Martha Silano’s books include Reckless Lovely and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, both from Saturnalia Books, and, with Kelli Russell Agodon, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, New England Review, and American Poetry Review, among others. Martha edits the Seattle-based journal, Crab Creek Review, curates Beacon Bards, a quarterly poetry reading series, and teaches at Bellevue College. Her work can be found at marthasilano.net.
Intro to Racism
for Mrs. Shainin’s 6th Grade Class,
Island View Elementary, Anacortes, Washington
Might not have even tried, except
the teacher asked for a poem about race,
asked me to tailor my lesson to the contents
of a film they watched last week, the march
from Selma to Montgomery, hoses and gas,
night sticks and vicious dogs. An assignment,
she says, in empathy (Anacortes is 92% white).
Might not have even tried, but begin my search
for a poem not too in-your-face, something
age-appropriate. Not Clifton’s “jasper, texas,”
much as I wish I could (who is the human,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?),
not Sanchez’s “14 Haiku”: Your limbs buried
in northern muscle carry their own heartbeat (how
to describe his face when they pulled him from the river?).
Asking me to challenge her students with form,
so I choose Natasha Trethewey’s “Incident,”
pantoum in the point of view of a child
waking to a burning cross on her front lawn
like a lit-up Christmas tree, the men in white hoods
compared to angels. We puzzle through it together.
On the board I write Ku Klux Klan in a town I’m certain
had a chapter, had its share of laws prohibiting
people of color from owning homes or businesses,
from hanging around after sundown. Nothing
really happened, the poem states, not once but twice.
A girl in the back remarks: ”but they tell it every year.”
Another waves his hand: “Sounds like the cops
stayed out of it.” Another keeps asking if we’re misreading:
maybe it’s a Christmas tree on fire, the men in gowns actual
angels. Can’t bring myself to say it, to teach it: your town,
my town, thousands of U.S. towns, white by design.
Maybe I should have summoned MLK, quoted Luke 23:34:
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do.
Weighed those words against the alternatives: Father,
get even. Father, destroy them. You’re not as safe
as you think, I kept wanting to say, but I’d have been talking
to myself. Maybe should have trotted out “Theme for English B,”
As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me—although
you’re older—and white—and somewhat more free.
Free as Trethewey to paint it bitter or semi-sweet,
the men leaving or the men having never left,
the flames dimmed or the flames still trembling in their wicks.