Unsettling Fear, a poem about the pain of racism


I decided to write about racism a couple of weeks ago when I heard an open mic was going to be focusing on Black History. I suppose the safer route would be to read a poem by an African-American or write a poem about Martin Luther King, Jr. However, I have had this tugging on my heart to write about this particular memory of events for some time now and I could no long ignore it Him.

I retain memory fragments from the events of sixties as a young child. In 1968 I would have been 8. I remember events like Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the Nixon/Wallace/Humphrey presidential race, and Neil Armstrong. I do not have any memory of Martin Luther King Jr’s life or assassination from those years. I think these memories and lack of memories reflect “white” America at that time. In my 100% white neighborhood and 100% white public elementary school we learned about “good, wholesome, American stuff.” What I know about Black History during the prior century, I have taught myself after becoming an adult. Many younger people are privileged to only read about and come to know about the pain inflicted on everyone by state-sanctioned racist policies such as “separate but equal.”

Unsettling Fear is a poem inspired by some events taking place in our quiet and peaceful home. Though the characters are all real, I do not remember details like sequence, names, or faces. The story describes a blurry scene sketched from my 8 year old memories. Memories that match up all too well with all that I’ve learned through my self-study.

One final and very important caveat: I use the n-word in my poem. In the written form it serves the topic accurately by painting it as the ugly and evil word it is. In other words, it is sadly, all too accurate. When I read Unsettling Fear aloud, I am substituting the word negro and letting everyone there know this ahead of time. When sharing this poem with others, please respect this distinction between the written word and the spoken word.

Unsettling Fear
by ric booth

It was the sixties. Our world was a mess.
In need of His Love; we settled for less.

Growing up in a boarding house town
for college coeds no boys were allowed
That would be my life age 5 to 11
Cool you think huh, a young boy’s heaven
yeah but…

My parents you know, well you might have guessed
were whiter than snow, a colorless nest.
The coeds all knew our quaint neighborhood
no color would do, they each understood.

The college’s colorful crowd
WERE NOT ALLOWED
TO COME INTO OUR SO PROUD
AN’ SETTLED LIFE THERE!
Little boy unaware,
like I could care…
…lessly playing all cute for the girls
they loved me you know cuz of my curls.
One day I was out an playin’ around
choked on a red-hot and fell to the ground.
Turnin’ cool blue I could not scream out
Leslie grabbed me an’ started to shout
Coughin’ and wheezin’ she thought I would die
first air then the tears we started to cry
I think she just failed her math test that day
I never said thanks. I think I was eight.

The girls had no boyfriends- that’s what I thought
its me an’ my curls that all of ‘em sought
till one day…

Dad yells at Leslie … a boyfriend upstairs
Dad said he saw him they had it out there
The other girls must be saints or all gay
only poor Leslie caught hell in the day.
“I’m sorry!” she cries while dad yells “No more!”
Please say it aint so God, what is a whore?

It was the sixties. Our world was a mess.
In need of His Love; we settled for less.

The very next day got home from my school,
heard my dad shout “Do you think I’m a fool?”
A scary black man caught tryin’ to leave
an’ Leslie right there attached to his sleeve.
I ran to my room. She screamed, “That’s not fair!”
God, what’s a nigger an why do we care…
…Leslie gone now. I’ve not seen her since then.
Wonder if she knows I still call her friend?

It was the sixties. Our world was a mess.
In need of His love we settle for less.

For much of this life I feared the black man
Irrational strife; all settled in sand.
But then oh my God, He got in my face
addressed the young boy amidst his disgrace.

Ricky my love I’ll take all of those fears,
the shouts and the screams and every last tear.
Leslie, I got her. So let her go too –
An’ dad an’ boyfriend… that’s too much for you.

As our tears subside, He takes on this shame.
His screams echo by, awash with our pain.

Leslie turns sixty. Our world is a mess.
In need of His Love don’t settle for less.

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24 Responses

  1. I DO remember the King assassination in1968. I was attending Kindergarten and there were a couple black kids in my class. The principal of my school was black (his name was Dr. White – seriously) as were several of the teachers. In retrospect, I think I was “bussed” to the school – there were 3 elementary schools closer to me than the school I attended.

    I happened to grow up in a very progressive, enlightened area where racial issues seemed to be dealt with early on – though I’m not quite sure how. I lived in a jewish neighborhood; there were many Mormons that lived up the street, and of course there were the aforementioned black kids.

    My best friend growing up was a black kid who used to freak my Grandmother out every time he came over to play (she lived with us for her last years). His dad was a decorated, purple heart wearing, WWII veteran. I used to go to his house, and he would come to my house, and we would play with all the jewish kids (hmm, come to think of it – there was a Mexican family too) in between.

    My naivety was that I thought everyone understood racism to be ancient history; that certainly people in the modern world knew how ludicrous it was to consider someone to be inferior just because they were different…

    Man, was I wrong…

    My first clue was when I visited the ‘deep’ south as a teenager and saw an old black man shuffling up to our door (we were staying with cousins). I thought my cousin (an elderly woman) was talking to a little kid; when I looked out the window I saw the old man shuffling down the sidewalk; look back to see if anyone was watching; then stand up straight and saunter away.

    And now millions of Americans – even White Americans are giving a black man their vote in support of him becoming president. I am awestruck; talk about having a dream…

    B

  2. Thanks B for sharing your childhood perspective. The boyfriend in the poem would be the 2nd African-American I came in close contact with in my 8 year life at that point.

    The 1st memory I have of a black man was at an assembly at our elementary school. A guy dressed in an African robe and hat with a thick accent spoke at our school. I don’t remember name, country or what was said. On the way out we got to shake his hand. Now mind you I was in 1st grade and this was the very first black man any of us white kids had seen or touched. We saw that the palms of his hands were “lighter” skin color and ASSUMED that was because the brown was rubbing off onto everything he touched… and we were “convinced” that our right palms were darker than our left palms after shaking hands.

    So to say my childhood life left me ignorant of all things non-white would be an accurate understatement.

    And Obama… wow, this year is simply amazing. Every time I hear he takes another state I get lump in my throat. And I usually am apathetic about politics.

  3. Wow. Our pride causes us to settle for less, doesn’t it. God is in control. and it is amazing when His love is poured into us, how beautiful ALL of His creation becomes. He unveils our eyes. We see.

    Thanks Ric

  4. I wanted to add.

    as I read b4dguy comment, I can relate in that I am a bit naive when it comes to understanding how the general public still views race relations. I grew up with parents that had some of the white “lingo” regarding races(not as intense as your poe describes), but they most definitely cared for and did not prejudge anyone we came into contact with.

    Between the ages of 6-11 I lived in Oakland , CA and loved it. Our neighbors were a black family that had 2 daughters just a bit older than me. I was welcomed into their house and they were welcomed into our. I remember soaking in every opportunity to understand culture, habits and words. I remember loving it. BUT, it was because that attitude was welcomed.

    I still to this day don’t understand the hate. I am naive to it, I know, but it is because I’ve never experienced it first hand.

  5. When I was in Kindergarten Jimmy Carter was running for President. Our teacher presented to us the candidates one day. Told us everything about them, and wanted us to vote. The next day in class we would tally votes and see who won.

    So I took home all the info and my mom and her boyfriend helped me understand each candidate. My moms boyfriend preferred Ford over Carter. I remember asking him why but he never gave me a good answer. He finally put me on his lap and started talking about white milk and chocolate milk. Wha?!! They’re both white aren’t they? Anyways…He said to me “some people like chocolate milk cause it taste good – but we all know straight white milk is better for you. Ford is white milk.”

    Now even though he wasn’t talking about race here I already knew he didn’t like black people. So my 6 year old little mind really struggled with this. Why would he mention “chocolate” milk. I assumed that Carter had connections with black people and that was bad or he was a really light black man. But I remember not liking the analogy and telling me that white milk was better than chocolate. So my vote was cast for Carter the next day.

  6. So were you one of those kids who thought chocolate milk came from brown cows?

    (it doesn’t)

    🙂

    B

  7. it DOESN’T??!!!!

    😯

    😆

  8. Hey IW: Yeah our pride is a big stumbling block. We try to solve problems using alternative means like “lets TEACH respect and tolerance” in the schools. I think we settle for tolerating or respecting one another, which falls very short of the great commandment.

    Tam: As far as the Carter – Chocolate milk story… you got me. Maybe the democrats historically closer relationship with black america?? Oddly enough my (step) dad voted for Carter because he could not forgive Ford for pardoning “that crook Nixon!”

    Re: Cow Jokes: From ages 12 – 21 I lived on a farm. If the milk was chocolate, we knew had a problem. Mom didn’t want me to bring the milk down to the house after the cow stepped into the bucket. She is such a clean freak that way.

  9. I have mad respect for Dr. Maryin Luther King and his family.

    Nice poem 🙂

    How long does it take you to work on a poem?

  10. Haha maryin…

    [I’m confused… its ok tho, I’m confused a lot. –ric]

  11. I share that respect for Dr. King & family.

    How long?? Sometime a couple of hours like Life was so simple and My Friend. But sometimes longer. This one took me a couple of hours a day for about 5 days.

  12. Tam – that chocolate milk comment was meant for Eric – I posted it BEFORE I saw your post…weird.

  13. very weird

  14. I meant to put Martin but put Maryin, that’s what the mini haha was about.

  15. Oh… yeah. I…I knew that. NOT. Its funny how I read right over that typo. Have you seen that email that has all the words scrambled except for the first and last letters?

  16. Once again, thanks for sharing. You’ve brought up many memories.

    I didn’t think my family was prejudice until we moved to a new neighborhood. Back up,…I knew my grandparents were but didn’t think my parents shared their feelings. Back to the new neighborhood…

    My parents had just built their first custom home in the newest area of town. We were one of the first houses in the neighborhood, so when the house went up next door, we were ignorant as to who was building. Much to my parents frustration, a black family moved in. I was thrilled, four kids and two of the boys were my age. In the summer we sat outside and got to know eachother fairly well, one of the boys was a dancer and I knew nothing about dancing (we were legalistic – I wasn’t allowed to dance). I had no idea about the discomfort my parents were feeling to see “C” teaching me out on the back patio. I found out later, when “C” tried to tell me something later that night. I went to the window to see what he wanted, but before the conversation started, I felt myself being pulled away by very angry hands. To spare my dad I won’t share the rest of the story, but I remember never talking with “C” again.

    Thirty years later, they still have the same neighbors and have become acquaintances – I see the other boys from time to time when we’re all home for the holidays. But I have yet to see “C” – I don’t believe my dad has any idea what he did to us, and the way I know I was affected by that incident years ago.

  17. Michelle, Thank You. That is a very painful story. Irrational strife to say the least. I think the inexplicable pain and fear has been passed down from generation to generation… To the point of a Pavlovian dog style reaction. Somewhere in our childhoods, including your dad’s, event(s) connected fear and pain and skin color. Thanks for openly sharing this story here. Also, as a reminder of course, know there is complete healing in our Lord Jesus Christ, for “C”, for your dad and for you.

  18. Thanks. The healing has come for me. I don’t know about Dad or “C”, but I do ask for the Lord to reach them both.

  19. I grew up in the 60’s, and in a low income area…we were all different races, and honestly what I remember most from the riots and racial issues was outside our area, and as kids…we were sad and didn’t understand at all…some weren’t allowed to hangout or play and some where called names for hanging…my best friends growing up were Anna (puerto rican) and Contessa (african American) and none of us has taught our children to be racial..it just wasn’t right then, and it isn’t right now…thanks for this Ric….GOd created us all…HE is an artist, and white..well its the absence of color…so why so proud..never got it

  20. I only knew white. Nothing else in hometown. First time I actually knew a non-white kid was high school when a black family moved into our school district. 2nd guy was my junior year in college, the RA was African-American. Moving to the burbs of DC was a bit of a culture shift for this wasp. 😉

  21. Wow. Good stuff. Sent me right back to those days. I’m your age, so it must’ve been around ’65 when I first noticed any racial tension. It was in our old house, in the city, and we moved to the ‘safe’ suburbs when I was 6, in 1965, so it had to be well before King’s assassination. But even, so racial tensions in Baltimore must have been running high because I remember my father buying a single shot .22 rifle for home defense, and it was explicit that he was afraid of what was going on with the ‘colored’ people.

    I still have that rifle.

  22. Ah, I realized how that sounded. I still have the rifle, and it reminds me of how times have changed. At least in my life time.

  23. Haha… I didn’t give it too much thought. That is a great story that conveys the fear of those times quite accurately.

  24. […] Related Post: Unsettling Fear […]

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