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Poem of the Week - 11/23/2020 - 'When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving' by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

This week’s ‘Poem of the Week’ comes courtesy of Reginald Dwayne Betts, an up-and-coming poet whose most recent collection, Felon, sent shockwaves through the poetry community last year with its frank assessment and discussion of race, imprisonment, the criminal justice system of America, and the damage that prison does to a person’s soul.

Betts himself has a highly unusual and interesting backstory. Born in 1980, he grew up in Maryland and attended Suitland High School in District Heights, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. While enrolled there, he was in the honors programs and a class treasurer. His promising future took a turn when he and another friend carjacked a man who had fallen asleep in his car at the local mall. Betts was charged as an adult, convicted of the crime, and sentenced to spend eight years in prison.

It was while in prison that Betts decided he wanted to do something different when he was released, and he started reading, writing, and ended up graduating from high school while still imprisoned. Over the course of many interviews given over the past decade, Betts has been outspoken about how broken the criminal justice system is in America. He points to the example that he, a teenager, was forced into solitary confinement for fourteen months due to minor infractions while in a maximum security prison, and how awful solitary confinement can be for a person’s soul. He turned to reading and writing during that time, devouring whatever books the prison guards would bring him, and he decided that he wanted to be a poet when he was released.

After serving his eight-year prison sentence, and with a fresh look on both life and the way that people are treated through the prison-industrial complex, Betts’ life took off. He found a job at a local book store in Bowie, Maryland, eventually becoming the store manager, and got an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland. From there, he didn’t stop—he received an MFA from Warren Wilson College, where he was a Holden Fellow, and then was admitted to the Yale Law School, where he eventually got his JD after a distinguished law school career. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Law at Yale and has spent time representing clients as a public defender in the New Haven Public Defender’s Office.

What might be even more impressive though is his resume outside of school. Besides being a speaker and lecturer at colleges throughout the country over the past decade, Betts is also the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, a writing fellow for PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship, served on President Barack Obama’s Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2012, and received both a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA fellowship in 2018. His works have been published broadly, both poetry and essays, in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, and he has been a guest on many podcasts, including those on NPR and the Travis Smiley Show.

Much of Betts’ work, including both essays and poems, focus on issues related to prison, the criminal justice system, and what it means to be a black man in America in the twenty-first century. He does not mince words, and he is strong in his beliefs, often backing up arguments he makes with sound examples and legal standings, gleaned from his years spent studying and working as a lawyer and writer. His most recent collection, the aforementioned Felon, has broken ground due to the subject matter and content of some of its poems—for several of them, he took literal court rulings or lawsuits related to black men on trial or civil rights issues, blacked out certain lines, words, and phrases, and created poems with the remaining words. While not the first to create a poem in such an experimental way, he is by far the biggest poet to have done such a thing, and what is now called ‘redaction poems’ will always be linked with his name.

The poem I chose for today though is not from his most recent collection. Instead, it was published in Poetry magazine in April 2016, which was my personal introduction to Betts. ‘When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,’ a powerful free-verse poem written more like a stream of consciousness than anything else, floored me when I first read it. Coming four years before the American Race Awakening during the summer of 2020, the poem dwells on the fears and worries of black fathers everywhere throughout the U.S. in regards to their black sons. Betts, the presumed speaker of the poem, muses on the idea/fear of his two black sons getting killed in the same manner that Tamir Rice was murdered in 2014 while driving with them in the backseat, showing the constant state of anxiety that all black men have to live with each and every day in America.

In terms of structure, the poem is dense with language but easy-flowing. The long lines and use of punctuation to extend sentences serves to give readers a sense of anxiety and unease, the thoughts never-ending and flowing directly into the next one, unceasing, and the density of the words themselves show the struggle that black men have to go through when thinking about daily life and all the worries that life in America uniquely gives to black men, women, and children, representing how they often have to mentally juggle so many burdens and tasks that white men, women, and children do not. The end of the poem is particularly bleak yet hopeful: he imagines the kind of strength that Rice’s mother and father and family must have to not commit suicide, to not want to kill themselves and join their son in the ground forever, and its related imagery ends the poem on a haunting note, the reader being left with an image of a crypt in a cemetery, with everything else quiet and still nearby and the silence of eternity wrapped around everything.

If you want to read Betts' brilliant recent collection, Felon, head over to our local catalog to find it here. If you would like to purchase it for your own personal use (who doesn't love highlighting their favorite lines of poetry and writing notes in the margins?), you can find it locally here or on Amazon here.

'When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving' by Reginald Dwayne Betts

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,

still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard

me warn them against playing with toy pistols,

though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t

like, not what I fear, because sometimes

I think of  Tamir Rice & shed tears, the weeping

all another insignificance, all another way to avoid

saying what should be said: the Second Amendment

is a ruthless one, the pomp & constitutional circumstance

that says my arms should be heavy with the weight

of a pistol when forced to confront death like

this: a child, a hidden toy gun, an officer that fires

before his heart beats twice. My two young sons play

in the backseat while the video of  Tamir dying

plays in my head, & for everything I do know, the thing

I don’t say is that this should not be the brick and mortar

of poetry, the moment when a black father drives

his black sons to school & the thing in the air is the death

of a black boy that the father cannot mention,

because to mention the death is to invite discussion

of  taboo: if you touch my sons the crimson

that touches the concrete must belong, at some point,

to you, the police officer who justifies the echo

of the fired pistol; taboo: the thing that says that justice

is a killer’s body mangled and disrupted by bullets

because his mind would not accept the narrative

of  your child’s dignity, of  his right to life, of  his humanity,

and the crystalline brilliance you saw when your boys first breathed;

the narrative must invite more than the children bleeding

on crisp fall days; & this is why I hate it all, the people around me,

the black people who march, the white people who cheer,

the other brown people, Latinos & Asians & all the colors of   humanity

that we erase in this American dance around death, as we

are not permitted to articulate the reasons we might yearn

to see a man die; there is so much that has to disappear

for my mind not to abandon sanity: Tamir for instance, everything

about him, even as his face, really and truly reminds me

of my own, in the last photo I took before heading off

to a cell, disappears, and all I have stomach for is blood,

and there is a part of me that wishes that it would go away,

the memories, & that I could abandon all talk of making it right

& justice. But my mind is no sieve & sanity is no elixir & I am bound

to be haunted by the strength that lets Tamir’s father,

mother, kinfolk resist the temptation to turn everything

they see into a grave & make home the series of cells

that so many of my brothers already call their tomb.

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