Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a day to reflect on the civil rights leader's example and his legacy, and for poet Richard Blanco, it's also a time to pause and evaluate the state of civil and human rights in the United States.
In the latest installment of "Village Voice," Blanco examined one of his own poems from the book "Boundaries," titled "Easy Lynching On Herndon Avenue." He was inspired to write it after seeing a present-day photo taken of Herndon Avenue in Mobile, Alabama, the site of the last recorded lynching in the United States in 1981. (The street was later renamed after the man who was murdered, Michael Donald.)
Blanco was shocked at the street's quiet, ordinary appearance — "as if nothing happened here," he wrote in an email. It made him think about, as he writes, "the hidden racism in America."
"The focus is on this as a figurative way to discuss how racism in America is at times swept under the rug, invisible," he wrote.
"When Barack Obama was elected, we thought that maybe we had turned some kind of corner in the United States, and of course what we've seen in the last year is that there's all of this hidden, deep-seated racism [and] prejudice that started bubbling up, through a series of events and out of the mouth of our own President," Blanco explained on Boston Public Radio.
The process of writing the poem made him think about the instances when his own silence or complacency allowed a racist comment or action to go unpunished.
"This poem was hard to write and hard to read, because it makes me sort of acknowledge the ways I have been passively, in a way, condoning racism by not speaking up when comments happen or things happen," Blanco said.
The poem is also about acknowledging a painful history that many would rather forget.
"[Racism] is there in the way the street is there, and we can drive by it, but there it is," Blanco said.
EASY LYNCHING ON HERNDON AVENUE
Present-day photo at the sight of the last recorded lynching in the U.S.
What I’d rather not see isn’t here: no rope,
no black body under a white moon swaying
limp from a tree, no bloodied drops of dew
on the twenty-first of March 1981. That’s
in another photo, like a dozen other photos
I’ve gaped at wanting—not wanting—to turn
away from the snapped necks of the hanged,
and the mob’s smug smirks, asking myself
How could they? Why? Questions not here,
not in this photo—a crisp and tranquil snap-
shot—murder washed out by time, history
left uncaptured. What’s left now is easier
on our eyes: only pale morning light seeping
blue into the sky—a backdrop to the necks
of tree boughs bowing like swans, innocent
of any crime on Herndon Avenue, pictured like
any other street: clean sidewalks (no blood),
utility poles strung with wires (no rope), a few
pavement cracks (no broken-boned body).
Easier to imagine only this: groomed children
waiting for the school bus grinding to a halt
that March morning, the twenty-first, 1981.
Their backpacks zipped with undoubtable
history and equations, cartoon lunchboxes
filled with fresh ham sandwiches and sweet
grapes. Sport-coat fathers dashing to work,
worried about paychecks and the greenness
of their lawns. All-day mothers left tending
silk pillows never fluffed enough, scrubbing
sinks never white enough, wiping windows
never spotless enough. Easier not to ask if
anyone saw him, if anyone knew the boy
whose mama had named Michael—Michael
Donald. Easier to think no one was friendly
with Mr. Hays and Mr. “Tiger” Knowles who,
on the night of March twenty-first 1981,
drove around looking for something black
to kill at random. They spotted him, age 19,
walking home (the body), strangled him first, 24
then slit his throat (the blood), chose a tree
to hang him (the rope) on Herndon Avenue.
Why? Which tree was it that shook with
his last breath? Easier not to look for it, not
find it, not make ourselves imagine Michael
still hanging on Herndon Avenue, his death
still alive since March twenty-first, 1981.
Easier not to look at his shut eyes, wonder
what his favorite color or superhero was, if
he liked to skateboard or draw, if he heard
his mama’s cries: My boy—Jesus, my boy!
Easier to believe the last words on the lips
of his murderers must’ve been: Forgive us,
to trust this kind of thing doesn’t happen
anymore, stay blind (no rope, no blood,
no body) to the life of a boy named Michael
invisible in this photo, that is, until we dare
to look hard and deep and long enough.
Richard Blanco joins Boston Public Radio twice a month for Village Voice. He’s a Presidential Inaugural Poet and a professor at Florida International University teaching poetry. His latest project is the fine press book "Boundaries," a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler.