September 11

I share the following poem with a fair amount of trepidation, for I am acutely aware that it may offend and/or anger some who read it. I have chosen to post it today, rather than yesterday, in the hope that this deferment will help to communicate that my intent is not to minimize the horror and suffering of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

My heart breaks for those who lost their lives, for those who lost loved ones, for those who bear deep and enduring scars of various types, and for the hatred that incited the violent actions of that day—and it swells with gratitude for those who rushed, at great risk to their own lives and well-being, into harm’s way to do whatever they could to offer aid to others.

But for 15 years now, every time I’ve heard someone (usually someone white and/or affluent) say that 9/11 changed everything, I have silently wrestled with the sense that this is more true for some of us than it is for others. For some Americans, the world was basically a safe and happy place on September 10, and a sad and scary one on the 12th. For others, life before 9/11 was already characterized by far too much struggle, suffering, fear, discrimination, threat, and attack.

This year, as battles rage over national anthem protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other topics that highlight how different the experience of America is for different groups of Americans, I feel compelled to add this long-stifled reflection (an almost-certainly imperfect/insufficient response that I can only even attempt because I have been so graciously welcomed and educated by non-white, non-affluent communities and friends) to the conversation—and to plead with my fellow privileged Americans to try, in whatever limited way we are able, to imagine what it must be like to face the homegrown terrors that some of our neighbors (Americans of African, Latin American, and many Asian descents; American Muslims; members of the LGBTQ community; and others) confront every day.*

There are many things that I love dearly about this country of ours. But there are also things that have been and continue to be terribly, terribly wrong with how we do life together here. I pray that as we seek to be honest and, where necessary, repentant about those things, we will be better able to labor together toward the beautiful vision of liberty and justice for all.

————

9/11

The towers fell,
and choking clouds of dust and smoke
     darkened the sky,
     stinging wide eyes
     and parching opened throats
          from which rose the anguished lament:
In this cataclysmic moment,
     the foundations of the world have shifted
     and the fundamental nature of our existence
          is forever changed!

And my tears flowed,
mingling with bitter rivers cried
     by a multitude of fellow Americans,
because it was true…

…and because it wasn’t.

I wept with those who no longer felt secure
     in the nation they called their home,
and with those who had never for one moment
     labored under that illusion…

…with the parents who suddenly sensed
     that the world was a treacherous place
          into which to send beloved children
and with those who had long known
     without any shadow of doubt
          that this was the case…

…with those just now being exposed to the notion
     that they might be targeted
          not for who they had chosen individually to become
          but for a collective identity
               they’d been handed at their birth
and with those whose backs bore generations of scars
     attesting to this terrorizing truth…

And as I wept,
I wondered
if the privileged would ever know
     what a luxury it was
     to be utterly shocked
          when tragedy struck.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

* Two notes: 1) This reflection represents only one strand of my response to an incredibly complicated set of events and realities related to 9/11—much more could be written about the ensuing backlash against American Muslims, the Iraq War, etc. 2) Nothing I say here is meant to imply that Americans who experienced various forms of terror prior to 9/11 were not deeply grieved by what happened on that day, or that their love for America is any less real or true than that of those who may have a “simpler” experience of our nation.

Advertisements

Profiled

As I grieve, pray, wrestle with anger and fear, and ponder how to move forward with hope and grace in the wake of the most recent events in Ferguson (and elsewhere) it seems good to share this poem/story. I offer it both as an expression of solidarity with those who daily deal with other people’s inaccurate assumptions and as an acknowledgment of the privilege that was at work (not only in the moment I describe, but also in a lifetime’s worth of earlier moments during which I was not mistreated or unjustly targeted because of the color of my skin) to cause my brush with law enforcement to end vastly differently than do far too many involving black and other non-white Americans (whether those interactions result in use of deadly force or “just” persistent disrespect and antagonism).

I do not, by any means, intend to vilify all police officers or other law enforcement officials. I have met and heard of many who care deeply about those they have committed to serve and protect—including those of their constituents who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. I do intend to convey dismay over the ways that we (an intentionally general pronoun that likely includes all of us, to some degree or another) continue to stereotype, judge and devalue one another across various lines of difference; heartbreak over the violence (physical, verbal and otherwise) that sometimes flows out of those thought processes; terror on behalf of families raising black and brown boys in the U.S. today (though let’s be honest, this has been treacherous terrain for hundreds of years); and the fervent hope that those of us who hold power and/or benefit from privilege will lay down our defensiveness and denial, listen to other people’s stories, reexamine our own narratives, and look for ways to work for meaningful change in discriminatory systems.

In line with these hopes, I share these reflections on a brief chapter of my story:

Profiled

Dashboard lights strobe,
a siren wails,
and before I remember my right
     to a well-lit stopping place,
I am standing in the empty parking lot
     of an abandoned business,
targeted by narcotics officers
because I had the temerity to enter—
     and soon after depart—
an apartment complex notorious
     for its high rate
     of drug trafficking.

They claim they did not see
the friend I dropped off
     at her home,
although her front door
stood just a few short yards
from where they’d taken up their post—
     vision tunneled—
and waited for someone
     who looked like me
     to do what I did.

As one of them ransacks my car,
I stand beside it
     under the watchful eye
          of the other,
trembling—
not because I am in possession
     of any contraband,
but because I have realized
     with a sickening sinking of my stomach
that I have in fact done something wrong:
I’ve been out and about
     without my license to drive.

My anxiety increases their suspicion,
and yet their search of my vehicle
     and my pockets
yields nothing illicit.

When at last they come to the conclusion
that I could not possibly be savvy enough
     to conceal banned substances
          from them,
their contemptuous countenances change
to expressions of concern
for this young white woman
who finds herself alone
     and apparently ill-equipped to navigate
          the mean streets of their beat—
while I am reminded,
     neither for the first time
          nor the last,
how different even the similarities are
on opposite sides
     of the color line.

© 2014
Alexis Spencer-Byers