David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 11): “Skinhead”

By

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” begins historian Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s. Until the 2016 populist right gained power of all three branches of the federal government with the election of Donald Trump, the most extreme groups associated with the angry-minded right wing were post-Reconstruction Southern Democrats, the Ku Klux Klan, John Birch Society, and gangs of skinheads.

It’s this last crowd that has my interest here.

Hofstadter’s essay was published just before the first skinheads emerged in the post-war 1960s British youth culture. Clad in the fashion of Jamaican immigrants and the English mod, skinhead Brits at first merely opposed their long-haired, middle-class peers. Hostilities, you might say, were mostly superficial: clean-cut working class toughs versus fops. But the West Indies influence got shelved when whites found too much pan-Africanism in the values of their Rastafarian counterparts. Too, these early British skinheads were only mildly nationalistic. They found more united them in attending club soccer parties that featured ska and reggae—plus committing petty crimes—and not so much being swastika-tattooed white supremacists.

The rise of racism in skinhead culture in Britain began with anti-Pakistani sentiment in the 1970s—with skinheads seeking out South Asians for pushing, shoving, head-butting, and attacking with iron bars. Next came skinhead attacks on gays, lesbians, blacks, punks, goths, and more immigrant groups. It’s in the mid-1970s that skinheads first associated with fascist political parties in England like the National Front and the British Movement that started running neo-Nazi candidates in local elections.

In the US, skinhead activities were first reported in the 1980s in Texas and the Midwest with violent attacks against immigrants and African Americans. A major leader behind the growth of American skinheads was Tom Metzger, a California Klansman and leader of the White Aryan Resistance, known as WAR. To attract chaotic white youth to the movement, Metzger began organizing an annual rock concert and music festival, Aryan Fest, in 1986 in Oklahoma. In 1988 Metzger hailed the skinhead murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in Portland, Oregon, claiming the killers performed a “civic duty.”

Hofstadter says he named this style of politics the “paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” of its adherents—

In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.

If you’re looking for a poem that evokes an American experience of white hatred, a poem that nearly empathizes with the energies of racism while also indicting it, Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” shapes this American characteristic as a sinister maliciousness fully formed:

They call me skinhead, and I got my own beauty.
It is knife-scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters,
it’s in the way my eyes snap away from the obvious.
I sit in my dim matchbox,
on the edge of a bed tousled with my ragged smell,
slide razors across my hair,
count how many ways
I can bring blood closer to the surface of my skin.
These are the duties of the righteous,
the ways of the anointed.

The face that moves in my mirror is huge and pockmarked,
scraped pink and brilliant, apple-cheeked,
I am filled with my own spit.
Two years ago, a machine that slices leather
sucked in my hand and held it,
whacking off three fingers at the root.
I didn’t feel nothing till I looked down
and saw one of them on the floor
next to my boot heel,
and I ain’t worked since then.

I sit here and watch niggers take over my TV set,
walking like kings up and down the sidewalks in my head,
walking like their fat black mamas named them freedom.
My shoulders tell me that ain’t right.
So I move out into the sun
where my beauty makes them lower their heads,
or into the night
with a lead pipe up my sleeve,
a razor tucked in my boot.
I was born to make things right.

It’s easy now to move my big body into shadows,
to move from a place where there was nothing
into the stark circle of a streetlight,
the pipe raised up high over my head.
It’s a kick to watch their eyes get big,
round and gleaming like cartoon jungle boys,
right in that second when they know
the pipe’s gonna come down, and I got this thing
I like to say, listen to this, I like to say
“Hey, nigger, Abe Lincoln’s been dead a long time.”

I get hard listening to their skin burst.
I was born to make things right.

Then this newspaper guy comes around,
seems I was a little sloppy kicking some fag’s ass
and he opened his hole and screamed about it.
This reporter finds me curled up in my bed,
those TV flashes licking my face clean.
Same ol’ shit.
Ain’t got no job, the coloreds and spics got ’em all.
Why ain’t I working? Look at my hand, asshole.
No, I ain’t part of no organized group,
I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.
Then there’ll be three million.
I tell him that.

So he writes it up
and I come off looking like some kind of freak,
like I’m Hitler himself. I ain’t that lucky,
but I got my own beauty.
It is in my steel-toed boots,
in the hard corners of my shaved head.

I look in the mirror and hold up my mangled hand,
only the baby finger left, sticking straight up,
I know it’s the wrong goddamned finger,
but fuck you all anyway.
I’m riding the top rung of the perfect race,
my face scraped pink and brilliant.
I’m your baby, America, your boy,
drunk on my own spit, I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful.

And I was born

and raised

right here.

Using dramatic monologue, Smith unmasks the skinhead’s anger to fend off threats to his way of life. He feels dispossessed. He believes his country has been stolen from him and his white race. He is determined to repossess it before some ultimate destruction occurs. He espouses a view that might makes right and advocates for violent conflict between the races, a conflict that the whites must win. He sees himself a victim, a subversive against internationalists and cosmopolitans.

Everywhere he sees treasonous coalitions and conspiratorial plots. He sees the United States government as illegitimate, as an organization of white sellouts being directed by a disproportionate amount of Jews—the theory is known as ZOG, Zionist Occupied Government, an anti-semitic conspiracy theory that contends that Jews secretly control the United States—while all along, paradoxically, the skinhead touts America First, ultra-nationalistic politics. He may or may not celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler, but the skinhead consistently denies existence of the Holocaust as a matter of historical dispute. The skinhead would tell you he’s not anti-semitic just anti-Jewish, not anti-black just pro-white, not anti-Muslim just a proud believer in Christ. “I’m not anti-anybody,” white nationalist John Metzger, the son of Tom Metzger, puts it, “until all of a sudden they have a problem with me.”

Patricia Smith’s poem is so powerfully unnerving because it gives a voice to these hateful preoccupations and fantasies as a mark of the grotesque. Hofstadter describes this angry viewpoint as “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary”—

These are the duties of the righteous,
the ways of the anointed

Are we not now experiencing a tidal wave of this berserk paranoia? A bulk of the support for Trump—surely what made him a contender in the GOP primaries—came from voters with beliefs rooted in racism and sexism. “We find that while economic dissatisfaction was part of the story, racism and sexism were much more important and can explain about two-thirds of the education gap among whites in the 2016 presidential vote,” political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta reported in a recent finding.

And so beginning with the end of Reconstruction and the ratification of Jim Crow, the trail of sharecroppers fleeing the South, resistance to school integration after Brown vs. Board of Education, Nixon’s Southern Strategy of fueling white anger over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the codification of race-baiting in the GOP party platforms since the 1970s, the so-called War on Drugs, and xenophobic resistance following the election of Barack Obama, a poem like “Skinhead” can be read as one angry voice in a paranoid chorus of white backlash.

***

This is part eleven of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 123456789, and 10. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →