I’d like you to take two minutes to listen to this poem by Ashlee Haze. Just two minutes.
There’s a rough transcript at the bottom of this post if you’re unable to watch videos, but please do watch if you can: no typed words can capture the intensity of her voice.
This is the lived experience of the black people so many white folk are demanding quiet, decorum, cooperation from. And she wrote this poem two years ago. In the years since, there has been an endless stream of black bodies sacrificed to the monster.
“And I know you are tired of hearing about this,” she says. “What a privilege it is to be tired of hearing about it.”
The very definition of privilege is to be able to ignore suffering because it’s not your own, because the chances of it happening to you are so slim that it seems ridiculous to dwell on it. You can shake your head sadly when you hear about another black person snapped up by alligators in blue uniforms, by alligators in pale skin, by alligators who saw them as other rather than us. And maybe you soothed yourself by saying it’s rare. Maybe you grasped at the mugshot the media dangled in front of you, the rumor of a weapon, the minor mistake that allowed you to believe that the system is just, not a monster devouring countless lives.
You have the privilege of looking away from centuries of systemic prejudice and violence that continue to this day. So you can’t feel the anguish and anger that would drive the voiceless to demand their chance to speak.
You listen to her, and maybe you think she’s being hysterical. There were no black babies being dangled in front of alligators, you think. Things were never that bad.
Only, they were.
Lest anyone question the veracity of the above claims, Hughes cites original newspaper articles. One of them is the June 13, 1908 edition of The Washington Times:
Zoo Specimens Coaxed to Summer Quarters by Plump Little Africans.
NEW YORK, June 13–Their greedy eyes eagerly fixed on two plump pickaninnies, the crocodiles and alligators in the New York Zoological Garden were decoyed from their winter quarters in the reptile house to the cool and shady tank just outside the building.
It was a keeper’s idea to bait the saurians with pickaninnies, knowing as he did their epicurean fondness for the black man. So as two small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house among the throng of visitors, he pressed them into service.
The two crocodiles and all but four of the twenty-five alligators wobbled out as quick as they could after the ebony mites, who darted around the tank just as the pursuing monsters fell with grunts of chagrin into the water, disappointed of their prety.
Four of the big alligators had to be lassoed and dragged to their summer quarters by ropes. One snapped at Head Keeper Snyder’s leg and missed it by an inch.
Black kids were used as alligator bait ya’ll. No, I don’t care that it was most likely a rare occurrence. That it happened at all is just…I can’t even express the level of disgust I’m feeling at the thought of *ONE* child being used as FUCKING GODDAMN GATOR BAIT.
And that habit of seeing black bodies as something less than human continues to this day. We bury it under a civil exterior, now, for the most part. We claim statistics on inner city crime, or IQ tests, or some other reason as justification for thinking they are less-than and deserve less, but those are just hollow excuses which allow our society to continue treating black-skinned folk as if they are lesser people. And when they finally scream after years of politely trying to get our attention, we tell them to hush. As if civility has ever worked on the monster that devours them.
A lot of white people I encounter cannot stand admitting that America was ever this bad. Many of them refuse to believe how bad it is still. We are horribly uncomfortable facing the truth: that we live in a system that has always stacked the deck against people of color, and still refuses them equal treatment. We want to believe we are good people, that our country is noble, and so too many of us get tired of hearing about it. We don’t want to hear, and so we stop listening. We have that luxury.
I want you to understand this: knowing the awful truth does not make America terrible. Harboring unconscious racism doesn’t make you irredeemably bad. Refusing to accept the truth, deciding not to listen, and denying that you have things to fix both in your country and in yourself, is what you should be ashamed of.
You have the power to help make this is a world in which no black child is ever again used for bait. Do you have the courage?
In the year 1815 there were three known types of alligator bait. Catfish, animal parts, and colored children. If you put your ear to the belly of a gator you can hear the muffled screams of slave children, hear them clawing at the ribcage of a monster much bigger than their bodies, but nothing compared to the machine that held their parents slaves. These babies, who were hung over boats and dangled from rope, a fate their parents would know too soon. I imagine their mothers watch envious that their babies may better now know freedom inside the belly of a gator than still trapped in a country that made them slaves. In the year 2015 there are still three known types of alligator bait. Catfish, animal parts, and colored children. On February 26th 2012, Trayvon Martin was swallowed whole by a gator twice the size of his body, but nothing compared to the machine that caused his self-defense because Skittles, like wallets, like whistles to white women, can be mistaken for guns, even if the zookeeper yells, “Do not fire!” over telephone wires, you corner these babies. Trayvon, your walking was mistaken for dangling on a rope, and you got a sweettooth right around feeding time. I imagine your mother watched envious that her baby may better know freedom than she would, still trapped in a country that can’t bring her justice. And I know you are tired of hearing about this. What a privilege it is to be tired of hearing about it. I imagine Nicole Bell is tired of hearing about it, I imagine the Diallos are tired of hearing about it. You ask me what my poems are about. Butterflies? I’m too busy boxing elephants to write poems about butterflies. I’m too busy teaching my brother how not to find himself on the wrong part of the Florida Panhandle lest he be mistaken for bait. I am too busy scratching the ribcage of a monster that may never set me free.