Some of the writing for my OnePoemPerMonthForaYear project have come easily and some are still in the midst of revision and stuck with me as I try to understand just what I am trying to get at with my words and phrases and voice.
This poem, called Birds in Flight, is a prime example of this internal struggle. It is inspired by some conversations with my students about their own experiences living in a very insular and safe community, primarily white, and how our preconceptions shape our understanding of people who look, talk and act different than we do. My students’ experiences are very similar to mine as I was growing up and I tried to capture in this poem some of my conflicted feelings that took place when I first forged some close friendships with people of other color during my time as an infantry soldier in the Army National Guard.
I came to realize how racist some of my impressions were and how long it took for me to see them just as people, and not as different people because their skin was different from mine. This is something that no one taught me. I had to learn with experience.
Like Birds in Flight (January 2007)
Listen to the poem
I can’t crawl inside your skin
I’m claustrophobic with the fingers of history wrapped around my neck
and, besides, your black doesn’t fit with my white.
Or so I have been told, not in so many words, of course, but in so many looks.
Which leaves us both here with this sense of intense misunderstanding
and missed opportunities that come from rage at the ways of this world.
No one ever told me that you were always the same as me,
with the same dreams,
the same heart,
and you, with your ancestors on an timeline that intersects with mine only in pain and infinite sadness,
you look so different from me — on the outside.
Your black doesn’t fit with my white.
I often wonder how it would be if we had a covering of feathers instead of skin
and you were to become haloed in a rainbow
with hues casting deep shadows that I could just swallow up like worms on a summer day after the storms have cleared away,
filling me whole with experience and reality,
and then maybe — maybe — I could finally feel your light, your strength, your sense of being you.
Just you and nothing more.
Your black would fit with my white.
We would no longer feel tethered by this solid Earth
and instead, as one, we would rise to the clouds on the upward draft of hope
and avoid the fears that keeps us rooted so firmly in our own minds.
I look at you.
I don’t see you.
Instead, I only see skin.
Peace (with understanding),