Opinionista Ben Williams 3 June 2020

In America, the revolution is not being televised

Ben Williams considers the ways to follow and understand the events unfolding in America – and finds that poetry is a resource equal to Twitter.

In America, the revolution is not being televised.

True, TV news covers the fallout of George Floyd’s broad-daylight lynching by the Minneapolis police continuously. (Some stations with more self-respect than others.) Also true, many of their reporters are reckoning with a new item on repression’s taster menu: the baton round. Crunchy, bitter, still deadly! The police seem intent on fricasseeing America’s cherished First Amendment and force-feeding it down civilians’ gullets.

It’s not my aim to diminish the contributions of the brave journalists who, in the teeth of such aggression, still strive to bring us this story – which has totally eclipsed the story of the pandemic in the US – except to point out something that many of them already acknowledge. Namely, they can’t keep up with it. It moves too fast.

And so the revolution is not being televised. Instead, it’s being bush-telegraphed on social media, in clusters of posts, tweets and livestreams. Choose your channels, choose your citizen reporters, choose your hashtags, try to keep up – then watch the revolution run like liquid through your grasp.

(It doesn’t just move too fast: it also moves too slowly. One of the more heartening scenes during this fraught time has been the slow pan over various community organisations feeding the activists, finding them sanctuary, even babysitting for them. These acts have long been part of American protest tradition, especially Black American protest tradition, but are usually curtained off.)

Poetry is another channel to consider for getting your revolutionary bearings. It’s not as immediate as the others, of course – nor as mercurial – but it’s more enduring. One reason is: poetry affords a place for the ironies of history that other forms of speech, including the cries of outrage echoing around the crimes currently unfolding in America, cannot. Take the famous phrase I’ve borrowed for this column: how ironic that Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 verse should rise to especial relevance in the age of the ubiquitous lens.

(Side note: we’ve had more than one occasion to turn to Scott-Heron this month. As a counterpoint to Elon Musk’s SpaceX sending men into orbit, see his poem, ‘Whitey on the Moon’.)

Another such irony is that, at the same moment that President Trump quoted from a long tradition of racist dogwhistling about ‘looting and shooting’, America’s sitting National Poet Laureate was (and is) the wonderful Joy Harjo, who is the first Native American to hold the post.

Harjo’s fine writing stands as a thunderously upright counterpunch to Trump’s base squeals. One of her more recent poems, ‘An American Sunrise’, delivers a twist on an earlier classic, ‘We Real Cool’ by the African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Harjo concludes her reconstruction of Brooks’ work as follows:

…We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die
soon.

Those lines were published in February 2017, a month after Trump’s inauguration. Do you think they’ve grown or diminished in power since? I know my vote.

Further, poetry, like history, repeats itself, offering sympathetic resonances that, if they don’t provide succour, at least mark a point of understanding across shared anguish. Consider the US poet Amy Woolard, who turned words from the reports of Floyd’s death into a horrific jeremaid. ‘Tfw even the language gets away with murder,’ she commented on her versification of such banal witness of evil:

knelt
planted his knee
was seen with his knee on
pressed his knee
involved in the arrest
until Floyd fell silent

I wonder if she had previously encountered Chris van Wyk’s immortal poem about the death of activists at the hands of the apartheid police? His ‘In Detention’ begins:

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself

(As I write this column, Woolard is among those being teargassed for peacefully assembling in Richmond, Virginia. Here’s wishing her and her fellow demonstrators passage to safety.)

Finally, poetry – especially revolutionary poetry – surfaces from underground at opportune moments to put us in touch with the sacrifices of the person holding the pen, bringing their past fears and longings forcefully into our present. Here I would like to draw your attention to the recent re-publication of Malibongwe: Poems from the Struggle by ANC Women, edited by Lindiwe Mabuza, whose nom de plume/de guerre for the original publication was Sono Molefe. The book, first published in Europe in the 1980s, was banned in South Africa, but has at last made it to home soil, courtesy uHlanga Press.

From Malibongwe, here are the opening lines from Baleka Kgositsile’s ‘Exile Blues’:

let them roll
let the blues roll out
but ‘this load is heavy it requires men’
has nothing to do with baritone or beard
it is a word of warning wisdom
when the uncontrollable miles
between you and home
the beautiful land
you vowed to liberate
become unbearable
and you ask yourself
if it was worth your leaving the loved ones

Daily Maverick readers might know the poet better by her current name, Baleka Mbete. I wonder if this changes your reading of her words, above? For me, they build a house that has never stopped being haunted.

In these dog days of America’s jackbooted summer, which will haunt the country for so long to come, Malibongwe indeed to the Black Lives Matter leaders showing, unflinchingly, the way forward. Malibongwe! May justice be poetic. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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