My poem “Justification/Witness” came out of a devastating experience I had within days of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. I was on an innocent errand to purchase flowers, a kind of return to the concerns of “normal life” far from murder, uprising, protest, and grief.
Without any warning, I found myself a witness, trapped in the scene depicted in the poem. I had a sense of mounting dread for the life of this Black man. I was desperate to act to protect him. The response that did not make it into the poem is my inner, irrational search for a group of Black women to help me.
In my fear, I was convinced that if I could amass a group of Black women, the sight of us would bring this dangerously behaving man to his senses. Why did I think that?
I can only report that it felt like solidarity, protection, healing of pain. I wanted Mama and Auntie and my friend Jean Ann. I wanted Lucille and Sonya and Nikki, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Harriet and Sojourner. A mighty army. I am sure I wanted them for myself as well as him. I could not reason myself out of that need.
When I left the scene, I spotted a Black woman walking along the street near the parking lot. I stopped to ask her if she knew where there were other Black people nearby. In trying to explain to her what I had witnessed, I broke down in sobs. My desperation took me by surprise. She tried to comfort me but said she did not know of any other Black people in this neighborhood. I pulled myself together enough to start for home.
There was no way I could intervene in what I was sure was a disaster waiting to happen. I took the wrong route, still rattled, and finally came to myself when I realized I had made my way to the George Floyd memorial block.
The shock showed me I had to take control and get myself home.
There was stark contrast between the stereotypical justifications given after police shoot an unarmed Black man and what I had witnessed, or my understanding of events. That tension became the eventual title of the piece.
I sat with the experience for a day. I prayed a brief version of it aloud in the Zoom service of my church the next day. I told it to a friend. I wrote down every detail. I think I was trying to digest it all. The huge meaning of the man’s anger stunned me.
What emerged in the writing was how I held that same anger. My fear for him rose as he acted out feelings I have been well taught to conceal, and to tightly control. Now they were out on the page. And in the world.
They’ll say he was out of control
They’ll say he was mentally ill
They’ll say the public had to be protected They’ll say, look how he sweat,
see how he raved and spit and cursed the cop
— 38th and Chicago. Fuck you! —
we don’t need more, hours-fresh as we are with murder and fire and the knee on George Floyd’s neck.
They’ll recount how he waved his arms
through bursts of shouting in the parking lot
how he stripped off his shirt, his undershirt, peeled
to a brown sag of belly in front of the flower shop, then his pants
how he beat on the hood of his car with two naked fists. They’ll pinpoint the minutes ticking ticking ticking during his holy rampage.
What they will name his craziness churns
in me. Inside the trap of my safe car
blocked behind the cruiser
his rage satisfies me, four hundred years of our history’s insanity. Stuffed anger and squirming fear climb my throat.
I reach an embrace across our distance.
Can he see the arms I hold out from the dark of my front seat? I am trying to hold him in the light.
I’m offering an exchange: my light for the gift of his rage.
They’ll praise the officer’s restraint in the temptation of — Fuck you, Fuck you, Tase me —
They’ll cite authority’s need for backup
four cars screaming lights and sirens
to one calm cop (Backup! Backup! Send backup) and one black man manifesting an unallowable grief.
He pauses for one breath, eyes my way.
But history won’t let him go.
It crests in the shirt he pulls on, overflows as he redresses himself — Fuckyoufuckyou, tase me, Kill me —
Nothing about him is allowed,
not the 400 years,
not the torrent of words,
not his unprotected body,
not the heat of his black being.
They will say his death was the only solution to his life.
I have selected five Black women poets because everyone should know their work, their accomplishments, and the support of their words.
“Incendiary Art,” by Patricia Smith
Any book of hers has brave truth expressed with thrilling craft
“Thrall,” by Natasha Trethewey
Former U.S. Poet Laureate, a Black-identified mixed woman who knits together biography and deep history in her work
“The Collected Poems,” by Lucille Clifton Essential understanding and encouragement of the existence of women, especially Black women
“Wade in the Water,” by Tracy K. Smith Former U.S. Poet Laureate
“Coal,” by Audre Lorde Notable poet and essayist