Lorna Dee Cervantes
In my land there are no distinctions.
The barbed wire politics of oppression
have been torn down long ago. The only reminder
of past battles, lost or win, is a slight
rutting in the fertile fields.
In my land
people write poems about love,
full of nothing but contented childlike syllables.
Everyone reads Russian short stories and weeps.
There are no boundaries.
There is no hunger, no
complicated famine or greed.
I am not a revolutionary.
I don't even like political poems.
Do you think I can believe in a war between races?
I can deny it. I can forget about it
when I'm safe,
living on my own continent of harmony
and home, but I am not
I believe in revolution
because everywhere the crosses are burning,
sharp-shooting goose-steppers round every corner,
there are snipers in the schools. . .
(I know you don't believe this.
You think this is nothing
but faddish exaggeration. But they
are not shooting at you.)
I'm marked by the color of my skin.
The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly.
They are aiming at my children.
These are facts.
Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
"excuse me" tongue, and this
with the feeling of not being good enough.
These bullets bury deeper than logic.
Racism is not intellectual.
I can not reason these scars away.
Outside my door
there is a real enemy
who hates me.
I am a poet
who yearns to dance on rooftops,
to whisper delicate lines about joy
and the blessings of human understanding.
I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and
bolt the door, but the typewriter doesn't fade out
the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage.
My own days bring me slaps on the face.
Every day I am deluged with reminders
that this is not
and this is my land.
I do not believe in the war between races
but in this country
there is war
This poem, entitled “Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races,” is similarly emotionally charged and autobiographical for the author. Cervantes was inspired to write this poem after her friend, novelist James Brown who is the “young white man” in this poem, asked her “How can you, an intelligent well-read person, believe in the war between races?” Brown was referring to Cervantes’s “allegiance to the experience of racism – even though he knew in heart and sense that [she] couldn’t ‘believe’ it” (Reflections On "Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person Could Believe In the War Between Races). Cervantes was so disturbed by his question, even angry, that she “felt like a beer in a bottle, shaken up and ready to burst” (Reflections On "Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person Could Believe In the War Between Races). With his question ringing in the back of her mind, she spoke aloud over and over again what would become this political poem highlighting the experience of racism.
Cervantes, who we can presume in the speaker, begins the poem with the firm declaration, “In my land there are no distinctions” (Emplumada 35). The first two stanzas discuss “my land,” an ideal world where everyone gets along and “There are no boundaries / There is no hunger, no / complicated famine or greed” (35). These stanzas are filled with hope and a sense of camaraderie and family that embody a community. She uses images such as the “barbed wire politics of oppression” torn down and “fertile field” and people who “write poems about love” (35). This is the world Cervantes believes in, but it does not exist. She does not believe there should be a race war, but is inherently caught up in the middle of it due to the color of her skin. This is the point she is trying to make through her poem. Racism is unnecessary, but it is everywhere. She says that she “can deny it. I can forget about it / when I’m safe, living on my own continent of harmony / and home, but I am not / there” (35).
Instead, as the fourth stanza introduces, Cervantes is in a reality where “everywhere the crosses are burning…there are snipers in the schools,” symbolizing the death of religion and education, two social aspects that are often credited with bringing people together. She directly addresses the young white man at this point, saying to him, “I know you don’t believe this. / You think this is nothing / but faddish exaggeration. / But they are not shooting at you,” highlighting that he is safe from the “revolution” and chaos do to the pale complexion of his skin and therefore unable to truly comprehend the hatred and destruction she is facing (35). The speaker is “marked by the color of my skin,” a live target for the “bullets” that are “discrete and designed to kill slowly” (35). The bullets, although they can also be interpreted literally, also symbolize the verbal racism and prejudice that can kill a person from the inside out. As Cervantes is forced to watch these same culture discriminations “aim at my children,” she is faced with her own self-doubt and the “nagging preoccupation / with the feeling of not being good enough” (35). She is describing the sickening sensation of being hatred. This is the world she inhabits. Even though she doesn’t believe in this racism, “I cannot reason these scars away” (35).
The next stanza is split between a tone of hope and fantasy a tone of the harsh, cruel truth. Cervantes describes herself as a “poet,” using words such as “yearns,” “dance,” “whisper,” “joy,” and “blessings of human understanding.” As a writer, she tries to rise above the world that doesn’t understand and retreat to her “tower of words” (35). Yet the second part of the same stanza, filled with words such as “blasting,” “muffled outrage,” “slaps on the face,” and “deluged,” shows the protagonist’s place of refuge destroyed and contaminated by reality. She finishes the stanza with the firm, indignant statement that “Every day I am deluged with reminders / that this is not / my land” (35). Yet the following sentence contradicts her, saying “and this is my life” (35). This paradox is similar to the feelings expressed in the poem, “Refugee Ship.” The author is feeling a comparable identity crisis, unable to fully allow herself to belong in this land because in it she is detested, abused, and alone. The idealistic part of her is in denial while the other, more damaged and jaded part of her has come to accept that this is her reality. She responds to these “bullets”, these attempts to kill her spirit, with the ultimate revenge: survival. She has been pulled into supporting this racial war, something she doesn’t represent, and has responded by acknowledging it and refusing to die. Cervantes ends the poem with her final answer to the young white man’s question: “I do not believe in the war between races / but in this country / there is war” (35).