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Poem of the Week - December 16th, 2020 - 'Testimony (For Tamir Rice 2002-2014) by Hafizah Geter

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

For this week’s poem of the week, I chose a poem from a collection released this year by an up-and-coming poet by the name of Hafizah Geter: ‘Testimony (For Tamir Rice, 2002-2014)’.

Geter’s backstory is intriguing and different from so many other poets in America right now, and it propels all of her poetry, with little bits and pieces of her identity, familial history, and heritage intertwined in every line of her work. Born in Zaria, Nigeria, she is the daughter of a Nigerian-Muslim woman and a Black man born in the Jim Crow South, and her family history runs deep throughout her poems, with many of them dealing with unresolved trauma felt throughout her family tree and the identity crises that could arise inside someone with such varied backgrounds and heritages.

After spending much of her childhood growing up in South Carolina, she graduated from Clemson with her BA in English and Economics before receiving an MFA in poetry from Columbia College Chicago. Besides being a poet and a writer, she is also a literary agent who is based currently in Brooklyn. Her work has been featured in prestigious publications such as The New Yorker, Tin House, Boston Review, Longreads, and McSweeney’s Indelible in the Hippocampus, among others.

Through various interviews she has granted over the years, she aims to move readers of her poetry and prose pieces to understand the cultural milieu a person like her, someone with two citizenships and two varied backgrounds, has experienced throughout her lifetime, and she seeks to explore ‘the fraught internal and external landscapes—linguistic, cultural, racial, familial—of those whose lives [like hers] are shaped by immigration, migration, language, racism, queerness, loss, and the heartbreak of feeling at home in a country that does not recognize you.’

The poem of hers I have decided to focus on this week, ‘Testimony (For Tamir Rice, 2002-2014)’, is a powerful, short poem that seeks to force readers to consider the lost young life of Rice, a black boy shot at the age of twelve by a white police officer in 2014.

The poem itself, which is one long, unbroken stanza, is a powerful 22-line mediation on Rice’s short life, his blackness, the presidency of Barack Obama, the mourning of Trayvon Martin, and the metaphysical anguish of taking hours to die after being shot in the stomach. While such heavy subjects seem like they couldn’t possibly be scrutinized and analyzed in only 22 lines, Geter does the extraordinary and forces readers to reckon with all those subjects and more in their short time with the poem.

Written in free verse, the lines, other than the twentieth line, are all short and to the point. It begins like a letter, with the first line reading simply, ‘Mr. President,’ and then continues on in that vein. Geter also gets right to the point in the following line, forcing readers to acknowledge that this is a poem of violence and loss: ‘After they shot me they tackled my sister.’ Geter goes on to describe the police tackling Rice’s fourteen-year-old sister after he was shot, something that actually happened in real life, and Geter seems to include it to induce even more rage in the poem’s readers—not only has a young twelve-year-old boy been shot, but the police decide that his equally young sister has to be tackled simply for being black and in the vicinity of him?

The middle lines of the poem, dwelling on an imagined letter that Rice had sent to Obama, describes the various aspects of his life and scenes from his boyhood. These lines force readers to imagine Rice as the young boy that he was instead of some historical symbol that he now is, and it brings a humanity to the poem and to the memory of Rice that others fail to bring when Rice is discussed in popular culture and scholarly papers. Geter also subtly nods at the backlash to Obama after his election and his presidency and the resurgence of white supremacy with the last two lines of this part of the poem: ‘Mom said you made being black beautiful again / but that was before someone killed Trayvon.’ The story of Obama, in so many articles and essays and short stories written by authors and professors in the first few years after his election, was that Obama allowed black Americans to be proud of their heritage in a way that they had never felt before, and that being black was being beautiful, a sentiment that had never pervaded pop culture in any real major way before Obama became president. With the start of his presidency, much of White America thought that ‘racism was solved,’ that the elevation of a black man to the highest office in the land was the crowning jewel in the civil rights struggle of all black Americans, and that was that. What wasn’t expected was the resurgence of white supremacism seen in the years after 2010 and, in even larger amounts, 2016, and Geter makes a dig at current Americans citizens and politicians who seem to back that movement through the sad exploration at the hatred garnered when black people try to be proud of their blackness.

The most haunting part of the poem, however, comes at the end: the last three lines of the poem explicitly address the long, drawn-out time that it took Tamir Rice to die, with Geter painting it as a long, infinite darkness that slowly swallowed Rice and left him in a place with ‘so many other boys here,’ calling on all the black boys that have been killed through extrajudicial means and police brutality since the founding of this country.

One other thing to note with the poem is the distinct lack of punctuation, some interesting grammatical choices, and some choice spellings. While this may seem subtle, it is an explicit style decision—Geter is writing like that of a twelve-year-old boy: her lines ramble and run together at times; some sentences start out as if spoken at a quick pace out loud; and some words that are usually compounded are separated in certain lines, with all of it sounding like that from the pencil of a young child, just as Rice was when he was murdered.

This poem is a powerful piece of work. While dark, it is a fitting elegy to Tamir Rice’s young life, and it’s a way to keep his memory alive. Geter’s work in both this poem and throughout her entire collection where this piece can be found, titled Un-American, is among the most thorough and powerful writing that I’ve read all year. I highly recommend it for all readers out there who are looking for their worldviews to be challenged through what they read.


If you want to check out Geter's most recent collection Un-American, you can find it in our local catalog here, or purchase it from Amazon here or from a local bookstore here.


 

TESTIMONY

For Tamir Rice, 2002-2014


Mr. President,

After they shot me they tackled my sister.

The sound of her knees hitting the sidewalk

made my stomach ache. It was a bad pain.

Like when you love someone

and they lie to you. Or that time Mikaela cried

all through science class and wouldn’t tell anyone why.

This isn’t even my first letter to you,

in the first one I told you about my room

and my favorite basketball team

and asked you to come visit me in Cleveland

or send your autograph. In the second one

I thanked you for your responsible citizenship.

I hope you are proud of me too.

Mom said you made being black beautiful again

but that was before someone killed Trayvon.

After that came a sadness so big it made everyone

look the same. It was a long time before we could

go outside again. Mr. President it took one whole day

for me to die and even though I’m twelve and not afraid of the dark

I didn’t know there could be so much of it

or so many other boys here.





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