More than 20 years ago, long before #BlackLivesMatter, I noticed a disturbing trend: almost everyday in the news there was a case of police brutality, mostly against Black people, with a few white people sprinkled in because, even though this police brutality is often wielded like a billy club against Black people, it can be indiscriminate, in that when it is unleashed, anyone in the way of the blue wave of violence is knocked down by it.
As a poet, I started writing a poem for each case of police brutality that was reported. Before I knew it, and without conscious design, because I had written so many of these poems, I had a collection, which I entitled, Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats. This collection was a National Poetry Series Finalist in 2000.
As I have written elsewhere, a tree growing even in Brooklyn has a different meaning for Black people. We unconsciously shiver at the sight of a tree, even during the dog days of August. And although we often associate lynch mobs with the South, during the Draft Riots in NYC in 1863, a number of Black people were lynched, including a 7 year old boy. Indeed, lynching practically became an American pastime. There are numerous photos turned into postcards of both sober and smiling white men, women and children around Black bodies hanging from trees. Before social media was envisioned, white people proudly, as brutal and bloodly cautionary tales, recorded their dirty and deadly deeds against Black people.
This history will not die, despite how far too many white people want to bury it. In fact, when you have lived though these events, it is not history. This “history” almost always makes me think of my father, a native Southern Son, who had migrated North to New York City and met my mother, a first generation Bajan. In the ’60s and ’70s, every Fourth of July, my father would get in his Cadillac and drive South to visit his father and his family. He never took me, his first born son, on any of these trips. I didn’t understanding it at the time, but my father had served in the segregated U.S. Army as a teenager during WW II. I was born five years after Emmett Till was brutally killed by white Southerners. I can only imagine how that image played in my father’s mind, and all Black fathers, that they could not protect their sons from this virulent white violence. To protect me, he left me home when he journeyed South.
As a native New Yorker, when I traveled South as an adult, I was taken aback by all the monuments and statues to the treasonous Confederacy. Nonetheless, I know they are there to stand guard, to remind Black people of their place in the Southern hierarchy and landscape.
This passage through memory lane reminds me how the past and the present are connected, how the lynch mobs are connected White Knights and Blue Knights.
In one of my poems in Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats, “Blue Knight Riders,” I write:
They don’t wear white sheets
Or burn crosses in the night,
But there’s an unmistakable connection
Between these blue and white knights.