. This place has given me books of poems, it has given me a way to see and understand the world, it has helped me articulate the continued presence of both injustice and grace in our world.
For the past ten years I have reflected on the question of a retirement plan. It is predicated on the gamble that we will live well into our retirement years, and we will live long enough for it to mature in such a way that it can make our lives comfortable when we are older.
I have reflected on how much the body of a black man living in a world in which the old patterns of racism have changed only in such a way that it becomes harder to articulate its presence and persistence, is at great risk in this environment.
That body, left unchecked, begins to internalize the frustrations and silences of the anger that comes from seeing these patterns persist, and that body can break down from stress and all the attendant ailments that come from such stress, and that body begins to reveal the cynicism implicit in that dream of healthy a retirement.
For the past few years, I have felt as if I have been fighting systems, fighting attitudes, fighting longstanding prejudices and patterns, and my body has begun to feel the fatigue of doing so.
When I work out, I think of myself trying to sweat out of me the corrosive chemicals of frustration, impatience and despair that I carry—I am trying to make real that myth of a retirement plan. Thankfully though, there are comforts and pleasures that help offset the annoyances.
Art does this, even art that howls out with the transformative lament of the blues. And friends, co-conspirators, those who seem able to understand the subtle patterns that operate in systemic ways in our world, they become comforts and offer relief and hope.
But today, while at a street festival on Manning Avenue on the south side of Sumter, South Carolina, the town where we first settled nineteen years ago, the town in which two of my three children were born; while standing in a crowded street filled with African American folks and feeling as if I were in Jamaica, I remembered the people who have always made this place livable for me while working at this university
From those first days in Sumter, it is the African American people working as custodians, administrative assistants, managers of offices, cafeteria workers, painters, technicians, administrators—the people who literally keep the university running; it is those folk who have become my friends, who have covered me, who have had my back even when I had no idea that they are doing so—they are the ones who have made it livable.
You see, one of the rarely discussed facts about many Southern universities is that while the faculty ranks, the student population, and the upper administration are predominantly white, the staff of the university are overwhelmingly African American. And I made a decision very early on in my career as a professor, to position myself as a member of the staff of the university. And the friendships I have made as part of the staff have made things livable.
Because it is these folks who have stopped me to talk to me about my poetry, to discuss something they read by me in the papers, to whisper some key information about some trifling policy being used to undermine me, to discuss children and raising them, to ask about my books, to ask about my travels, to give me a smile when I came to them in a pickle needing a favor, to straighten me out about policy, to make me feel as if I was there doing this work not for myself, but for them. It is they who have made me feel as if they see me as valuable to a community–a community that wants me to speak to it, to carry its thoughts through my art.
I imagine that my university is proud of me, happy to have me be a successful writer, but I don’t imagine that the university regards me, as a poet, as a necessary part of its articulation of itself, as a voice for that community. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that my university actually does not understand the role of the artist in community. And if it does, it certainly does not understand itself to be a community. My value is superficial and can be defined around how much fame I bring to the school.
But in this small area of the community of the African American staff at my university, a massive thing has taken place, something that has made me consider my art as an important part of the community.
I thought about this a lot today, about how often I have been saved by the laughter we have had in corridors, by the nod of understanding across a street, by the surprise of finding out that they have been watching me, keeping an eye on me, following me, and covering my back all this time. They know what I go through, and they speak of how proud they are of what I do and who I am.
You see, there are many things I have learned in this South Carolina, but the one that will always make me understand why I can continue to be a poet who wants to speak poems that are close to the ground, is that African Americans in my state, enact their resistance through the quiet conspiracy of love, affirmation, and support while the world rails around all of us.
My family laughed about this as we drove through the sun washed back roads of Sumter, along the narrow winding road through tobacco land, heading back to Columbia. My eldest, a freshman at the university, chuckled, “It’s true, it’s true, they look after me, make sure I am doing fine…” she said.
This gave me so much peace, so much peace. And peace is what I need to cultivate as I continue the battle to find language to speak what is true about the world in which I live, the language to push for the changes that need to happen in some many ways in my world. I will always be grateful for my crew.