A Poetic Warning About Police Brutality in Ferguson and Elsewhere—From a Black Father to His Son

The effect of lynching isn’t to execute a black man, poet and journalist Hakim Bellamy tells me. The effect of lynching is to make a hundred other people watch, to send a message of oppression and intimidation: “Be careful, this could be you.”

The same is true, Bellamy believes, of police shootings and other brutality against black Americans. He recalls posting a photo to Instagram of a BART station on a recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area with the caption, “Is it wrong that I feel afraid right now?” It was a reference to the deadly shooting of Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station in 2009.

“It sure sends a message about how we are supposed to, or not supposed to, interact with law enforcement,” Bellamy said, remembering various warnings his mother gave him throughout his childhood in New Jersey about how not to talk to the police. “She told me [your white friends] can say, ‘Why’d you pull me over, officer’ and ‘I’ll have your badge number’ and I know that I would never, ever, ever be able to speak to a police officer in that fashion. It would be very dangerous for me to talk to a police officer in the way that some of my friends feel entitled to.”

Bellamy is a radio journalist, poet laureate of Albuquerque and national slam poetry champion. He said when he heard about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri he knew he wanted to write something to capture the frustration, anger and hopelessness that had been building after the senseless killings of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and so many others.

“I was like, oh my god, here we go again again,” he said. “I wrote a poem when Trayvon first passed away. I wrote lots of short haikus and stuff regarding the Zimmerman verdict, but it never felt like I really captured how I felt. I wrote all these little poems and I captured the anger all right, but I didn’t capture the futility, the disappointment, the inevitability, the matter of factness of it. I felt like I wanted to do that better.”

As Mother Jones reported in August, following the shooting in Ferguson, the alarming prevalence of police shootings targeting black Americans is difficult to quantify because it is so widespread and “no agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way.” Federal data regarding police use of force is fractured. Mother Jones pointed out that Brown is one of at least four unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in August alone and “in 2007, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter investigated fatal police shootings in 10 major cities, and found that there were a disproportionately high number of African Americans among police shooting victims in every one.”

The NAACP reported 45 officer-involved shootings were recorded in Oakland, Calif. between 2004 and 2008 and 37 of those shot were black. None were white, and Oscar Grant’s shooting was not counted as it took place New Years Day, 2009. Mother Jones also notes that  “the New York City Police Department has reported similar trends in its firearms discharge report, which shows that more black people have been shot by NYPD officers between 2000 and 2011 than have Hispanics or whites.”

As we speak, Bellamy is on his way to pick up his 6-year-old son from school. He says most of his work is influenced by the fact that he is raising a black son in America. After Ferguson, he was inspired to write a poem titled, “A.A. (Afro Anonymous) aka In Recovery aka WARdrobe,” in the form of a warning letter to his son. The poem captures everything he is feeling.

“Being a parent right now, at this moment in our country’s maturation process, is a very scary thing,” he said. “[My son] is essentially a mixed child, whatever that means. I think we’re all mixed, but I visibly identify as black; I could go into how I’m part French, part Native American, but when the police pull me over, I’m black. They’re not asking me, ‘What heritage is your mother.’ They’re not taking the time to get to know me that well. My son is going to be the same way. His mom is very white, very Italian and German, and I’m very black. And he’s a brown-skinned child in America.”

Bellamy said he often thinks about what he’ll tell his son when it comes time to talk about race issues, and he rehearses via his poetry. “I’m always practicing in my poetry, what will I say to him? How will I say it to him?”

On his Bandcamp.com page, Bellamy introduces the Afro Anonymous poem as, “Written by a Black man who was once a Black boy who has a Black son who will be an endangered species. Written while processing Ferguson, MO.” His complex, heart-wrenching verses capture the impacts of police brutality on family and culture in America:

A.A. (Afro Anonymous) aka “In Recovery” aka WARdrobe 

“I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” —Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)

Son, if you came up missing
your hood would not be able to find you.
Unable to pick you out in a crowd,
or a police line up.

If you made it that far.
If they even came looking at all.

Don’t be anonymous, child.
Make sure you stick out
like a pair of sore thumbs
alongside eight other fingers.
Don’t fist.
Don’t flinch,
even when their fingers
curl horizontally at your chest.

They won’t pull if you don’t push,
I pray.

Get em up, high.
As though you could actually reach
those pruned dreams above you,
rotting on each and every branch of government.

Like you’re the one being robbed of something,
and everything is suspect.

When standing up for yourself
becomes a crime,
you better stand out.

Like flannel in the summertime.
Like black combat boots and a trench coat
anytime of year.
Like Steven Fuckin’ Urkel
pants round your nipples,

or they will put shackles around your ankles.
Hoodies around your neck.
Flowers around your casket.

Because they murder more Stephons
than Steves every single year.

Don’t be anonymous, son.
Even if your comrades wear fatigues
every day in this warzone,
and call it a wardrobe,
you rock those plaid shorts
like a Tiger with no stripes
Do not enlist in mortal kombat
with a metropolitan military
that can’t see the fathers for the G’s,
our future for the trees.

It is open season on hoodies
and skinny jeans.
The only bulletproof vest
I can offer you is beneath
this three-piece suit.

We’ve worn these neckties for years
because we’re least threatening
at the end of a leash.

Speak jive only
as a second language,
because when in Rome
do as conquered people do.

I know…
Romans who?
Empires aren’t covered
til long after 1st grade
but it’s never too soon to grow up
in this backwards world
of men in backwards hats
getting gunned down in Walmart
for brandishing a toy pistola

While manufacturers live to brand
another day, about how lifelike
their product is…

“So authentic,
even cops can’t tell the difference…”

So anonymous,
even cops can’t tell the difference.

this is not cops and robbers
this is cowboys and Indians,
and the only way to not get shot in the back
is to dress like a cowboy.

This poem
is the only arrow pointing you past 19.

When their life
or pride
is in danger,
they cannot tell the difference between you
and the criminal record
they been bumping in their patrol car all day.

The gangsta rap videos
they imagine on loop in your brain
every time you open you mouth
with no “sir.”

They can’t tell,
just like mothers
trying to identify the mutilated bodies
of their babies.

Pulling Stephon’s
personal effects
out of a footlocker
of Air Force Ones
and Phoenix Suns jerseys
like it’s a police line up.

I will donate
your carefully creased curb costume
to a “Pimps and Hoes” party
at a fraternity you will never get in
at a college I am determined to get you to
…in one piece

This retired uniform,
designed to help you survive
these gang infested streets
is in need of a facelift.
To help you survive
a more lethal form of thuggery.

Because your tank tops
will never top their tanks.
If wearing a white flag were enough
I would drape you in that,
but it looks too much like the coroner’s blanket
and Officer PTSD might mistake you
for a frontline in Iraq.

Take off that bulls eye of conformity, son.
That bullshit dream of equality,
you can’t wear whatever you want in this country
that blames women for their own rape
because of what they didn’t have on.

You tuck your blackness into your bloodstream
like a white gold chain in the most dangerous part of town,
because the bullets pierce bubble goose parkas
leaving puddles of black boyhood flooding our sewers

And I’m sorry,
but I’d rather have you crying
than leaking
on your way home.

So you will settle
for being the preppiest kid in school.
Wear your culture
like a but naked emperor.

Like an invisible man.

They will see you when it’s convenient,
beyond your Birkenstocks and Brooks Brothers
during the next manhunt.
When boys are fair game.

So, whatever you do
don’t be anonymous.

When you go back out to that corner
be the duck wearing a Labrador Retriever costume
in a flock of geese.

At least you know
they won’t shoot you, today.
And hey,
if you are lucky,
they might even house break you,
and take you home.

© Hakim Bellamy August 15, 2014

Don’t Be Anonymous, Son

Several times throughout the poem, Bellamy references war against, and conquering of, black Americans. He says his larger message is that in order to control and oppress anyone—be it black people, women, etc.—the oppressor must dehumanize them. That means demonizing certain things, like clothing and language, and objectifying or substantiating other things (body parts in the case of women).
“It is really these accoutrements of culture that, unfortunately for a black person in America, define our culture,” he said. “When you can be minimized or essentialized to an article of clothing; essentialized to a hat being worn in a certain position or a style of music or a way of talking or a pair of sneakers—when they can make you that, as they’ve done to women for generations (women become not human beings but a body part, a pair of breasts)—when you can dehumanize someone, it’s really easy to wage this kind of cultural war.”
He says this is what’s happening with the callous shootings of black males in America.

“They become more of a product than a person,” he said. “It’s easy to take them as monolith, and it’s easy to make them these things that we’re scared of—and then that justifies how we treat them.”

Bellamy said the recurring plea in his poem, “Don’t be anonymous, son,” is about the way cops and others seem to be blending people with a certain skin color, wearing a certain style, talking a certain way, together in their minds. Bellamy said this part of the poem also addressed the teenagers he teaches English to inside and outside of the juvenile justice system.
“We are a culture that celebrates celebrities, we celebrate people who stand out, yet we practice fitting in,” he said. “I always challenge my students on that. I’m like, okay, you guys love Lady Gaga? Well, Lady Gaga has not ever been accused of being somebody who just fits in.”
He said that part of the poem is also a future dialogue he imagines with his son.
“I’m saying, sometimes you’ll wanna walk, dress, talk like your buddies, and I understand how important that is to our culture—me talking and dressing like my buddies is part of black culture…everybody has that element to their culture, but at a certain point you have to embrace being different,” he said. “In this case fitting might be the most dangerous thing you can do. Your life might actually depend on you being the different kid, and maybe that means you can’t dress like your friends. And now I’m getting into hyperbole in the poem, like maybe it means you have to dress like Carlton in the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” rather than Will Smith because, guess what, Carlton doesn’t get pulled over and beat.”
“It’s hyperbole and not. And then we can look back a couple years and say, even that won’t save you because look what happened to Henry Louis Gates. Even if you live in Beverly Hills and do everything ‘right’ and play by the book, you still will somehow be made to feel like the ‘boy’ in this culture because they have to remind you of your place.”
The Practice of Feeling
Bellamy said poetry is a timeless tool because it is the “practice of feeling.”“Today we hear so much on social media and the news, and it’s very analytical,” he said. “We’re processing, and much like our flawed education system, we’re memorizing like ‘Oh I heard these facts about progressives, I heard these facts about conservatives.’ You can remember them, but it’s not actually feeling. …[Poetry] is feeling instead of this analytical logic-ing each other to death. I feel like that’s what we’re gonna do, at the end of our little human turn in the universe here, were gonna logic ourselves to death instead of, like, holding hands, touching each other, having fun, laughing, crying, making love, feeling pain— the good stuff.”

Bellamy choses to write about race in the hopes it will help spread compassion.

“All things being equal, my white, male, 36-year-old counterpart from New Jersey might not really connect to Trayvon Martin, they might not really connect to Ferguson, but they can connect to being a parent that is trying to explain something very difficult to a small child,” he said. “So if I write there, and they can understand that, then maybe there’s a higher percentage of success that they will actually understand what I was trying to say.”

While his work is heavy, even heartbreaking at times, Bellamy is light and exhuberant when he speaks, often laughing. He says the seriousness of the content often comes up for him in conversation.

“I oftentimes get asked, what do you write about? I tell people, you know, I’m a journalist so I write about stuff that’s not sexy: oppression, social justice, all these things. And people go, oh, wow, that must be exhausting.”

But for Bellamy “exhausting” is an antonym when it comes to his work.

“If you look at a lot of my work and you’re like, man, we should all just end it tomorrow because it’s not getting any better—If that’s what you read, you’re reading it wrong,” he said, laughing. “Actually, the fact that people want to engage this work, that gives me hope. It shows the amazing capacity for the human heart to change and grow and feel. People are not running away from it, they’re running towards it—especially white, Anglo people here in New Mexico are like, ‘I want to do this work, I want to hear stuff that challenges me because it reminds me that we have work to do.’ To me, that’s encouraging. That is the bigger part [of my work]. It’s not meant to make everybody go home and feel terrible, but it’s made to make people go, huh, that’s right, that’s still happening and we have a lot of work to do.”

Bellamy said the following quote from the US national Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, sums it up: “Some have said ‘you sure do write a lot about race’ and I say ‘I only write about it as much as it’s intertwined into the fabric of our nation’…that’s the problem; people just don’t pay attention.”

“If I’d lived a totally different experience in America, I’d be happy to write about cats,” Bellamy said. But right now, what I can’t go to sleep without thinking about is my son navigating this world and how to make it a little bit safer for him. So that’s just on my mind, and that’s what I tend to write about.”

 April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.

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