“Why do I get the sense that something really racist was once said in this room?” Danez Smith said. A momentary hush fell. Then booming laughter spilled over reassuringly from the audience – Smith was in his element.
Racing through my mind was an incomplete fragment, a hesitant phrase – “he’s not entirely wrong.” But then I got sidetracked, too engrossed by Smith effervescing across the limited floor of Griffin Hall in a Beyoncé tour hat and bling rings. His style was at once intimate and beckoning, yet also cautionary and serious. Pieces like “Genesissy” opened with humor as we were reminded how “on the 10th day, God wore a blood-red sequin body suit, dropped it low, called it a sunset.” Smith’s line break boasted a heady mix of visceral imagery, plopping the audience into episodic experiences only to be jarred by sharp segues into urgency, truths hard to swallow and habitually ignored. We were greeted with unsavory images of how “the song begat a hymn at the sweet boy’s funeral / Sista Rosa’s still disgusted head shake begat the world that killed the not-a-boy child and stole her favorite dress off her cold shimmering body and that just can’t, just can’t, just can’t come from God. Right?”
To be completely fair, not everyone in Griffin that day could have isolated every reference to a trans murder, or racial slurs that members of the LGBTQ, African and poz community are bombarded with on a daily basis. But we related as a collective to Smith’s fleshed out details: the apathy we try to attribute to anyone but ourselves, turning a blind eye, the moments in which we should have spoken up. And amidst all the contradictory facets of human nature, we were partially redeemed by iotas of sympathy and self-knowledge – of seeking to understand and be understood, of celebrating and singing one’s self – though admittedly, Smith did it much better than Walt Whitman.
The flourishes in Smith’s work were undoubtedly Minnesotan in dialect, with meter characteristic of UW-Madison’s First Wave program, and gutturally-stopped line breaks that made for perfect punctuation. I wondered if it is maybe Smith who owns that sequin bodysuit. Perhaps he himself decorated nighttime skies with the metallic hues of his rings or at least the tinsel tapering off from his voice. As the night progressed, we flitted from easily digestible, all-too relatable identity crisis pieces to a series of poems on sex positivity and finally politically-infused introspections.
At one point Smith turned JFK’s “ask what you can do for your country” axiom on its head. By now I had decided the rings were just as likely bits of some futuristic space-craft. Probably the same kind Smith used in his poem “Dear White America” to “[leave] Earth in search of darker planets.” Smith said, “You took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after boy after boy and asked ‘why does it always have to be about race?’… you made it so! … put an asterisk on my sister’s gorgeous face … call her pretty (for a black girl)! Because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! Because there is no Amber Alert for the Amber Skinned Girls!”
Yet Smith, who placed second at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam and authored both [insert] boy and Don’t Call Us Dead, does not build his brand on vitriol. He is justified in demanding “the fate of Lazarus for Renisha … Trayvon, Sean and Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh and blood, their flesh and blood re-gifted their children,” justified in having “left Earth…equal parts sick of your ‘go back to Africa’ as I am your ‘I just don’t see color’ (neither did the poplar tree).” The excerpts provided a crash course on the current state of supposed Civil Rights, complementary systematic racism and police brutality.
Smith refused to become the victim in pieces like “Dinosaurs in the Hood” and his chanting of “we are our own Mecca” swelled so large, it echoed through the room. Suddenly my mind raced back to complete its first lap. He was right about the room. Behind him were two plaques that commemorated the displacement of and violence against natives.
They belonged to a historical context that so proudly erected buildings with namesakes that are all white, all male. So when the room erupted in laughter at Smith’s opening lines, I was assured at once that we are our own Mecca, all of us on a pilgrimage against complacency because even though we passed the test of being able to take jokes like Smith’s – even though we cohabit this school that lauds itself on open-mindedness and all other liberal arts encompassing values – this was still a small enclave, still a venture organized by pro-minority organizations like BSU and the Davis Center.
I felt momentarily comforted by the fact that we were not as exclusionary as our historical backdrop, but also terrified about whether, even though the progress was not entirely superficial, this is all I could expect. Smith’s vivacé was a call to action against complacency. I refuse for the assent of laughter and sporadic mhhmmms to be enough and am sojourning for safe spaces and allies that permeate campus.
Danez Smith’s visceral spoken word poetry focuses on what it means to be black and queer in America. Photo courtesy of Youtube.