Sunday, January 11, 2009

"You know I don't mean you"

Written by Claudia, crossposted from The Bottom of Heaven



This week I spent some quality time with Dear Darkness: Poems by the incredible poet, Kevin Young. He draws on his Louisiana roots in this new collection, mourning the loss of family and faith with the characteristic voice of a bluesman. Poems such as “Another Autumn Elegy” are particularly moving, while other verses use images of food in funny and surprisingly reflective ways. Take the “Prayer for Black-Eyes Peas”: “harbor me & I pledge each / inch of my waist not to waste / you, to clean my plate / each January & like you / not look back.”

But I was especially excited to discover that Dear Darkness reprints what is, without a doubt, one of my favorite poems about the adolescent negotiations of race:

“No Offense”

If you wonder why
I’m not laughing, go ask
Brian, the sixth-grade cutup
the one with the most dirty jokes
who requested the tribal African song
Tina Singu each music class, black
vinyl spinning while Brian made
faces, knocked his knees together
like eggs. If you are curious about
me, just ask the boy who riddled
the whole playground or me
& my friends walking
home: What do you get
when you cross a black person

with a Smurf? I am sure today
he would answer you, would explain
now that he meant No offense just
like he did then above the crowd
of girls leaning close or the boys
trying to get his timing down,
just as after the punchline
he always said You know I don’t
mean you. It’s OK. And when
you see that boy whose last name
I don’t seem to remember, be sure
to tell him that this here Smigger
could care less yet could never care
more, that my blue
& brown body is more
than willing to inform
him offense is one hostage
I have never taken.

– from Dear Darkness: Poems by Kevin Young

When I first read “No Offense,” I thought about Nikki Giovanni, who wrote in 1968 that “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.” Perhaps Kevin Young’s poem is the “Nikki-Rosa” of our modern and supposedly more-progressive generation, one meant to reap the benefits of desegregation and civil rights struggles. (At least, that’s what Rudy, Vanessa, and Theo Huxtable would have us believe.)

So what I find most striking about "No Offense" is the unmistakable rage - and sadness? - that lingers beneath its playground pranks and pop culture references. Young skillfully creates that familiar moment when so many black youths are first confronted with the racial implications of privilege and difference in this country. His ironic tone becomes more and more combative as the poem moves us from a sixth-grade music class to an implied hostage crisis. And then there is this odd, politically incorrect Smurf joke, told through the shared language of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons, with its hidden punchline ("Smigger") and the kind of double meaning ("blue / & brown body) that would make Louis Armstrong proud.

I’ve encountered more than a few kids like Brian, the jokes heard and overheard on the playground, and the humiliating non-apology: you know I don’t mean you. Kevin Young is only a few years older than me, which is probably why the sting of that single, perfect phrase - “It’s OK” - feels so uncanny. But reading “No Offense” doesn’t make me feel depressed or angry. For me, there’s something thrilling about seeing a shared experience, even a painful one, so precisely re-imagined. Like comparing scars and war stories with an old Army buddy you’ve never met.
I’d love to hear other thoughts on Young’s poem. Does it strike a chord with you, too? Or do you have a different view?

Tami's note: I have been working on a post asking which is most offensive to our modern society: Calling someone a racist or actually being one. It's sometimes hard to tell in "post-racial" America. Increasingly, the mainstream is quick to take offense at the people of color's offense at "harmless" prejudice--Smigger jokes, "Magic Negro" ditties, tomahawk-wielding mascots, Carlos Mencia's want-to-be-edgy "beaner" humor. We're just too damned sensitive, y'know--too P.C. But I wonder if those who wish we would stop talking about racism so much realize how often people of color swallow our offense.--it starts on the playground and continues in the dorm room, in the board room, in the bedroom, etc. Do they know how many times we hear "You know I don't mean you" or "No offense?" Just asking.

Look for my post on Tuesday.

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