THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY
7 | 21 |16
by Dominic Inouye
There are so many blanks to fill in.
That's why people are marching, you know?
How do ___ get on the right side of history?
If ___ am the system, then how do ___ do the right thing?
Which pronoun to use?
If I use “I”
(How do I get on the right side of history?),
then I am a Japanese/Italian American
who checks “Other” instead of
the essentializing “White” or “Pacific Islander.”
If I use “You”
(How do you get on the right side of history?),
then you could rightly accuse me of being
accusatory, but without accusation,
then there is no right side of history.
If I use "He" or "She"
(How does he or she get on the right side of history?),
do I mean this police chief or that police officer
or this Black woman or that Black man
shot with his hands up at point blank range?
If I use “They"
(How do they get on the right side of history?),
do I mean all police officers
or all white people or
all Black people?
If I use “We,”
Does that mean “We” the white people
Or “We” the Black people
Or “We” the People?
Or does “We” implicitly and neatly group us
all together so that no one can be accused,
suggesting we’re all just one big dysfunctional family,
that people just make mistakes?
Do I need to get on the right side of history?
Am I the system?
Do You need to get on the right side of history?
Are You the system?
Does He or She need to get on the right side of history?
Is He or She the system?
Do They need to get on the right side of history?
Are They the system?
Do We need to get on the right side of history?
Are We the system?
I tried to make sense of the blank spaces
As I marched with a thousand other pronouns
Through the streets of Milwaukee.
We marched first to remember the latest victims
and over 700 others killed by police officers
this year alone.
But we were also called by a man with a microphone
to peck away at the system.
I imagined us
pecking away at the residues
of the Jim Crow system like vultures
peck the carcass of a dead crow,
ripping shreds off the desiccating
flesh of a failed system.
Would this pecking
get us on the right side of history?
Were we doing the right thing?
Another man with a microphone
on the steps of the police station
insisted that if a man’s mind
has been taught that there are
when there is no law--
If he has been taught this
by the lawless actions of unnatural
puppeteers posing as prophets,
then what he called "natural law" will emerge.
We all learned about these "appropriate" times in school:
The slave ships plucked people
From their homes like grapes
in a silver bowl, then squeezed them
into the goblets of masters.
The president signed an executive
order to force the indigenous
into paternalistic reservations.
The government barbed wired
its own rising sun citizens,
and the culture built on these lawful injustices
decided that not everyone could piss
into the same pot, feared the lips
of a dark man would contaminate
the entire water table.
If this is what a man has been taught
in school and in his neighborhood,
that sometimes the law doesn’t apply to some people,
then natural law will emerge.
Deep instincts will arise
out of the oppression,
and rear their heads:
A thousand heads marching up Water Street,
blocking traffic on Wisconsin Avenue,
disrupting the freeway system,
the concrete divider that ripped through
Bronzeville and made Milwaukee
the most segregated city in the country.
It is not surprising
that a man would arm himself
against officers in Dallas and
. . . . .
Though this too needs to be pecked away.
A system in which anyone who is Black
is treated with suspicion and paranoia
and anyone who has chosen the blue life
is treated with distrust and fear--
this needs to be pecked away.
If some of us--another pronoun--
are above the law,
then does the law truly exist?
Does it cease to matter?
Is it revealed as a sham,
to be dismantled by natural law
We had recently celebrated
with fireworks and picnics
the natural law that emerged
when the European colonists,
who saw in their king a lawless justice,
pecked away at the system
with cannons and bayonets.
The natural laws of life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness
stained the red coats even redder.
So who are the next vultures to dismantle the system?
It has been a century and a half since
the slaves were emancipated in a paper proclamation.
It has been almost fifty years since civil rights
mattered in the streets, at the dinner table,
in the cafeteria, at the lunch counters.
Who will step up to dismantle the system now?
And what will it take?
What should it take?
Is a Facebook ally enough,
or a rally at city hall?
Is a march through the streets enough,
or a freeway blockade?
Is violence against police officers
ever the right thing?
I find myself here
in the winding streets of this verse
wondering whether “dismantle” is even the right word?
If a mantle is a cloak, what’s the cloak
that needs uncloaking?
What do the vultures
need to uncloak?
Is this uncloaking a pecking away
at the pinkish red carcass
of an oily black crow--
or is it rather an unveiling,
an apocalypse, an uncovering?
I heard one man at the march say
he didn’t lose justice
when he lost his son.
He lost balance.
So many other families are off-balance.
Balance must be restored.
This has the ring of revelation--
Restore the balance.
The marchers cried, I cried,
Power to the people!
Who got the power? We got the power!
Ain’t no power like the power of the people, because
the power of the people don’t stop!
because they saw an imbalance of power.
The marchers cried
We are the change!
because they saw none from its authorities.
The marchers cried
Out of your seat and into the street!
Whose streets? Our streets!
because they saw too much contentedness and security.
The marchers cried
I am my brother’s keeper!
because they knew that if they didn’t keep him,
then there was no guarantee
that anyone else would.
But it can’t be that simple, can it?
Be my brother’s and my sister’s keeper?
I’d love to think that these words I grew up with
could dismantle the system
and heal the wounds
and restore life, liberty, and happiness, but
something in me knows it’s going to take more.
Or maybe it is that simple.
On my way back
from the police station rally
I waved at a beautiful baby
with white beads in her hair
and she grabbed my finger
from inside her stroller
and wouldn’t let go
as her mother and brother
walked beside her.
Her brown face smiled up
at me and I could swear
she kept gurgling “dada.”
When I told her mother my name
and asked her hers,
she told me she was Jay Anderson’s fiance
and that these were their two children.
I felt ashamed I hadn’t recognized them
from the pictures in the paper
recounting how he was shot while sitting
in his car in a park in the early hours of the morning--
the baby girl had the same white beads.
For a moment, I let her hand go
so I could hug her mother.
Then her beaded head peered up again.
In my hand I held the fatherless
hand of a beautiful girl.
Her mother let me walk with them down the block
and across the street.
Then we parted ways.
For a moment
I forgot about I’s and You’s,
pronouns and protests,
vultures and crows,
pecking and dismantling,
natural law and marching.
I felt like I was on the right side of history,
that the girl knew instinctively how to do the right thing.
That if we (yes, she and I) could hold hands
like this for a year, a decade, a century,
then balance could be restored.
I attended my first protest march on Monday, July 11th.
The Solidarity Rally and Protest Surrounding Lost Lives
was led by the Coalition For Justice.
It began with a peaceful 4 pm rally in Red Arrow Park,
proceeded down Water Street to Wisconsin Avenue,
formed a circle in the street--I estimated close to a thousand strong--
in front of the Federal Building,
backtracked to Water Street and down to Clybourn Street,
then up Milwaukee Street back to Red Arrow.
From there, the marchers rallied up Kilbourn Avenue
to the police station on State Street.
I marched, I chanted, I met new people, I connected with old friends.
I wrote down everything I heard and saw.
Here is an imperfect poem that begins
with two questions posed to the crowd:
How do we get on the right side of history?
We are the system, so how do we do the right thing?
I became wary of the pronouns I was using
after getting feedback from an old and wise
friend of mine, so I begin with blanks
and let my thoughts march and meander
through the verses.
It ends around 8 pm,
when a baby grabs my hand
and refuses to let go.
I invite your feedback, critique, questions, conversation.