The next poem in Dragonfly is a transition poem. The two previous poems focus on family in conjunction with pop culture. Starting with this poem we get a series of poems that deal with childhood. This poem focuses specifically on Asian American childhood in San Francisco in the '60s.
I've written about this in the blog before: last year, I posted a short story on this very topic titled "Manny's Climb"; when that story had been published in the book Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults, it had appeared with a preface that explains what happened: during the '60s and '70s, teenagers who were neither white nor black had to choose one or the other of those identities in order to survive on the streets. That's the way it was in San Francisco, certainly, and I would hazard a guess that that happened in many locales.
What I saw happening with Asian American kids in particular — both girls and boys — is that they would oftentimes teeter-totter back and forth between passing as white and passing as black.
On the right is an image of African musicians wearing the dashiki. Not gold as in my poem above but other bright colors . . . the man in the center sports a mainly red one while around him are white dashikis, orange, yellow, etc. From about 1968 on, people in the African American civil rights movement wore dashikis as an Afrocentric statement; this fashion filtered down to common folk, and Asian American youth who were, again, "putting on blackness" followed suit. Bad pun, sorry.
Because of the realities of my growing up during that time, I was fluent in Black English (again as a survival practice). A linguistic fluency that also came in very handy during my US Army service from 1972 to 1975. When I use this poem at readings, in fact, I perform the latter part of the poem, the italicized portion, in Black English.
There's also an interesting story connected to the closing part of this poem. I wrote this text as a freestanding poem in a beginning poetry writing class with the poet Belle Randall at Stanford University in 1971 or 1972. Then, in probably 1986 or thereabouts, when I was working on my MFA in poetry with Yusef Komunyakaa, I resurrected it, as something that really spoke to my childhood experience, and inserted it into this poem, so that the opening section (the romanized portion) serves as contextualization for the ending section. I sprinkled the latter around the page in order to differentiate it from the part in standard English and to give a sense of its performative quality.
Okay, that's all for today. I'd love to hear what you think of this poem or whatever; please comment below. Thanks. Ingat.
The image on the left is borrowed from the website PastReunited.com. No attribution of photographer there. I'll be glad to give credit or remove this image if the creator contacts me. If you click on the photo, you'll be taken to PastReunited.com; this specific image is about 14 screenloads down that page.
#amreading: SKELETON HILL, by Peter Lovesey
10 hours ago