Deafening Silence: Exposure of American Racism in Simone John's Collateral
by Douglas Benishek
Simone John, Collateral (Octopus, 2016)
The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet, during the 240 years after those words were inscribed, America has not acted according to these principals. Rather, racist American government and police officers have, at an increasing rate, been taking their own stance on this creed. In “Cigarette,” Simone John sheds light on racist violence: “ Step out of the car./ You do not have the right to do this./ I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you./ ... I’m giving you a lawful order” (4). This profiling is an example of the unjust division of power between Whites and Blacks that John comments on in her chapbook, Collateral. Her raw, unapologetic report of the arrest of Sandra Bland demands the reader to remember those lost and implores the world to abolish the silence on the issue of dehumanizing racism, both subtle and violent, in America.
The unjust division of power between Whites and Blacks is the basis for their interracial issues, including hateful violence - past and present.
From the day that African-Americans were brought to North America, multiple attempts to redeem their basic rights of man have been made, yet strife for Blacks has not been assuaged. John goes further to say that the most alarming instance of racism lies in America’s everyday subtext. In an interview with The Writer, John explains that in reading Sandra Bland’s arrest transcript, she realized the subtext clearly reveals that "[Bland and her arresting officer’s] exchange is an extended power struggle that escalated to physical violence.” The “power struggle” that John refers to encompasses the entirety of the relationship between Whites and Blacks in America: entitled Whites battling against Blacks who yearn for a world of fair treatment. They yearn for a world where they aren’t personally victimized for the color of their skin. Throughout Collateral, there are several lists of hate crime victims. Through these lists, John pleads the case that when deep-rooted discrimination steals innocent lives, it is no longer a matter that can be debated. The equalization of power and rights is imperative to the prosperity of American citizens and, as John argues, for the lives of Black-Americans.
If it is accepted that these human rights are universally God-given, then the withholding of these rights effectively dehumanizes Black people. Throughout the world, discrimination and cruel treatment has, to some effect, been rationalized through a viewpoint that dehumanizes others. In America, this has been shown in the initial idea that Blacks are property, or “less-than-human.” Today, according to the law, Blacks are fully equal, yet the stigma still exists in the subtext. In “A Much More Common Term,” racial slurs are shorthand for dehumanization and hate, as John deadpans that "White people use nigga as a proxy / for the word worthless" (13), and thus an offensive term becomes a tool to rob worth and meaning from Black lives. In the last four stanzas, John alludes to the fact that the use of this xenophobic tool only furthers the extent of the dehumanization and the contrast in power. By chronologically listing names of Black figures in the American community, she shows how the term has been altered to fit the mold of the present; it remains ever-present, a derogatory word muttered amongst those who wish to perpetuate the inexplicit hate in America.
Yet, although hateful racism is inexplicit, John draws attention to the fact that the masses require reminders of the humanity of Black victims. In “A Brief History of Murder,” John provides humanizing background stories to fictional victims, emphasizing that each individual has a life as complex and vivid as another’s. Underlying this is a feeling of frustration that there is a lack of empathy for these victims due to a subconscious dehumanization of their identities. John ends, “The next black girl they’ll kill is driving with the windows down / … Trying not the flinch at the sound of sirens” (7), concluding that these facets of Black dehumanization lead to the sensible fear of undeserved persecution that any Black citizen faces in America.
John’s intent for Collateral was to break the silence behind racism and be part of her contribution to the battle for equal rights and fair treatment of the Black community (John). Underlying divisions of power and dehumanization still thriving today, leave the Black community silenced - afflicted with an arduous struggle for equality. Collateral urges the reader to take a personal stand in the movement for fair treatment, especially if it means straying from their comfort zone: “There is no redeeming nature metaphor here./ No plot twist to leave you feeling lighter.// Just more names/ you have already forgotten./ Just more bodies” (John 22). Here, John teases at the generalization that poetry-goers search for a resolving, light-hearted final message from poetry. Instead, John insists that it is the readers’ duty to remain unresolved and understand the weight of the Black community’s plight: that there exists a real socioeconomic disadvantage that leaves them at the mercy of racism. Finally, John leaves the reader with a call to action, ordering the world to dissolve the shroud of silence surrounding the racism in America: “We will lift [Simone John’s] name in prayer./ We will speak her name aloud./ We will start now” (31). Using the powerful idea of her own funeral, John symbolizes herself as a figure for the Black lives lost. The speaker, her family’s pastor, implores remembrance and social change in the name of John, and in turn, in the name of the Black community.
Influential figures in the Black community that John mentions, such as Dr. King and President Obama, have brought great change to the discriminatory social conditions that Blacks have faced in America, yet the Black community’s long-fought struggle for equality remains an issue still today (14). Despite ridicule, social justice movements continue in the footsteps of those who came before. With Collateral, Simone John fulfills her societal duty as a poet by commenting on power division and dehumanization as causes for the persistence of racism in America, while demanding her readers to take a stand against the deafening silence that has kept Blacks suppressed for so long: “Now you/ are burdened with knowing” (John 20).
Douglas Benishek is a first-year student in Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. He has previously worked as a Student Reporter for the Antigo Times. Outside of academia, he is very passionate about the arts and can be found drumming with the KIDS From Wisconsin, his home state’s official musical ambassadors, or on stage with BU On Broadway, the university’s premier undergraduate musical theatre organization. Go Terriers!.