When this age only lives as a topic of academic interest, years from now, I don’t think it will be possible to communicate how central the concept of race was to us. I don’t even know the remote past would understand our obsession, as it looks to me like Ancient Greece would be vicious to anyone who was a stranger, but not directly because of skin color. The future will probably take note of our bigotry and racism the way we do of superstitions we’ve rejected. “People really believed that?” they’ll gasp, and then they’ll get into their self-driving cars and be amused by an assortment of fully automated fidget spinners, thinking no more of our silly opinions.
On the one hand, King invites us into her subjectivity. “I know the men are white,” she declares after verse documenting no less than a literal violent fantasy. On the other hand, she bears witness. She sees what the TV presents, and the television shows an officer saying he knows he’ll be fine after a deadly confrontation. She all but says outright that some do not have to bear the costs of deadly violence while inflicting it on others. America is more than a violent place: it’s a playground for killers.
There’s only trying to justify violence, never trying to make peace or insist on deescalation. America belongs to a few who can do whatever they like with it. The Spartans, we note, used to mount ferocious campaigns of ritual slaughter against the Helots to keep their skills sharp and keep the Helots in line.
Maybe a homoerotic image was shown on the video during class; maybe there was something devoid of any eroticism. “Pouring water” might indicate some kind of cleansing. What is sacred to one is outrageous to another. Instead of looking to resolve confusion, restore trust, King preaches responsibility. The student is to reflect on who gets to see, what script she followed. If you say something, why did you say it, but also how did you say it? Are certain statements — certain perspectives — privileged? This is not simply Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” where the majority limit opinions because they hold fast to a few. This is the problem of tyranny, pure and simple. If you can throw entire religious and ethnic groups out of the country based on your paranoia only, you’re not quite the worst sort of tyrant — you’re not a genocidal maniac, necessarily — but holy, you’re pretty bad. One has to take responsibility for one’s perspective, and yes, that includes me, too: Whose lines are these and by what hand are they written? The failure of modern democracy is that moral responsibility really is one’s domain, and unfortunately, people would rather create cults than work to accept others.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.