Jericho Brown is an award-winning poet who teaches creative writing at Emory University. The recent recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, he was the subject of a Personal Journeys article in May. Brown has granted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution permission to republish his searing poem “Bullet Points” — first published on BuzzFeed.com — and shared his thoughts about the poem’s relevance to the recent fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
— JEREMY REDMON
Monday in our neighboring state of Florida, police shot Charles Kinsey in spite of the fact the black man lay flat on his back with both hands in the air while telling officers he was unarmed. Kinsey, a behavioral therapist, had left the group home where he works to assist an autistic client who had run away. Like some of you, Kinsey thought a person lying down with his hands raised would be safe from police violence. I imagine the poem you are about to read shows that I am surprised Kinsey was under such an impression.
The actual lives of black people — and you know this if you really know any black people at all — historically make clear what social media has recently caught onto: there is no proper training for encounters with law enforcement. For people like Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Charles Kinsey, compliance or being subdued has nothing to do with the fact that cops can still shoot. And the case of people like Freddie Gray proves that — even when death following police brutality and negligence is ruled a homicide — no police officer can ever be held responsible for committing murder.
That is where we are, and for some strange reason, a lot of folk like it that way. Even in the midst of reading this, someone has decided that I hate cops. Of course, I don’t hate cops or anyone else. I do hate the fact that, no matter how much black death we’ve seen replayed on our smart phones and computer screens, people would rather my life be in jeopardy than do something that changes the mortality risks black folk face when we interact with law enforcement. I don’t hate cops, but I am surprised that there aren’t more “good” ones who — having seen some of this awful footage — aren’t publicly outraged when their profession is shamed. I do not hate cops, but I do think it’s obvious that we desperately need to change law enforcement policy and training that currently allows for hashtag after hashtag of unarmed black people.
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Contrary to what’s been said about me and my work as a poet, I don’t think of poems as agents for such change any more than I think of trees as “oxygen producers.” I know what trees do for us as a part of our ecosystem, but my love for gazing at them arises from being astonished by the truth of creation. This is the way I think of poetry. “Bullet Points” is the truth I articulated shortly after the mysterious death of Sandra Bland in Texas. Her supposed suicide after being taken into police custody was as mysterious to me as Jesus Huerta’s in North Carolina and Victor White’s in Louisiana, the state where I grew up.
Today, Charles Kinsey is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound in the leg. Whatever scar is left there marks him in ways many of us already see ourselves as marked. I’m sure he is grateful to still be alive.
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do,
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home. Yes, I may be at risk,
But I promise you, I trust the maggots
And the ants and the roaches
Who live beneath the floorboards
Of my house to do what they must
To any carcass more than I trust
An officer of the law of the land
To shut my eyes like a man
Of God might, or to cover me with a sheet
So clean my mother could have used it
To tuck me in. When I kill me, I will kill me
The same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
Calling worst. I promise that if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me. He took
Me from us and left my body, which is,
No matter what we’ve been taught,
Greater than the settlement a city can
Pay a mother to stop crying, and more
Beautiful than the brand new shiny bullet
Fished from the folds of my brain.