One of the heartbreaking things about the past few weeks for Jourdan Imani Keith is how many of her poems, ones that touch on anguish, outrage and sadness — feel so current right now.
Keith is Seattle’s Civic Poet, and she sighs deeply as she reflects on it.
“What's going through my mind is that before I can write one ending, there is another atrocity. Over and over again,” she said.
Just a few weeks ago, Keith was returning to an essay, called “Smoke,” which was in progress. She wasn’t certain yet how she was going to end it.
“It makes the link between what happened with Eric Garner not being able to breathe, being murdered, and tobacco use that I started using when I was a kid,” she said.
Keith was working on it into the evening, when she drifted off to sleep.
“I fell asleep editing that, I woke up, and then in the morning, George Floyd had been murdered," she said. "I couldn't believe it. It was like I was writing about this the night before, about Eric Garner and my own life. And I fell asleep at the computer on my bed and woke up to a worse nightmare.”
'IT CUT TO THE CORE'
As this latest tragedy was sinking in, Keith says she found herself drawn back to this one key moment in the essay. She’d written about this incident in high school, ducking out of class with the other girls to sneak a cigarette. They called them “bogs,” after Humphrey Bogart.
“It all linked suddenly in my mind, back to a story, how my father taught me to respond when the first time I was called the N-word,” she said.
Keith went to a private school in Philadelphia. Her classmates were from wealthy families. In the little circle of smokers outside school (Keith notes that she doesn’t smoke anymore), most of the girls smoked Marlboros and Gauloises. Keith had a pack of menthols, which she offered to share.
“And this girl said to me, I don't want no ‘nig bog.’ And then she called me the N-word, in full," she recalled. "And I don't know what to do, so I told my father and he asked me a lot of questions about who she was and who her family was and. Determining things I didn't understand he was determining, and he said, call her: rich … white … trash.”
The cadence of the retort was crucial, she says. The girl needed to absorb every word of it.
“I didn't know what that meant. And then when I became older, I knew what it was he was telling me to say. Because I don't think that you should call anybody trash," Keith said. "But my father went through a lot, and he understood what I was experiencing. And it worked. It cut to the core.”
In the essay, which still didn’t have an ending, Keith traces the threads that run from that moment behind the school to the tobacco fields of the American South.
I was an upper school bogin’. I did not know that our ‘race riot,’ the weaponized names we learned to degrade each other, had roots in the tobacco we were smoking. I did not know enslaved people were forced to harvest tobacco crops.
Now I understand what my father knew cut at the root. The girl was not from old money, from people who had land and enslaved workers. She was from overseers, from slave patrollers. Poor white people who were hired to protect the property of wealthy whites by controlling the movement of blacks. Only the illusion of racial superiority gave them power.
From there, Jourdan describes what it was like to learn that Eric Garner wasn’t killed down south — that he died in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, New York — at the hands of police officers, who, she says, had historic parallels to those slave patrollers.
As she reflected on the patterns of racial oppression, she found herself thinking again and again of how deep the story runs in our country’s history. In addition to being a poet, Keith is a naturalist, and she says she can’t help but think about how that work bleeds into her life as a writer, and a Black woman.
It reminds her, she says, of clearing out invasive blackberry bushes.
“It’s easy to cut it down and make it look pretty like it’s gone. But people trying to restore areas realize how much it takes to get out the root of blackberry, and that they look like fists, and it is an incredible labor, and you can’t ever stop. So it’s very disheartening knowing we will be laboring at this for a very long time,” she said.
Fast forward now to a few weeks ago, after Keith has woken up in bed with her laptop, the essay called “Smoke” still on her screen. She awakened to this new chapter of a very old story, and only then could Keith write the ending.
Again, we protest, unable to breathe with the weight of another murder in plain sight, pressing into every part of us, the way each officer pressed into a man already handcuffed, already face down. George Floyd has become a symbol. ‘I can't breathe’ has become a chant. In the midst of a respiratory pandemic with the knee of historic violence pressed into the body of a people spread around the world, the crops of fear and bigotry are burning. And there is smoke. So much smoke.