830: What's Been Caged

830: What's Been Caged

830: What's Been Caged


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Each year, I find myself removing once beloved poems from my syllabus, poems I have taught for years. But read through the lens of inclusivity and, frankly, safety, they just don’t cut the mustard nor seem appropriate.

For better or worse, I try not to exclude those in my classroom for the purpose of making some point about poetic craft. I try to create an environment where difficult conversations are welcomed and sensitive topics are rigorously discussed — but without the unintentional act of demeaning or dehumanizing a student. My logic is this: I can find an equally suitable poem to model. This is controversial among some of my colleagues. I get it: who wants to, or even can, navigate every possible means of alienating someone?

I applaud the sensitivity and consideration we give each other in classrooms and workplaces. Words have histories. Sometimes we pull back their layers in our usage to unintentionally reveal their fraught legacies.

Freud (who himself is fraught to many) believed jokes represented an opportunity to release pent up anxieties and repressed hostilities. Some time ago, in my work as an accountant, I managed a small staff. This one particular day of reporting deadlines, a coworker jokingly blurted out: you’re working me like a slave driver. After nervous laughter and silence, they apologized.

It’s too easy to discount the moment as a case of political correctness, as some do when held accountable for implicit or biased speech. Why choose mockery and dismissiveness over decency and thoughtfulness? I believe we should be able to make blunders, but that we should also afford each other grace and forgiveness.

Today’s poem reveals how language, in its slipperiness, implicates itself. It explores that conflicted space in which we try not to protest too much, yet cannot help but hear those negative histories.

What’s Been Caged
by Jamaica Baldwin

I thought sieve but said shiv.
I thought blaspheme but cursed anyway.
A good fuck said with conviction will knock the teeth out of rage.

I thought convoluted but said convulsion,
the uncontrollable movement behind the eyelids,
rapid, searching in the dark
hallways of history.

               We began the day like this,
               myself and I, arguing over the lyrics
               to She Keeps on Passing Me By.

I wondered if they’d considered
the implications of “dopest Ethiopian.”

               Myself thought my BA/MFA/PhD had PC’d the funk right out of me.
               It was a critical debate,
               an untheoretical contortion about imagination.
               Language, in theory, is representation
               (from the Latin repreasentare: to make present, set in view, display.)

I sank my teeth into exhibit
to prove my point. The long history of grotesque exhibitions hung 
before us. The word hung treed before us.
Language kept drawing arrows like this from word to slave to rape
to ancestor.

               Myself thought survival
               but said circumscribe, (from the Latin circumscribere:
               to encircle, limit, restrain, confine.)

I wanted another word to free us from the confines of survival.

            Myself did not say quiet but became it,
            as if the desire to rid myself of such limitations was asking
            too much. As if

I could only be one or the other:
myself or the I that contained myself, the words,
or the history that engendered them.

The arrows always return to what’s been caged.
This time when thinking incarceration,

I said sieve, (from the Old English sife: to pour out, drip, trickle)
like mourning I thought
but said revolution.

"What's Been Caged" by Jamaica Baldwin. Used by permission of the poet.