Poetry and Privilege

July 15, 2020–Inside the ROMP Rummage Store in downtown Locust Grove, there is a small room that is an annex or off-site exhibit for the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry. The exhibit inside it is called Mona’s Closet, and it is about loneliness and writing and poetry.

As is always true with every ROMP exhibit, it is interactive, with 4 different writing opportunities inside. But as often happens when you have a quiet, thoughtful space for introspection, the writing is sometimes not on the theme. And it is often so necessary.

A few days ago when I was working in the store, I took a walk through the exhibit just to see if anyone had written anything or signed the guest book, and I found a poem written on 4 small pieces of paper. This unsigned, handwritten poem, seems to be an honest search for understanding the changing times.

What I wanted to do was throw away the poem and forget about it. I wanted the writer to delve deeper, to seek ways to educate herself (I’m assuming the gender from the handwriting,–sorry), to be open to the possibility that people have uniquely different experiences of the world based on the color of their skin.

But how is it going to help anything if I just throw it away? In re-reading, I see it is a valuable piece of writing, and this person is valuable. This viewpoint is pervasive and is not going to go away because I disagree with its ideas–both implied and stated.

Can we search for common ground and then go from there? Here is the poem in its entirely:

Why am I privileged?

I grew up in Locust Grove.

No taxis, no buses,
No library (back in the day)

No movie theater, no
Bowling alley. We worked
In the winter cutting
Wood and haying in the summer.

No black students.
No black teachers,
No back citizens.

Only black people
Were in Tulsa, Vinita,
Or Muskogee.

How was I privileged?

How come I’m racist
If I do not understand.

I felt sorrow and
Longing for a beach
Or a town pool.

I did not have
Control over where
I was born.

Why wasn’t Locust
Grove the towns I
Saw on TV, Mayberry,
Dukes of Hazzard.

I lived in Locust Grove.

Now I have to feel
Uncomfortable for
Being raised in
Locust Grove.

Should I be proud?
Should I feel shame?
Should I be any
Of those because
I live in Locust Grove?

I have more talent
I can express my
Words. But I
Mostly write.

Ashamed to be seen

Taking paper to pen.

Why I am not
Privileged for living
In Locust Grove.

Or am I?

Or am I a racist,
Bigot, homophobic?

This poem seems to come from a need to explore the idea of privilege, especially since that is the title of it. Public discourse changes with every generation, especially when there is rapid change, and I imagine there is always confusion when this first happens. I see this happening with the word “defund” right now, as in “defunding the police,” which implies a policy to stop funding police departments. After all, “defund” means to stop paying for something. Of course, when you read the actual policies about this, a total “defund” of the police is not what is being discussed. It’s confusing.

The word “privilege” as it is currently being used in our public discourse is also confusing. Since the word means “a special advantage or authority possessed by a particular person or group,” when it’s used to describe white people, many whites don’t understand the connection, especially if they grew up poor or had a crappy childhood or any number of horrible things happened to them.

I don’t know what a better term would be that explains not having to worry about the innumerable things that people of color, particularly black people, have to worry about every minute of their lives. As a white person, I know that it truly is a privilege to be a part of a group that does not have to worry about being attacked simply because of the color of my skin. Maybe the word just needs to be hyphenated: race-privilege.

I don’t know what the writer of this poem was thinking in describing that she grew up with no black people around. I can’t tell if that is mere statement of fact or something insidious. But she then says, “How come I’m racist if I do not understand?” And I see the dilemma she has, of thinking that a lack of experience with diversity makes her ill-equipped to understand a black person’s life. It does. It truly does.

And therein lies the answer: If we are ill-equipped because of the experience of growing up in a racist town, then we have a duty to get out there and acquire the equipment. And I’m not singling out Locust Grove: Any small Oklahoma town has a good share of racism—we are not unique. And we can do something about it.

I grew up in this town and feel that I understand the idea of privilege because for the 25 years I was away from this town, I met a diversity of people, read American history books that told the truth about the lives of people of color, and I had friendships and meaningful conversations and experiences with black people.

The writer asks, “Should I be proud? Should I feel shame? Should I be any of those because I live in Locust Grove?” These are important questions and ones I often struggle with, especially because I have a love/hate relationship with this little town that has such wonderful people in it and also a heart of darkness that refuses to seek change.

The poem ends with questions, also, which is good. So good. So good. We have to ask questions when we don’t understand such important things as what white privilege means. We have to ask questions and be willing to listen to the answers.

What is your reaction to this poem? What can we do to make this world, this town, your town, your neighborhood, your life as just and true as the next person’s?

–Shaun Perkins
Director, Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry
Manager, ROMP Rummage Store

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