I am not appropriating anything. She offered me
her smile, a stranger in passing, meeting my gaze
full on. A wind rushed through me, a clapper pealed.
I was as surprised as anyone, such a raging torrent
beneath us that I feared the bridge uncrossable.
Instead, black, lovely, she released all tension
through an unknown spillway. I smiled back,
turned my whole body to look after.
Puzzled, my son asks about a young man accepted
into Stanford after typing #BlackLivesMatter
100 times in answer to the question “What Matters
to you and why?” I pause. I suck in air. I think
of those who did not get in. I say, because once
was not enough, because when young men rise
above a trench, one by one, they get mown down,
because it takes a hundred times a hundred, a hundred
times, and luck, to budge the capstan of history.
There is a place for bluntness unsoftened by art.
Uncomfortable in his whiteness, he considers this.
Uncomfortable in my own, I, too, consider.
Emmett Till’s face belonged to Emmett Till.
Even his mother could not own his face,
could only witness and lay it bare, unsparing.
His face fell into history, becoming other
than itself, becoming part of the nation’s
patrimony (the word intentional, the ugly
inheritance from its first fathers). I can write
this poem, Dana Schutz can paint a portrait,
yet not appropriate anything, both articulating
what moves us, each able to say this, this the view
from our own small window, from our shared
humanity, not black or white, or not that only.
The Protests and Reactions to Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial [W Magazine]
#BlackLivesMatter, Stanford and One Muslim Teen [The Mercury News]
Devon Balwit is a poet and educator from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Oyez, The Cincinnati Review, Red Paint Hill, The Ekphrastic Review, Trailhead Magazine VCFA, The Prick of the Spindle, and Permafrost.