America this is quite serious.
This essay originally appeared in "Who Want the World Like It Is? A 2016 Election Anthology" published by Birds Piled Loosely Press.
. . .
America this is quite serious.
America is this correct?
Allen Ginsberg asks this rhetorical question in 1956 when the world was shadowed by
Eisenhower and Nixon. Elvis just hit the charts. War was cold. Larsen was perfect. Monroe
married Miller. Pollock died. “In God we trust” was adopted as the national motto and the
phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Sixty years later, who is writing
America today? This question begs a deeper question: exactly whose America are we talking
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read.
The term America is Germanic and the name Amerigo is said to derive from the Gothic Amalrich, literally meaning ‘work-ruler.’ Both work and rule were brought to the land not named America and imposed in a sense just as literal as the linguistic turn. It was upon this land and these people that the question ‘what is America for?’ was first answered. The white man said: for the taking. And shortly after this he followed: not for you. This is still his answer, only he says it now through a megaphone with militarized police, pepper spray, rabid dogs, and selective understanding of the word property. He says it now to defend the money and thick fire water. The first fire water came by surprise, hot but soothing in a world of changing pain. The next fire water came well advertised as “industrial growth,” “pipeline to prosperity,” or, as John Prine put it once, “the progress of man.” These protesting natives, first peoples, Indians, they say that water is sacred. Interesting, then, that the Nobel Prize in Literature was just awarded to a white man who said “it’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.” Dylan wrote those lines on a tuberculosis blanket in 1965. Fifty one years later and we’re talking about Mars while the Earth burns. So what is America for? “Protect your spirit,” warned American Indian poet and activist John Trudell, “because you are in the place where spirits get eaten.” America is manifest for the destined who never arrive as they never left.
Him need big black niggers. Hah.
The meaning ‘work-ruler’ took no truer form than when America was a boat, the original
pipeline of oppression: home to plantation. These were the times of ice cold iron and sweltering fields and it was at this time that America birthed race. Shortly after, it birthed the police. These two children begat a long, long list of names; some are still too recent on the tongue: Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, or take it back to 1999 and Amadou Diallo. There are too many names. There were too many ships. One ship is too many. One name too hard. America is still “chaos in the windy grays / through a red prairie.” Those words concluded a 1960 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks for Emmett Till. Emmett came back as Tamir Rice only to fall again. If not for Emmett, or Tamir, or Gwendolyn, then for what? In 1852 Frederick Douglass was asked what the Fourth of July was to the American slave, he responded:
I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross
injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration
is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness,
swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your
denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and
equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and
thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere
bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes
which would disgrace a nation of savages.
One hundred and sixty four years after that essay, knees touched grass during the National
Anthem. Bodies crouched low to draw attention away from the hatless heads and covered
hearts. This is a silent movement but it sounds like Sojourner Truth when she says that “we have all been thrown down so low that nobody thought we'd ever get up again; but we have been long enough trodden now; we will come up again, and now I am here.” America is a grave from which the resurrected rise.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
A woman is on television running for President of the United States of America. If this were
told upon first landing, the ships would have turned around and sailed back to England where the Queen knows her role as a figurehead with no real power. God forbid that a woman hold the highest office in the land, and given that women were not allowed to vote until 1920, and
non-white women barred until 1965, He certainly has strong feelings about this issue. We must
wonder if her salary will be twenty percent less than that of Barack Obama. How long will she,
at sixty eight years of age, have to field questions about the dangers of her getting her period
while in office? Emma Goldman mused that a “woman’s greatest misfortune has been that she
was looked upon as either angel or devil, her true salvation lies in being placed on earth; namely, in being considered human.” Indeed, the false binary is pervasive: prude or slut, babe or bitch, trying too hard or letting oneself go, smart or stupid, anorexic or overweight, woman or witch? America has never been for humans, only men. Even the word hu-man is a derivative of man, and just like Eve came from Adam, wo-man came from man as well. This is likely because men made the alphabet and the words, wrote the story of Adam and Eve, and subsequently invented the firebomb. Anne Sexton understood this, and so she can answer the question “what is America for?” with her poem "The Firebombers."
We are America.
We are the coffin fillers.
We are the grocers of death.
We pack them in crates like cauliflowers.
The bomb opens like a shoebox.
And the child?
The child is certainly not yawning.
And the woman?
The woman is bathing her heart.
It has been torn out of her
and as a last act
she is rinsing it off in the river.
This is the death market.
where are your credentials?
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
The people in the apartment below are yelling at their children. Doors are slamming and they
shake the floor. The rain falls heavily like eyelids that need to sleep. This apartment complex
used to be low income housing. It isn’t anymore. There was a class action lawsuit and the
lawyer representing us tenants secured forty-four units out of two-hundred and sixty to remain
subsidized. I called the lawyer and he said that we should hunker down, let natural attrition
occur, and we’d likely be able to keep our subsidized rent. That is if we make it five years. A
lot could happen in five years. There may be a new president, or dictator for that matter. I could get another master’s degree, or bachelor’s, even. I could take on some more debt. My left knee hurts from work. My lungs wheeze as I’ve run out of asthma medication and am currently uninsured, waiting to hear back from the state office. They were supposed to call weeks ago and breathing hurts now. My spirit is sore from crying. I had hope when I was young but it was a child’s hope, charming and short-lived. I should despair, but despair is boring, absurd, and ugly. All that is left are the open and empty hands of the everyday. I think this is the case for most. America is for the homeless man on the side of the road in the rain. I saw him through the shimmering bus window and his sign read “disabled vet asking for any yard work or help.” He was cold like the war when Ginsberg wrote. His hands were stiff and white, very white as though there was little life left. The life is running out of America. Do we believe in an afterlife?