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poetry Paper Crowns

“All blindness and much worse,” writes Illinois poet Joanne Diaz of the invisibility of Black life to oblivious white people.

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Paper Crowns

By Joanne Diaz

                       after the New York Times newsfeed from the week of May 6-11, 2018

 This week in which faculty members at the University of Florida

shove black graduates offstage for dancing in honor

 

of what is regularly denied them; in which Nordstrom Rack

apologizes to black teenagers falsely accused of shoplifting;

 

in which a woman says she saw burglars break and enter

into a home when in fact they were black Airbnb guests;

 

in which two Native American brothers are pulled

from a campus tour after nervous parents call police;

 

in which two black men settle with Starbucks and the city

of Philadelphia over the absurdity of their unnecessary arrest;

 

in which two black women are told to golf faster

and then the club calls the police; in this week, yes,

 

the white mother at a kindergarten celebration  

might think that certain gestures will be seen

 

as kindnesses, especially here, in flyover country,

this place of no consequence, surely forgettable,

 

every lonely day an erasure, yes, especially

on this special day with homemade muffins,

 

paper flowers, paper crowns decorated by the children,

a coronation as we walk through the door; yes,

 

certainly it has to be kindness for the white mother

to see the black child, the beautiful long braids,

 

the shine of the girl’s hair at her temples,

the rainbow barrettes and the vibrant ribbons

 

fastened neatly at the ends, and want to touch the hair.

Surely she imagines that it is right, an honor, to take

 

one braid in each hand and not ask, but declare,

 I just have to feel your hair. I do not look,

only imagine what I am not seeing: one long braid

in each hand, the woman pulling down slowly,

 

the lingering of her hands, her open gaze, this white

wanting, which is offered as an act of beholding

 

but is all blindness and much worse, and the black mother,

what does she do then, seated only two feet away

 

and at a child’s table, what is there to do but look up

to admire these paper crowns that the children have made

 

for each of us, queens for the day, plastic gems pasted

onto each horn meant to resemble the rays of the sun.

[Joanne Diaz is the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is the author of My Favorite Tyrants (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) and The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011), and with Ian Morris, she is the coeditor of The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). She is an Associate Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University.]