On Writing

“What We Got To Be Scared Of” a poetry win

“What We Got To Be Scared Of” a poetry win

In August 2020, I submitted a short story to our local arts council’s annual writing competition. On a whim, I included a poem I wrote at the beginning of that week fueled by both frustration and resolve. I wrote it in thiry minutes and edited it one time.

That poem went on to win first place in the adult category.

The Story Behind the Writing

It was late summer, after months of protests against racial injustice, and numerous conversations trying to help people understand that yes, there is a problem of racial injustice and inequity in America–even if you don’t see it.

It was after another police shooting of a Black man and my frustration of trying to explain–again–to someone why it mattered and was not just an anamoly. I was frustrated and tired of having the same conversation over and over and seeing it repeated in other spheres of social media.

Essentially, I was having to explain to people that racism is still a problem in America that didn’t go away when slavery ended or the Civil Rights Act was passed and that racism has a legacy. That moving on and “just get over it” is not a healthy way to move toward reconciliation. That what happened a hundred years ago still affects our personal and cultural present, whether we like it or not.

We have inherited the problems of our grandparents, our great-grandparents, and our great-great-great-grandparents. As Sara Groves sings, “Generations will reap what I sow, so I can be a curse or a blessing to those I will never know.”

“What We Got to Be Scared Of” came out of the frustration of having that conversation (and seeing others have to have it) on loop. I had had a few interactions where it was suggested that people of color were blowing things out of proportion, generally making a big deal out of things that they didn’t see as a big deal. It was just someone getting arrested, right? What was the purpose behind these protests? They don’t really have anything to complain about. They’re just overexaggerating and making stuff up.

“What We Got to Be Scared Of” is my rhetorical question, What have we got to lose by standing up and telling the truth?

What do we have to lose by standing up to racism in all its forms and manifestations?

We’re not doing this to make a name for ourselves or because we like having hard conversations all time or reviewing the facts of police violence or the disparity in pay or how the rehtoric of “law and order” was racialized by Nixon and then Regean and propped up by Billy Graham (see Stamped from the Beginning and Divided by Faith), how Native American women are more likely than any other group to be murdered or go missing (and their cases remain unsolved), or food deserts, or pipelines across Indigenous lands, and or and or…I could go on and on.

We’ve already lost much–all the ways society has stacked against us and if we play along (code switch, colorism, assimilate–basically, act white enough…play to the definition and picture of white success and you’ll be accepted/succeed) then we get to the “level” playing ground. You know, the individualized “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” one. How many times I heard from my dad and grandpa “prove them wrong” growing up? Too many to count. Be so great that they can’t ignore you.

And, so…I was tired and “What We Got to Be Scared Of” born with only thirty minutes of pushing. I let it rest for a day and spent about ten minutes editing before I submitted it. It was one of those times were the magic worked.

“What We Got to Be Scared Of”

They thought they were going to shoo us out that night,
like they could dig the roots out under us.
We laughed.
Them who hide under bedsheets, looking like chil’rn dressing up as ghouls.
‘Cept thems grown men carrying their fear in shrouds of white.

We ain’t scared.

What we got to be scared of?
They done already kilt our pawpaws and brothers in our own yard,
locked up our mawmaws and sisters and aunties in the shed
with no plea but to hear that killing shot.
Left to clean up the blood and bodies of our kin.
What we got to be scared of?
They told us we don’t belong on our own land,
tried to push us aside and out.
But there ain’t nowhere else on earth for our brown skin.
We stay where the dark waters flow.
What we got to be scared of?
They tellt us we can’t learnt here, 
so we built our own schools, we taught our own people.
They tellt us we ain’t really Indian,
so we stirred our tea leaves,  kept our hand to the plow.
They tellt us we can’t worship there,
so we led our own sheep, prayers raised to the God who sees.
Can’t work here
Can’t live here
Can’t pee here
Can’t eat here
Can’t sit here
What we got to be scared of?
So when they showed up that night
with their one platform light
A cuz shot it up and shut them out
And we hooted and hollered, whooping our war cry,
chasing their scaredy cat,
clothesline wearing
out of town.
What we got to be scared of?

The History Behind the Poem

I’m a bi-racial Lumbee Indian of North Carolina and “What We Got to Be Scared Of” is tied to two historic events in Lumbee history.

“They thought they were going to shoo us out that night,
like they could dig the roots out under us.
We laughed.

The first is the Battle of Hayes Pond. In 1958, the Grand Dragon of the KKK of the Carolinas organized a rally in Maxton, NC intent on intimidating Lumbees, “to put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.” Around that time the Klan had burned crosses on the lawn of a Lumbee family who moved to a white neighborhood and of a Lumbee woman who was dating a white man. Warned by the local sheriff that it wasn’t a good idea, the klan leader continued his planned rally.

“So when they showed up that night
with their one platform light
A cuz shot it up and shut them out”

Renting a field from a local farmer, they set up a platform with one light. Lumbees lingered around the field to watch the display and as the klan rally started, a Lumbee (cuz = cousin) shot the night and Lums (who outnumbered those gathered for the rally) rushed the field yelling and hollering and ran the KKK out of Robeson County.

“They done already kilt our pawpaws and brothers in our own yard,
locked up our mawmaws and sisters and aunties in the shed

The second story referenced is from the Lowry War, a ten year confrontation between the Lumbee and local authorities during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Henry Berry Lowry along with his gang of outlaws made up of brothers, cousins, and a few friends) is revered in Lumbee culture.

During the war, Lumbee men (usually teenagers) were forcibly conscripted to build the Confederate fort, Fort Fisher in Wilmington. Lumbees were conscripted because enslavers stopped sending those they enslaved to the fort building efforts, because conditions were so bad their “property” was dying instead of returning. Many fled to the swamps to escape conscription. However, when two Lumbee boys–cousins to Henry Berry Lowry–home on leave were killed by the Home Guard, Lowry retailiated.

“with no plea but to hear that killing shot.
Left to clean up the blood and bodies of our kin.”

Later Allen Lowry, Henry’s father, and one of his sons were accused of harboring and aiding runaway slaves and having weapons (which was against the law for free people of color). It’s said they were killed execution style in their own yard while the women (mother, daughters, sisters, aunts) were locked in a nearby shed and waited two days to be released.

When I sit and think about that, it strikes me…someone had to clean up the bodies. Someone had to brush the dirt and sweep leaves over their kin’s blood soaked into the ground. And, it was likely the women. To think, to not only not be able to prevent your husband, father, brother’s death, but to have to hear it happen, clean up after, bury and mourn them, and still live at the site of their execution–that’s where generational racial trauma comes in.

Henry Berry Lowry reached mythic proportions, because he was never caught–dead or alive–and to this day no one knows exactly what happened to him. The Only Land I Know by Aldoph Dial has the best recounting of this history.

Other Lumbee References

There are references to Lumbees building their own schools. Lumbees built the first college in the U.S. for Natives the Croatan Normal School (now known as University of North Carolina – Pembroke). Lumbees can be quite superstitious people reading tea leaves or sayings like “if your hand itches, you’re coming into money” (that’s one from my family). Lums were also subject to Jim Crow laws (separate entrances, bathrooms, water foutntains, etc) and faith is an integral part of the Lumbee community. Dark waters refers to the Lumber River, which can be very dark and use to be called Drowning River. It’s also written with a lilt of the Lumbee vernacular.

can’t can’t can’t can’t can’t

So…what have we to lose? What do we have to be scared of? The worse has already happened. We’ve been left a legacy of Lumbees standing up for themselves and their rights, so what do we have to be scared of? What do we have to lose by speaking out against injustice?

Lumbees have been gifted a legacy of men and women who stood their ground and shaped a place for us. I’m not going to be a Lumbee who turns my back on justice, because it’s hard or uncomfortable. What I lose for speaking the truth and working toward a more just society, isn’t worth having.

Generations will reap what I sow. I want to sow justice. What I got to be scared of?

What’s next? Bloodlines

Bloodlines will be a poetry chapbook (between 20-40 pages) centering around my experience as a bi-racial Native American and the genealogy of both sides of my family, which–surprsingly–overlaps. I’m hoping to be able to self-publish is by May 2021 in time for our town’s first poetry festival.

I was both encouraged and surprised by that win and after that found the poems flowing out with a little help from Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise and Buffy Saint-Marie’s Medicine Songs. I wrote probably 20 poems over the course of two days.