Four days after protests in Baltimore turned violent, I found myself looking into every black face I saw as I made my way through Pittsburgh International Airport, wanting to say something huge-hearted and restorative. My eyes were wet, my chest full but also empty, as if a balloon were lodged there and about to pop. I looked at all the white faces, too, thinking, Don’t you know me? Don’t we mean something to each another?
My emotional state surprised me, but then again it didn’t. I’d spent the night before talking about race with my brother and his family, talking about Baltimore, about what it means to be the mother of black sons, even in a town with a black mayor. I felt vulnerable, disappointed. I also felt complicit, as if somehow I, in speaking only in the safe setting of family about the nature of my own fears, had become part of what I now sensed to be the problem.
I am a writer not because I am seldom at a loss for words, but rather because it is language itself that alerts me to what I think and believe. So how could it be that I’d kept so quiet about a topic of such urgent intensity, such relevance to someone exactly like me?
Our sense of race shapes the ways we explain ourselves to ourselves, and, by extension, what we tell ourselves about everyone who isn’t us. And yet, how often does the centuries’ old knot of race—a knot you can set out with every intention of unraveling, even as someone standing directly behind you gets to work tying the thing right back up again—render even the most expressive among us hopelessly tongue-tied?
There are numerous ways to connect the dots linking the three white cops, the three black cops, Freddie Gray’s severed spinal cord, his ensuing death, weeks of outcry from black community members, police cars destroyed, and a pharmacy looted and burned. But practically all the news outlets summed up the unrest in largely black communities as rioting, a label that gave some viewers permission to frown upon it, condemn it, hold it up as evidence of black barbarism and self-destruction—as proof of why inequality exists in the first place. The term rioting let those of us watching from a safe distance and buffered by privilege or sheer luck off the hook. What should have been our nation’s shared burden of collective failure was borne instead by those who had been failed. I don’t think I ever caught myself using the word “rioting,” but how many times did I turn away from images of that frenzy, the mess of those streets?
But if what happened in April 2015 in Baltimore was indeed rioting, then I would wager that so were the uprisings in Paris, Mexico City, and Prague in 1968—tumultuous unrest that cemented for citizens the world over the absolute value of democracy. If citizens who took to the streets of Baltimore in April 2015 were rioters, then so was UC Berkeley undergraduate Mario Savio, who helped galvanize upper-middle-class, white, educated American youth around the Free Speech movement in 1964 with this admonition:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
The visceral quality of that machine metaphor conjures the physical nature of conflict, of vulnerability, in such moments of all-out commitment. It invokes our sense of Civil Rights activists “going limp,” the lynched bodies hanging from the branches of American trees, the bodies made to march under the weight of guns, made to take aim at other bodies in the name of war. And the relevance of those terms to the events happening only days ago in Baltimore makes me feel foolish—outright delusional—for having once thought the many decades separating us in our 21st-century now from that awful then might keep us—and not just those of us who are black, but all of us—safe.
The beliefs we hold, whether they are expressed or not, live inside of language, even private language. Years ago, when the news was filled with stories of Somali pirates holding passenger ships and international cargo ships hostage, I wrote a poem called “Ransom.” It began:
When the freighters inch past in the distance
The men load their small boats. They motor out,
Buzzing like mosquitoes, aimed at the iron
Side of the blind ship as it creeps closer.
I wasn’t an avid reader of stories that trucked in the romantic, swashbuckling pirate clichés, but I could sense that the particular anger incited by stories about the Somali pirates, even in me, was not remote from a racially charged subtext.
My poem, though I didn’t know it until after it was finished, was an act of empathy, an attempt to pull myself away from the facile nature of the prevailing narrative—the one about depraved African villains preying upon innocent westerners. I shocked even myself when I found my way to these lines late in the poem:
The white men scramble. Some fight back.
When one is taken, the whole world sits up
To watch. When the pirates fall, the world
Smiles to itself, thanking goodness. They
Show the black faces and the dead black bodies
The explicit verbal acknowledgment of the complicated things race causes us to think and fear and feel is a necessary counterbalance to the race-based disregard (or worse) that so often infects our views of one another. Sometimes it seems that the words we live with and by do little more than delineate a line separating a constantly shifting Us from Them, solidifying the barrier between what we are comfortable claiming and what we can see, but haven’t yet learned to name, let alone admit.
When I caught the news of Marilyn Mosby’s decision to bring charges against the six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray—moments after my flight had landed—I gave myself over to tears. In Mosby’s charges, I heard someone saying no to Freddie Gray’s assailants, no to the false terms that too often trick us into letting not just bad cops but ourselves, too, off of the hook. Terms like “thug,” like “suspicious activity,” like “stand your ground,” like “ghetto.” Even the milder but no less dangerous statements (“playing the race card,” “you’re so articulate,” “angry black woman”) that give a toehold to a breezy, glib self-satisfaction that allows us to get away, too much of the time, with telling ourselves that we’ve got one another all figured out.
When I am content to be an American, it is because, for the most part, we have developed the capacity to live beside one another without much gawking and pointing, or worse—and because, when we fail in this regard, we sometimes find ways to talk about it. But when I am truly humbled by America—when I find myself ecstatic with gratitude and hope—it is because someone has made the difficult choice to address the failure of our silence in language that complicates things rather than simplifying them, that urges contemplation rather than pat summation, that invites the listener to join in the difficult work of grappling with and admitting to the many nuanced and sometimes troubling layers of private feelings each of us houses. It is because, no matter what might be waiting to render the attempt futile, someone has lent a set of hands and pair of able eyes to the task of teasing apart that troublesome knot.
Tracy K. Smith is the author of the memoir Ordinary Light, and the recipient of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Life on Mars. She is a professor at Princeton University. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.