It’s MLK Day and there’s a march in downtown, And a recitation of his words of light; I want to go, but I have made a promise To step back and try to paint and write. I’m torn, of course, because I want to “show up”, To say “I get it” … even though I’m white.
Hesitantly I pick up my paintbrush To birth an image floating in my head, It’s a young black man lying on the pavement Under yellow tape. He’s been shot dead By hired-to-protect (from what now, was it?) His blood flows onto pavement, staining red.
He has names (although I hate to mention) Trayvon, Eric, Tamir, Ramarley. I sketch his head lying on cold pavement, (Walter, John , Oscar, Jordan, Freddie) I sketch his shoulders, and then I correct them (Philando, Mario, Fred, Jonathon, Andy.)
I choose alizarin crimson for the bleeding, And remember just in time a pink highlight; For his hoodie, grey (as though it’s faded) The neck string on the street makes it look right. The hair and head take longest; many colors, And just around the neck, the t-shirt. White.
For the tape, it’s hansa yellow with black letters I show the “Do not cross” to leave no doubt; This tape holds back a rising, righteous anger, “He didn’t do nothin’!” someone’s heard to shout. Plastic divides the sanctioned from the lawless; It holds some people in, and others out.
I hear the typing, typing, typing, typing The making of reports that silence sound, Pronouncements made by all of the officials, The prosecutor wears a frigid frown, The Chief says they’ll investigate the matter, But meanwhile all the protests must shut down.
And with the sleight-of-word he’s soon transformed, His shy eyes, smile, and self-effacing shrug, Are now reframed in new and twisted lighting, He’s magically become a dangerous thug. A predator, they say he had a gun, Though none was found in car or under rug.
And as I paint I want to resurrect him, As Jesus could, up from his stone-cold dead, Restore him to his life and grieving family, Let them hear again things that he once said, To give him back his now-lost, unknown future; A feat I fail, and so I paint instead.
Applying wash, there rises undetected, Discomfort in my leafy, seaside bower; Far away from sirens I sit painting The scene of someone else’s final hour. I fathom that I’ll never know this picture; Within which it is I with all the power.
Who am I to paint this fallen human, Lifted by privilege to my safe, country space? A sheltered world this boy no longer threatens, This now-statistic, leaving little trace, Along with all of those who went before him… When will I turn to look him in the face?