by Destiny O. Birdsong, PhD
Sartre was right: hell is other people, and the last few years of my life have been plagued with a series of small but intensely burring infernos, otherwise known as racist white folks. It is important to note here that these individuals are a subset of the whole: I have had the pleasure of working alongside, creating with, and befriending white people who actively fight against racism, who deeply understand their privilege, and who work hard to create space at the table for their non-white counterparts. But goodness, there are certainly a few distant cousins I wish I’d never met: those for whom the current presidential administration has served as an aegis under which they now feel free to — for lack of a better phrase — brandish their true colors.
Of all of my experiences, one sticks out with painful clarity. In October 2016, freshly returned from a writer’s retreat in upstate New York, I was driving home through rural Northern Tennessee, having retrieved my dog from the house of a friend. During my drive, a small yellow car drove erratically in front of me for several miles, speeding up and slowing at will, and once, suddenly stopping along a dark stretch of road. Later, when the two-lane highway widened to allow for a middle lane, I tried to pass him, and he tried to sideswipe me. Silly, silly me, high from the fellowship of people of color, and oblivious to my own danger, I immediately stopped my car and hopped out, anxious about any damage it had incurred. The yellow car circled around, and its driver, a young white man, immediately began yelling. When he accused me of tailing him, I denied it, pointing out his reckless driving. When I threatened to call the police, he told me his brother worked for the police department. When I pulled out my phone and tried to record him, he sped away, but not before he uttered with disdain (not to mention the best diction he had shown all night) the words that would echo in my head for years to come: “You fucking nigger. You fucking nigger.”
That brief encounter with the man in the yellow car has had a significant impact on my life. I do not like to drive alone at night. Long distances and highway driving are all but impossible. I often feel safest at home, but recent events like the death of Botham Jean, [the young man killed in his own apartment by a white female police officer] make it clear that even that is a fallacy of logic in the land of the free. I keep my storm door locked and my door chain affixed, lest someone mistake my refuge for theirs. I have different strategies for defending myself and escaping from different rooms, should an intruder enter in the middle of the night. I have practiced how to open the door for police: how to slowly unhook the chain; how to unlock the storm door without making any sudden movements.
Needless to say, when I stumbled upon Marilyn Nelson’s “Minor Miracle,” a free verse poem that recounts an incident with a similarly irate driver who accosts two bicyclists in a non-descript Midwestern town, I read the poem over and over again — first with incredulity, then with something akin to tenderness. I remembered my own harrowing experience, all alone on a dark road with no real means of protection save my car, the supposed safety of which I had left only because I was convinced I had done something wrong. I remembered too how, on that brisk fall night, my heart had slowly begun to harden, and I became suspicious of any white person whom I did not know personally: after all, I had been caught out there before; I would be damned if it happened again. Then I read the poem once more. In its plain-spoken narrative about two Black people who are as vulnerable as they are brave, Nelson weaves seamlessly a tale of shocking cruelty and the possibility of redemption. “Minor Miracle” has been a callout for my own bitterness, albeit a nuanced one that holds everyone in its lines accountable for their own truth-telling.
Marilyn Nelson is perhaps best known for her formal poetry; works like Fortune’s Bones (2004) and A Wreath for Emmet Till (2005) are shining examples of her ability to wrangle issues of racial violence into hauntingly exquisite meter and rhyme. However, “Minor Miracle” is quite the opposite. In fact, its long and short lines meander, first across then down the page, in the same way the two cyclists might have pedaled down the back roads of the small town in which the poem opens. But one should not mistake its lack of a quickly discernable form — or formlessness — for the absence of craft. Early in the poem, the speaker makes clear that this story will unfold in two parts, and it does so through the use of repetition as well as consonance and assonance. The sibilance of words such as “cycling” (2) “small,” and “Midwestern” (3) create a bucolic atmosphere as the speaker evokes the memory of that day. Additionally, as the two “came to a 4-way / stop and stopped, chatting” (3-4), the language continues in that sonic vein, but variations on the word “stop” subtly usher the narrative into a more sinister space. When the driver appears in the poem in his “rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign” (5) and “hurricane[s] past scant inches” from the speaker and friend (6), the sibilance is coupled with a varying consonance, disrupting the serenity of the moment. After the speaker’s partner yells “Hey, that was a 4-way stop!” (7), the sibilance is abandoned for approximate assonance in lines like “The truck driver, stringy blond hair a long fringe / under his brand-name beer cap” (8-9), and velar stops, such as “truck” “looked back” and “fucking” (8-9). By the time the driver shouts the phrase “you fucking niggers!” (9), the tranquility of the moment between the two friends is shattered, and so too is the sonic quality of the lines themselves.
Nelson employs another device between lines 10 and 11 to indicate the disruptive nature of the man’s presence on the road. Line 11 is a dropped line, but is flush left, while the preceding line, 10, is indented:
“You fucking niggers!”
And sped off.
The placement of those lines on the page is both visually disruptive in correlation with the racial slur itself, but also foreshadows the surprising ways in which this narrative will double back on itself before the poem’s end. In the meantime, however, the two cyclists resume their ride, and the speaker’s attention shifts to the simple beauty of the space: the afternoon is “clear blue” (14), and the fields they pass are “almost-ripened wheat / bordered by cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace” (15-16). Indeed, this could be any town in America’s heartland; in fact, the tawny wheat, along with the blue cornflowers and white Queen Anne’s lace are reminiscent of the American flag itself. It is into this tranquility that the sound of the man’s truck returns, its “unmuffled motor” and blaring horn once again accosting the two passers-through. When the man emerges from the cab, he too is linked with nation and power: The speaker describes him as “very much in shape” (20), with “a Marine Corp boot-camp footlockerful / of martial arts techniques” (22-23). He is one version of America who dangerously polices that space with his presence, as the two cyclists can do little more than stand their ground, closing ranks and making fists in an effort to brace themselves for whatever might come (19).
What I find most moving about this piece is what happens in the final, short stanzas. The first part of the exchange is typical: shouting, the man asks what the speaker’s male friend said back at the four-way stop, and the friend repeats his insistence that the driver disobeyed the sign. When the driver asks, “‘And what did I say?’” (27), the friend repeats that as well, and, as the speaker notes, “The afternoon froze” (29). It is a cliffhanger of sorts, but one that comes after a moment when the friend literally speaks truth to power, and recounts the incident without (at least the outward appearance of) trepidation. In the next stanza, the white driver becomes contrite, almost bashful as he places his hands in his pockets, “pushing dirt around with the pointed toe of his boot” (32). “I just want to say I’m sorry” (33) he says, before returning to his truck and driving away.
It is a surprising turn of events, so much so that I wonder if the poem’s abrupt ending (Nelson offers no details about the cyclists’ reaction to the apology nor any indication about how the rest of the day unfolded) is not specifically designed to reinforce that sense of shock. It is almost as if the world all three parties inhabited disappears in the wake of this small “miracle.” Nevertheless, what strikes me as the most profound moment — the one that makes the man’s apology possible — is the friend’s decision to engage him in dialogue, and to be honest about what transpired between them up the road. His bravery in the moment, and his insistence in telling what actually happened is a testament to courage that is equal to — if not surpassing that of — the white driver. The friend and the speaker are unabashedly vulnerable in this space; they lack the relative protection and speed of motor vehicles, which could have allowed for a faster getaway, and they are in a space seemingly without houses or even other witnesses. As Nelson notes about the poem in the back matter of the text, this incident also took place in the early 1970s (Nelson 204), only a handful of years removed from the violent pushback of the Civil Rights movement. The friend’s decision to speak is monumental, and even the language and imagery of the poem seem to attest to as much; they take a backseat to this moment in the final stanzas, allowing for the frankness and simplicity of the dialogue to take center stage. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the poem ends, not with the beauty of the space or any other memory at all, but rather with the note that the driver simply pulls away. The world as they have all known it ceases to exist, leaving only a blank slate onto which the reader must paint her own conclusions, her own newer, hopefully better worlds of kindness and possibility.
It is poems like this that remind me why I need Marilyn Nelson’s work in my life right now. As my best friend often quips, “You can’t get blood from a turnip.” The trials of coming of age and surviving as a Black woman in this country could harden anyone’s heart, and lately, mine feels fibrous and furrowed underground, desperately searching for sustenance during these trying times. In my poetry and in less-than-glowing terms, I have eulogized the white man who tried to run me off the road; so too the 911 dispatcher, who hung up in my face when I called for help because she said that my emergency did not constitute a real emergency. I reserve the right to do that; as a person who practices nonviolence in real life, my page is the one place where I have some sense of autonomy, where I can be as angry as I want to be without causing anyone or myself egregious harm. However, the page is also where I find redemption through truth-telling, and the hope for building an actual universe where I do not always feel both helpless and hopeless in the face of power, privilege, and unapologetic racism. “Minor Miracle” reminds me of those possibilities, even though I am sure that the man in the yellow car will most likely never be contrite for his actions, or apologize for them — not to me or anyone else. However, I can always hope that I encounter fewer men like him, fewer hells than the ones I must navigate every day. And I can refuse to allow my escapes therefrom to prevent me from seeing the possibilities of good in others. Perhaps that is the best “minor miracle” of them all.
Nelson, Marilyn. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. LSU Press, 1997.
Sartre, Jean. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Vintage, 1989.
Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt
writer, and essayist who lives and writes in Nashville, TN. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review, Best New Poets 2018, The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, and elsewhere. Birdsong has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Meridian’s 2017 “Borders” Contest in Poetry, and Crab Orchard Review’s Richard Peterson Poetry Prize (2019). She has received support from Cave Canem, The Ragdale Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the inaugural Jack Jones Literary Arts annual retreat, and the Tin House Summer Workshop (2018). Birdsong earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, where she currently works as a research coordinator.