Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bearing Witness to the times: Guardrails

Damaged headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, St. Louis, MO
Photo by Nick Schnelle for The New York Times
At Jewish Cemetery, Seeking Answers Amid Heartbreak


Guardrails

They served as boundaries for common decency.                          
We learned to recognize them
By stories told –
Stories of darker times in our past.

We heard stories of discrimination
When people shouted,
“Kike!”
“Mick!”
“Wop!”
“Spic!”
“Polack!”
Labels to keep those outsiders in their place,
They seemed relics of the past.

We learned thereby
To live in a moderated peace
In spite of our inclinations,
Gut reactions,
And lingering prejudices.

Later we learned the hard lessons of racism.
Even in our white flight
We knew we had to drop the “n-word”
And allow everyone a seat at the table.

Still there were other words of exclusion.
That justified hatred and displacement:
“Fag,”
“Queer,”
“Dike.”
These words,
By hard work and diligence,
Became history in a progressive workplace.

A moderated peace –
Setting guardrails
To remind us of civil behavior,
To strive for an equitable society,
To mark those boundaries
Of common decency.

Within that moderated peace,
All are welcome
To live their traditions
Within a broader society.

Texas mosque destroyed by arson (photo by
Barclay Fernandez/The Victoria Advocate via AP)
A moderated peace –
Establishing a functioning community,
Even if only by a tenuous
Begrudging obligation
For some.
There are expectations of behavior –
A tacit agreement
That public prejudice is taboo
Even if private emotions fall short.

Guardrails have kept us on course.
For all of our failures,
At least we were civil
And making an effort.

Is there now nothing to remind us
Of how far we have come?
Are we left once again
To face our own prejudices,
To live with the consequences of hate?

A moderated peace is never perfect
Yet it requires constant vigilance
To preserve our gains.
We thought we had moved beyond
Spray-painted swastikas
And vandalism.

Let down our guard
And our racism
Comes in full view; 
Our corroding prejudice
In full flower.

Places of worship are torched,
Bomb threats are made,
Graffiti is scrawled on walls,
And cemeteries are desecrated.

Hatred is exposed
And fears confirmed.
Death and destruction
Are their natural end.
Therefore
Damaged gravestones
Become their metaphor
When guardrails are down.

                                       ~ Charles Kinnaird


Jewish Community Center in Birmingham, AL (AL.com photo)
"Birmingham police and firefighters responded Monday morning to the Levite Jewish Community Center 
on Montclair Road. The hoax threat was one of nearly a dozen throughout the U.S. Monday."


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The best thing that poets can do is to bear witness to the times – articulate what is happening in the moment; speak to the real life experiences of your people.  I am setting myself a goal to write a poem each week that reflects what I see and experience in the life of our nation... if I can write one poem a week there will be some chronicle of our sacred/tested/doubtful union.



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