It probably goes without saying that the past few weeks have been a vivid reminder of how far we have and have not come on the issues of gender and race in the United States. It was difficult to turn on the television or tap into social media and not see or hear one or the other topic being discussed. Both topics were addressed in different ways during the recent Republican National Committee Convention that was held in Cleveland, OH and the Democratic National Committee Convention held in Philadelphia, PA.
Personally, I think that Americans need to have these conversations even though each topic still proves difficult for many to openly discuss. As news on the shootings of unarmed motorists and police officers poured in, I asked myself: I wonder how many companies in the U.S. – regardless of size – took the time to have a meaningful conversation on these events with their employees? Or at least bothered to inquire about how this negative news was impacting the mood and emotional health of their workers? It’s my guess that any company or organization that did is the exception and not the rule.
In previous posts, I have shared that when the topic of diversity and inclusion comes up in work place conversations, most folks bail out of the room – if not physically, then mentally. Conversations like these are important in any sector of the work place, and very important to STEM organizations that struggle to attract women and persons of color.
During the turbulence of the past few weeks, I stumbled upon a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes: Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races. This poem was written at least 30 years ago, however, it is probably one of her best known works that has received global recognition and analysis. Even more so, it is so appropriate for the challenges that we are facing today.
Cervantes acknowledges that she has also been surprised by the popularity of this poem. She also shares (in 2007, Ref 1) that it is her most anthologized poem, having appeared in about 200 publications and text books, not to mention circulated online. “It ought to be considered in relation to my other work,” Cervantes says, “about 500 other poems which do other things – as strategy, a literary strategy which is sometimes better than doing, or saying, nothing.”
Cervantes goes on to explain that she usually presents this poem in the context of her pro-literacy non-violence work with youth. I always dedicate it to my high school counselor, who had once told my very Anglo boyfriend upon arriving at the school “not to expect much of this school as it’s 86% Mexican” -– and who told me not to apply to the college of my choice – or any college -– in order to realize my stated goals of achieving my PhD from UC Santa Cruz and becoming a university professor. “I think you’re setting your goals too high. You will only fail. You are not college material.” So I followed her advised trajectory: I never applied to Yale. I went to San Jose “City” College where I graduated with high honors, then transferred on to San Jose State where I graduated with the highest honors, then I was accepted into the esteemed doctoral program in History of Consciousness where I am All But Dissertation. I am now a tenured professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Although Cervantes didn’t go to Yale as she had planned, she followed a different path to achieve her terminal degree. I am happy that she wasn’t distracted by the haters and nay-sayers who failed to see her brilliance and greatness. I’ve had similar conversations with those who didn’t expect much of me. They also failed to see my potential. I now realize that they couldn’t fathom that type of achievement for me, because they could not see my goals for themselves. How can someone see for me what they can’t see for themselves? Numerous others – family members, friends, colleagues, etc. – also have had similar shared experiences.
I’ve included a copy of Cervantes’ poem at the end of this post. Please read and re-read it. Lorna Dee Cervantes reminds us that sometimes poetry is the best revenge. I agree.
Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe In The War Between Races
by Lorna Dee Cervantes
In my land there are no distinctions.
The barbed wire politics of oppression
have been torn down long ago. The only reminder
of past battles, lost or won, is a slight
rutting in the fertile fields.
In my land
people write poems about love,
full of nothing but contented childlike syllables.
Everyone reads Russian short stories and weeps.
There are no boundaries.
There is no hunger, no
complicated famine or greed.
I am not a revolutionary.
I don’t even like political poems.
Do you think I can believe in a war between races?
I can deny it. I can forget about it
when I’m safe,
living on my own continent of harmony
and home, but I am not
I believe in revolution
because everywhere the crosses are burning,
sharp-shooting goose-steppers round every corner,
there are snipers in the schools…
(I know you don’t believe this.
You think this is nothing
but faddish exaggeration. But they
are not shooting at you.)
I’m marked by the color of my skin.
The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly.
They are aiming at my children.
These are facts.
Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
“excuse me” tongue, and this
with the feeling of not being good enough.
These bullets bury deeper than logic.
Racism is not intellectual.
I can not reason these scars away.
Outside my door
there is a real enemy
who hates me.
I am a poet
who yearns to dance on rooftops,
to whisper delicate lines about joy
and the blessings of human understanding.
I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and
bolt the door, but the typewriter doesn’t fade out the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage.
My own days bring me slaps on the face.
Every day I am deluged with reminders
that this is not
and this is my land.
I do not believe in the war between races
but in this country
there is war. [End]
- Reflections On “Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person Could Believe In the War Between Races”, by Lorna Dee Cervantes, March 21, 2007, http://lornadcervantes.blogspot.com/2007/03/reflections-on-poem-for-young-white-man.html