The Famous Black Poet


Illustration by Kadelburg

From Poetry:

It was only as a teenager that I thought to ask my parents why they hadn’t been activists, why they’d never joined any protests and fought for the cause. Their response: they’d chosen to protest in their own way, by simply existing and in so doing showing by example that a mixed-race family was nothing for people to be afraid of — was as unexceptional, one might say, as any other family, once people looked past assumptions about race and the mixing of races.

I suppose in this case silence was not death, then, but its own form of resistance to what might be expected of my parents from both sides — that of radical protesters and that of a largely white neighborhood that viewed my family with suspicion. I, of course, dismissed my parents’ response as completely lame and made a mental note that this was yet another of the many ways that I vowed never to become like them — by which I think I meant politically irresponsible.

I was wrong about that. So many problems in this life come down, it seems, to some variety of a single defect in thinking, namely, limitation.
 I had yet to understand the idea of passive resistance, for one, but also the ideas of patience (something I’m told I’ve never grasped entirely) and of subtlety. I’d also overlooked how the same overtly political stance that for some is an unignorable calling might be, for others, a luxury, given the daily responsibilities of working hard, then coming home to the ongoing work of raising a family and maintaining a household. Or maybe my parents were, ultimately, just being who they were — was that not their right?

To each his own urgency. Or hers. Or theirs. How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus? I write from a self for whom race, gender, and sexual orientation are never outside of consciousness — that would be impossible — but they aren’t always at the forefront of consciousness. Others write otherwise, as they must, as they should — as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.

“A Politics of Mere Being”, Carl Phillips, Poetry