- can't unsee
the eye is a tool. it takesavailable light and makes notes
to self about shape, distance,mood. the self—brain? mind?
soul?—accumulates and crossreferencesthese observations
with info from the ear, the skin,the tongue, turns the memos
into memories we trust to betrue. what looks like wood
will not give beneath our feet.what sounds like a siren
gives cause for alarm, willbe followed by flashing reds
and blues, or flames, ora stretcher and a gun. the eye
is the open drawer of a filecabinet the size of your head,
on the outside, and the sizeof your life on the inside.
what goes in might getlost, but never goes away. [End Page 35]
if beale street could talk, jenkinssays baldwin says, it would say
soft sunshine sweater meltingchocolate. would whisper artist's
inner eye sends notes to handsabout shapes, distances, moods.
would speak on woman spine,shout about black silence
and eloquent vocal black eyes.jenkins' beale street says see?
the glow fonny's eyes emitwhen tish is in view, the ideas
spinning and shifting behindthem when he studies his strange
sculpture-in-progress. see tishdiscern that glow through prison
plexiglass, still smoldering througha gray wash of gray. she can't
unsee the lips she kissed, evenwhen the mauve is bashed black
blue—and she can't unseethe bruise. meanwhile, fonny's
eyes are busily imprinting on hispsyche brutal scenes that befog
her face, that twist and disfigurethe structures he sculpts in his
dreams. his visions always black&white, even when they're in color.
you can't unkill. and you can'tunjail. the constitution doesn't [End Page 36]
yet confer on us the right to nothave to think about this shit. we
thumbs-up a criminal justice systemwith cold-blooded murderers in
mind, not the system we'd likeourselves or our kin to fall into.
have you ever made a mistake?has a witness ever? an officer?
a jury? a judge? when we thinkviolent crime, if we see black
skin, history's whispering its oldlies into our colorblind ears,
making it easier for us to say betterthat i'm safe and the criminal's sorry
than to waste time uttering the wordalleged. you can't unsee slavery.
a woman is innocent until provenangry. a man is innocent until
he fits the profile. a child isinnocent until she sees her mother
or father in cuffs. can't unsee. setbail too high and in two weeks
we've upped the odds that a pettythief becomes a well-connected
felon with even more reasonsto steal. i can't unsee the video
of the school security cop slammingan african american girl, a student,
to the ground. no, not the northcarolina one, the south carolina [End Page 37]
one. no, in texas the girl is latina,and i can't unsee her abuse either.
race is a tool. the law is a tool.they take power and make
inhumane order out of humanchaos. they make floors that will
not give beneath a brown girl'sskull. they make officers see black
and think gun. what soundsalarming will be followed by cell
phone photos and youtube clips,seens that yet another century's
minds and spirits will file away. [End Page 38]
Evie Shockley is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection semiautomatic (Wesleyan, 2017), which in 2018 was awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. Her other publications include the new black (Wesleyan, 2011), which also won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Shockley is at work on a book of criticism, Black Graphics, and a book-length poem, rescue.