Recognition not Remembrance
by Ambika Pachaury
Simone John, Collateral (Octopus, 2016)
“The next black girl they’ll kill is writing this poem,” writes Simone John in her chapbook Collateral (6). Collateral deals with issues of racial discrimination, police brutality and gender supremacy that affect all black women, although it is focused on Sandra Bland’s arrest. While some might think the book is about remembrance of the pain these women went through, one could argue that it is based on recognition of their struggle instead. The poems examine the lack of respect, power and attention black women are given in today’s society due to their gender and race, and ask readers to recognize the injustice in the deaths of so many of them. John hopes this recognition will be the first step in a wave of change of thoughts and actions which would ultimately reduce the number of deaths.
John beautifully accomplishes her goal of making the readers pay attention by asking them to think about the black women who died. Her elegies for Dead Black Women are a call to action for her readers with a powerful message conveyed in just a few words: “Pick // a name you didn’t / know. Carry it with you” (John 12). Her poems demand a certain level of engagement and responsibility from readers. It is not sufficient to merely lament these black women-- readers must acknowledge their lives and their troubles. John tells them that it’s too late to stop reading: they “are burdened with knowing” and will now have to act upon the thoughts (20). John identifies with the women in her book, adding a personal touch to the poems, which strengthens the engagement with her readers. In “On [Not] Watching The Video”, John imagines being in the place of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested unlawfully and who died in jail, when John watches her video and writes, “I cannot press play without seeing my reflection in her [Bland’s] rearview mirror” (5).
A large part of the book is devoted to transcribing Sandra Bland’s conversations with Officer Encinia so that the readers can fully understand the situation and recognize the racial and gender conflicts at play. In an interview John said that it was “an extended power struggle that escalated to physical violence,” which is clearly visible in Officer Encinia’s frustration when Bland, a black woman, talked back at him and refused to step out of her car. “Get out of the car now or I’m going to remove you”: the exchange of words was no longer about “a failure to signal”; it was a question of pride for Officer Encinia who clearly wanted to dominate and control Bland (John 4,15). This shows us that even though women have similar rights as men, and even though there have been many efforts to promote equality among different races, the mentality that men, especially white men are superior to black women, is still present. But Bland didn’t give in and calmly kept asking the officer why she was being charged: “This body is everything I own / An island you keep trying to conquer” (John 24). In the end, although Bland was right when she knew that there was no reason for her arrest, she wasn’t able to save or justify herself, which shows that our society still has “assumptions and implications” that a black woman should be submissive or that the one disobeying a policeman is surely a criminal, especially if he/she is black (John interview). The realization that these ideas often lead to serious mishaps like police brutality is vital because it is easy to dismiss the problems, especially in the case of women because their loss is considered “collateral,” or unimportant damage (John 2).
Within the title itself John tells the readers about the unfair treatment given to black women; however, she also recognizes Sandra Bland’s courage and asks her readers to do the same. “Unanswered Questions” is one such example where the poet shows the readers how informed Sandra Bland was of her rights (John 15). John uses her poems to create the image of a strong woman, a woman like Sandra Bland who stands up for her rights and who fights till the very end. She tells us why these “defense mechanisms” are important and why black women are forced to protect their personhood with “sharp wit and forked tongue” (John 10). It is true that black women have always been in the shadows, but John’s poems are not merely “psalms / for slaughtered women” (19). They are an expression of black rage and suppressed emotions. John does not present Sandra Bland’s words in “cushions of quotation marks” so that the readers can grasp the reality of the situation and understand the need to act upon it (19).
Simone John writes, “I am not here to sing you to sleep,” and indeed she does not. Collateral sends home some very important messages; to treat every person fairly, regardless of race or gender and to recognize the struggle of black women like Sandra Bland who died unjustly (22). However, recognition is merely the first step. Whether it is through increasing public awareness of black women's issues or changing our own point of view about black women or helping someone in a similar situation as Sandra Bland, each reader has a responsibility given to him or her by John. Collateral encourages the readers to not simply remember, but acknowledge and strive to build a society where a black woman doesn’t have to “flinch at the sound of sirens” (John 7).
John, Simone. Collateral. Octopus Books, 2016.
John, Simone. Interview. The Writer in the World.
Ambika Pachaury is a first-year student in the College of Engineering at Boston University and comes from Delhi, India. Her work has never been published but you can usually find her writing poems in the park on days she is not dying with homework or talking on the phone with her sister Anushka.