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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Poetry is Dangerous: Kazim Ali

On April 19, after a day of teaching classes at
Shippensburg University, I went out to my car and
grabbed a box of old poetry manuscripts from the front
seat of my little white beetle and carried it across
the street and put it next to the trashcan outside
Wright Hall. The poems were from poetry contests I had
been judging and the box was heavy. I had previously
left my recycling boxes there and they were always
picked up and taken away by the trash department.

A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my
car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car
which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires
strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark
skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who
look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my
committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a
threat by my very existence, a threat just living in
the world as a Muslim body.

Upon my departure, he called the local police
department and told them a man of Middle Eastern
descent driving a heavily decaled white beetle with
out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had
just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has
NY plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two
stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty
parking sticker and the other, which I just don’t have
the heart to take off these days, says “Kerry/Edwards:
For a Stronger America.”

Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state
police came. Because of my recycling buildings were
evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed.
No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark
body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his
fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the
culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that
is carefully cultivated in the media, by the
government, by people who claim to want to keep us
‘safe.’

These are the days of orange alert, school lock-downs,
and endless war. We are preparing for it, training for
it, looking for it, and so of course, in the most
innocuous of places—a professor wanting to hurry home,
hefting his box of discarded poetry—we find it.

That man in the parking lot didn’t even see me. He saw
my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent. Ironic
because though my grandfathers came from Egypt, I am
Indian, a South Asian, and could never be mistaken for
a Middle Eastern man by anyone who’d ever met one.

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd,
trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my
description—a Middle Eastern man driving a white
beetle with out of state plates—and knew immediately
they were talking about me and realized that the box
must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She
approached them and told them I was a professor on the
faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer
said, “What country is he from?”

“What country is he from?!” she yelled, indignant.

“Ma’am, you are associated with the suspect. You need
to step away and lower your voice,” he told her.

At some length several of my faculty colleagues were
able to get through to the police and get me on a cell
phone where I explained to the university president
and then to the state police that the box contained
old poetry manuscripts that needed to be recycled. The
police officer told me that in the current climate I
needed to be more careful about how I behaved. “When I
recycle?” I asked.

The university president appreciated my distress about
the situation but denied that the call had anything to
do with my race or ethnic background. The spokesperson
of the university called it an “honest mistake,” not
referring to the young man from ROTC giving in to his
worst instincts and calling the police but referring
to me who made the mistake of being dark-skinned and
putting my recycling next to the trashcan.

The university’s bizarrely minimal statement lets
everyone know that the “suspicious package” beside the
trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to
say, “We appreciate your cooperation during the
incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint
effort by all members of the campus community.”

What does that community mean to me, a person who has
to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my
own office just down the hall—who was watched, noted,
and reported, all in a day’s work? Today we gave in
willingly and whole-heartedly to a culture of fear and
blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly
appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police
one another and report on one another. Such behaviors
exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and
fascist societies.

The university report does not mention the root cause
of the alarm. That package became “suspicious” because
of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove
away. Me.

It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman
who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I
was putting out to be recycled.

My body exists politically in a way I can not prevent.
For a moment today, without even knowing it, driving
away from campus in my little beetle, exhausted after
a day of teaching, listening to Justin Timberlake on
the radio, I ceased to be a person when a man I had
never met looked straight through me and saw the
violence in his own heart.

4 comments:

poet with a day job said...

This enrages me, and I admire your ability to write about it so articulately and movingly. I am going to share this with many people. Thank you for writing it here.

Didi Menendez said...

I get stuff like this done to my kids in the public school system. When my daughter started school 4th grade in a new town just this August, I received a little note in her backpack that they were sorry that she did not know how to speak english and that ther were going to put her in an esl class.

My daughter does not know how to speak spanish. She correct my english....She is an honor roll student also. They automatically did this because her last name is Menendez.

Next morning I marched into the Principal's office and asked them if they had bothered to see her report card and when they looked at me with blank faces I said outloud so several people would hear me the word DESCRIMINATION. The principal backed off and found out not to go there again with me again...

Didi Menendez

Anonymous said...

Personally I find myself outraged not so much that people should be living with fear, that has been cultivated and thus is perfectly reasonable. It also is not allegations of racism that provoke me, I have only one side of the incident from a person who's indignation has obviously emotionally colored his account. No, what I find outrageous is that poetry was being put out with the trash..... what kind of poet is this?

Anonymous said...

Most poetry manuscripts after being put through a contest of some sort are recycled after...it's standard procedure. What else would they do with them? Unless they provide postage for the manuscripts to be returned, the next best thing to do is recycle them.