• Dear Black America:
    A Letter From Tracy K. Smith

    "We revel in the depth and the flair and the belief and the secrecy of Blackness."

    Dear Black America–

    We are many things, aren’t we? We are hair. God yes, we are hair. And song. And memory. We are a language so deep it has no need for words. And we are words that feint, dart and wheel like birds. Like James Brown, we feel good. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, we are sick and tired. We are fearsome. We are fire. Like God, we are that we are.

    I’ve always felt great freedom in the countless territories making up the realm of Blackness. So many routes to wholeness. So many versions of joy. In Blackness I am local. In Blackness I am also distant kin. Indigenous and immigrant at once. Host and welcome guest.

    But in the country of America—the physical and psychic territory in which the physical and psychic domain of Black America is situated—we are made to huddle together. By force. By the feelings of rage, threat, exhaustion, disappointment and longsuffering that extend toward us from this nation that loathes, fears, regrets and cannot yet fully bear to accept the fact of us.

    And I hear my uncles saying, “Tell me something I don’t know,” with laughter in their throats. And it is that laughter—our laughter—that I cleave to.

    We revel in the depth and the flair and the belief and the secrecy of Blackness. We are lucky to be who we are, and we know it. And I hear my aunts saying, “Amen,” and their deep intaking of breath, followed by steep exhalation.

    I see you in all your forms, Black America, and I feel inside me a welling up of pride, reverence and fierce protection.

    Black, we revel in the resourcefulness and the resilience and the poise and the knowhow and the grace and the anger and the prayers to all manner of being that have kept us alive. Alive despite attempt after concerted attempt to annihilate us.

    I see you in all your forms, Black America, and I feel inside me a welling up of pride, reverence and fierce protection. These threats we live subject to—these ceaseless, baseless, unending and uneradicated threats to our black bodies, spirits and minds—do you know what I think they are? They are the grotesque and perverse ends to which a nation founded in shame has gone in order to avoid atoning for its crimes. They are defensive acts, based on the belief that, if we were allowed to dwell in our full power, what we would bestow upon this nation would be vengeance.

    But we know better, don’t we? Look what we do with our voices. Look what we build with our hands. Look what we hold together with just our arms.

    Once a friend told me, “I think we came to this earth to save it.”

    Once, I wrote in a notebook, “Maybe we are operating at a heightened spiritual frequency.”

    Why else do we call it Soul?

    Black America, I feel myself cradled by this thing we share. When I call it race, I’m told that race is false. When I call it a movement, I’m reminded that we have moved through countless other movements before now. When I call it culture, I feel the seams of the word splitting at the great moving heft it attempts to contain.

    We are here in America now as we have been in America always. When we are struck down and held back. When our bodies are corrupted by the violence of others. When we love. When, as now, we are trapped inside of finitude and flesh. During all of this and then some, Black America, we are agents of the eternal.

    Tracy K. Smith
    Tracy K. Smith
    Tracy K. Smith is a librettist, translator and the author of five acclaimed poetry collections, including Life on Mars, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the National Book Award. From 2017 to 2019, she served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States. She lives in Massachusetts.

    More Story