Over the past several days, the images coming from across our nation have re-presented to us, as well as to others worldwide, the lived experiences, mistreatment, and trauma of American Black communities suffered since this country’s founding. The outrage, grief, and fear felt over the killing of George Floyd are entirely justified, and woefully not new. We see the many African-Americans exhausted from repeated mistreatment by those tasked with serving and protecting them—the police—and our nation’s many institutions, organizations, and government.
One thing is clear—together we must act. Each of us must undertake change within ourselves as well as in the communities to which we belong to actively notice, challenge, and counter personal, systemic, and societal racism. In the massive peaceful protests against the forces of racism and police brutality, we also see creative energy. The millions of people of all races and ages protesting peacefully together in the streets as well as in public discourse are demonstrating against state violence, but also for—for a fairer, more equitable distribution of power, justice, and resources. That call for equity must include the arts communities and those artists we, the International Writing Program (IWP), support and champion.
Straddling the fault line between U.S. culture, especially literary culture, and the writers and writing cultures of the world, the IWP has for the over half-century of its existence been committed to promoting mutual respect and understanding, anchored in the values of freedom of expression and inclusiveness, and in the belief that creativity has the power to shape—and reshape—the world. Cultural diplomacy is not a singular directive. It is a common cause and requires communities, international and domestic, to work together. In connecting diverse people and communities from across from all manner of backgrounds, in giving a platform for dialogue and exchange, IWP is committed to demonstrating the best Constitutional principles, especially those of the First Amendment, in particular the principles of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. For writers, there is no other material than words. But words can, and must, be put in service of justice better served. Danez Smith’s searing 2014 poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown” (commissioned by Split This Rock) draws some lines between ancient and contemporary poetry—lines, which also demarcate lines of fire.
As worldwide protests against George Floyd’s murder attest, America’s specific racial crimes also continue to leave a mark on those outside our borders. The Mexican poet Manuel Becerra (both in Kristin Dykstra’s translation and in the original) writes recently, in the lineage of Emmett Till poetry: The Song of Emmett Till
I am Emmett Till and I’m fourteen years old.
I am – always – going back to Mississippi.
I like to look at landscape paintings:
I see my mother giving chase to a hen
to eat with all my brothers.
Carolyn Bryant lives here too,
a white woman silver in the moonlight.
One day in Mississippi I said to her: Ciao, baby.
It was a warm day and I was enjoying
the way the landscape looked like a photo negative:
blacks in fields of cotton.
I said Ciao baby to her in Mississippi
and then Big Milam, the boss,
came to my home to tell me off.
He took me out walking, like a prophet,
through Mississippi waters.
They beat me hard and with a stick
and then I didn’t go home to my mother.
They searched for me under the bridges
which is where they search for blacks
and finally they found me there.
I am – always – going back home.
I’m Emmett Till among the mussels
and I live under a bridge on the Mississippi
where I’ll always be fourteen years old.
Canción de Emmett Till
Soy Emmett Till y tengo catorce años.
Estoy —siempre— volviendo al Mississippi.
Me gusta ver los cuadros del paisaje:
veo a mi madre dar caza a una gallina
para comer con todos mis hermanos.
Aquí vive también Carolyn Bryant,
una rubia plateada por la luna.
Le dije un día en Mississippi: Chao, baby.
Era un día caluroso y disfrutaba
ver el paisaje como el negativo de una fotografía:
los negros en los campos de algodón.
Yo le dije: Chao, baby en Mississippi
y entonces Big Milam, el amo,
vino por mí a casa y me reprendió.
Me llevó a caminar como un profeta
entre las aguas del Mississippi.
Me dieron todos duro y con un palo
y ya no volví a casa con mi madre.
Me buscaron debajo de los puentes
que es donde buscan a los negros
y finalmente allí me hallaron.
Estoy —siempre— volviendo a casa.
Soy Emmett Till entre las conchas marinas
y vivo bajo un puente en el Mississippi
donde tendré catorce para siempre.
The core values our program advances internationally—mutual understanding and full inclusion, freedom of expression, commitment to justice and equity for all—would mean little if we didn’t add our voice to those raised here at home against discrimination and brutal injustice inflicted on Black Americans in particular. We take this moment to reflect on how we pursue our mission and work, on the people our programs can and should support, and on the writers and organizations we ask our community to engage with. One first step will be to expand the programming for our international participants to include regular presentations on the history, institutions, and politics of racism in this country, and to strengthen the African-American literary programming we offer. The list compiled by Natalie Eilbert at The Atlas Review, linked HERE, could be one guidance in this effort.
The full staff of the International Writing Program
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, 6/9/2020