By Nick BeJeaux
Aristotle wrote that poetry is finer than history, for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.
The crisis that overtook Ferguson, Mo., coupled with a heightened awareness of racial profiling and violence by police through the Internet have proven that the issue of racial inequality has lingered well into the 21st century. But activists, the Internet and media have a tendency to skew facts in their favor, intentionally or otherwise. However, first-hand accounts of profiling and violence written in stanzas with a measured rhythm may provide the clearest look at the U.S.’s lingering racial tensions.
One such poem was written by Baton Rouge poet and Director of Programs at Forward Art Donney Rose; he calls it “Anonymous Profile.”
“It’s a snapshot of the night me and my friend Marcel Black [a youth development worker] went to see Curren$y at the Varsity in October 2012,” said Rose. “We turned right onto State Street from Dalrymple and we stopped at a police checkpoint.”
The story begins with Rose and Black – both married men – getting ready for a rare night out. Everything is going well until they hit the checkpoint, where they were stopped for no apparent reason.
“They asked us why we didn’t have our seatbelts on, which wasn’t true,” said Rose. “We told them we had our seat belts on the whole drive. Then they asked us to make it simple for them and ‘tell them where the weed is.’ They asked us what we were doing and they told us that they arrested Curren$y for weed and asked if we knew him – Come on, just because we’re black doesn’t mean we know the rapper we’re going to see.”
Rose became very nervous when the cops mentioned weed. He had heard stories of cops planting drugs to get arrests. That didn’t happen, but the cops did have a few things to say about a buzz ball that Marcel had in the car. That ended up being a non-issue but the questions continued and the baiting began.
“They asked us questions for about 20-25 minutes before asking for our IDs – it’s like they didn’t care who were were,” said Rose. “Marcel is a big guy and when we got out of the car they were really on him, calling him “big man” and keeping him from moving around too much. We were really on our P’s and Q’s – very ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ And Marcel was very docile – their tone indicated that things could escalate if we weren’t careful.”
As a performance poet, Rose thinks that by capturing this experience within a poem more people are likely to see that his recount of that night is sincere. Still, he remains a little cynical, and rightly so.
“People are prone to listen to a prettier package than a ant on a soapbox,” he said. “As a black man, I am stigmatized. If I didn’t put this in stanza form with line breaks I could…would be accused of ranting about something I provoked. But that does not diminish it – it’s still art. I just would have preferred to not have the material for this particular poem.”
There was no physical abuse during this incident, but Rose doesn’t take for granted that he and Marcel were allowed to leave unscathed.
“I could have been the subject of someone else’s poem – I don’t take that we were about to leave lightly.”
Rose works with kids to help them find their own voice through poetry, but he hopes that one day someone will teach society to speak up about it’s own stories and problems and then, hopefully, reconcile them.
“We have to be honest with ourselves as a society on the subject of race relations,” he said. “People say there is no white privilege, but white privilege isn’t about money or economics. When a white man is waving a gun at police, they talk him down. They reason with him like a human being. A black man gets shot. That privilege is the lack of a stereotype or preconception hanging over you.”