Jason C. Carney
What America needs is an Honest Conversation
In December 1988, Judge Jack Hampton, when asked why he gave a lenient sentence to the convicted killer of two gay men, Tommy Trimble and Johnny Griffin, in May near the Oaklawn section of Dallas, Texas, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I equate the killing of homosexuals to that of a prostitute. I would never sentence anyone to life in jail for killing a prostitute” (NY Times).
William Waybourn, then President of the Dallas Gay Alliance, stated in that same article how violence against gay men was a common activity for high school aged boys in Dallas, Texas (NY Times). Mr. Waybourn was right, violence against homosexuals is common place for high school age boys in Dallas, Texas. More importantly, these crimes and statistics are not limited to the near or distant past. In 2012, there were 44 reported Hate Crimes in Dallas and Tarrant Counties.
I knew the boys that participated in the killing of Trimble and Griffin. We went to school together. I too have committed hate crimes in Dallas, Texas. My name is Jason Carney, I am a poet, educator, and activist. My big idea is that America needs to have an honest conversation with itself.
In July 1988, I was placed in a Psychiatric Hospital on the other of this city. My roommate a gay man, who could have hated me for everything I encompassed. He extended to me a simple act of kindness, which changed my world (Carney 158). He showed me, as our friendship developed, how poetry could redefine my world, how this moment was a starting point.
I learned how inventory and writing could redefine my ideas and beliefs, so that I might have some knowledge of self instead of a prayer outside of myself. Beliefs are outside of us, someone else’s prayer. Faith is inside you, faith is knowledge and truth. Patrick helped me to find the questions that led to truthful answers; like how I equated homosexuality to what my father did to me. How I equated gay with sex, more specifically rape and molestation (Carney 162). He helped me to see how the love between two men is no different from the love between a man and a woman; that the emotional bond is a guiding force in any healthy relationship. This was the gift he gave to me. It allowed me to begin to have an honest conversation with myself through poetry.
Through poetry, I saw the truth of how we learn about white culture. I realized that racial slurs had been a part of my rhetoric since I was four or five years old. I discovered that we are not born with hate, like language this skill is taught to us—through laughter and love, stories and anecdotes, passed down generation to generation. I learned that we can inherit not only the greatness of our ancestors, but also their flaws. History repeats itself, when we refuse to learn.
Now, my Papaw was a good man, taught me a lot about life. How to really love a woman; how to be accountable to your family; sacrifice; determination. Yet he also referred to every black man he ever saw or met, other than Hank Aaron or Muhammad Ali, as boy. He tore the cover off the TV Guide when Red Foxx or George Jefferson were on the cover. My family would say, He just comes from a different time.
He came from a different time. This is an excuse to keep us from acknowledging our own culpability in the re-telling of history. Our families need to have an honest conversation while raising the young.
It is true Papaw grew up in Arkansas at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, as a young man lived on a hill known for all the lynchings that took place on the slopes of the wooded meadows. My Grandmother remembers, as a girl playing in the yard on Saturday mornings, watching the horse drawn carts amble up the hill, as loved ones went to retrieve the dead. It was a different time, but not that different: James Byrd, Mathew Sheppard, the forty-three shots that killed Amadou Diallo in New York City, Travon Martin, and Michael Brown.
This is the cycle of ignorance—we are taught discrimination and bigotry as children, who grow up telling jokes on playgrounds, honing our technique until we are water-cooler comedians filling the air of our businesses, churches, and homes with an assimilated one-sided hateful history. An indifference to what happens outside our window. I am not responsible for what I was taught as a child, but I am for my actions because of it. This is what I began to understand. I have a personal accountability. Think of inheritance. We gain money, land, property, prestige and status. However, we never own the flaws. We invent rhetoric that deflects ownership and denies our inheritance: I never owned any slaves, I got lots of black friends. No different from the political correctness of today that allows for such rhetoric as tolerance. Tolerance is when you know someone is wrong, yet you allow them space anyway. Tolerance is not acceptance. Tolerance falls well short of love and is no different from other politically correct racist rhetoric—Black-on-black Crime, Black-on-white Crime. This allows us to hide the truth, we never discuss White-on-black Crime. This allows us to repeat the mistakes of the past and deny ourselves an honest understanding of who we have been.
Papaw always called me a prize-fighter; I never understood that phrase, until I started fighting with poetry. The more I read, the more I saw, the more I spoke and interacted with people in healthy conversations that challenged the status quo, the deeper my heart saw the truth of our history. A history that we sugar-coat, water-down, so that the genocide within out text-books seems patriotic. Have you ever studied The North Atlantic Trade Triangle or the Trail of Tears? Our text books need to have honest conversations, which spill over into our classrooms and the lives of our students.
Today I am a prize-fighter running a non-profit organization, Young DFW Writers. We go into high schools and educate young people to be agents of change within their community. To define themselves and their surroundings, so that the world does not define them. We use old school poetic craft mixed with new school American Poetics. In other words, we teach Robert Frost alongside LL Cool J. We build an honest conversation that cultivates the voice and desire of young people in focused artistic endeavors, so that they may break down the barriers of segregation that divide this city in which we all live. We teach honest conversations through poetry.
This poem speaks to a past which repeats itself. From the Vagrancy Laws of Post-Civil War America and the rise of the KKK, to the War on Drugs that brought us the Mandatory Sentence Crack Epidemic of the 1980’s and the resulting 800% growth rate of our prisons (CNN). From the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII to the Muslim round ups in the wake of 9/11. From the stereotyped generalizations of Mark Twain’s characters of color to Darley Ruttier and Susan Smith, White America has crafted feared caricatures of Black Men, Hispanics, and Homosexuals, blurring the lines between what is imagined and what is real. This is an honest conversation. We speak about Christian values and deny others the right to be married and openly love. We celebrate the proclamations of pilgrims, while we clamor to protect borders and cities such as El Paso, Los Cruses, and Los Angeles from the same people who founded them. We appropriate black culture and jail the black man for stealing. We segregate ourselves and preach about freedom.
My name is Jason Carney, I use poetry to change myself and the world around me. Thank you for taking part in this honest conversation.
Belkin, Lisa. “Texas Judge Eases Sentence for Killer of 2 Homosexuals.” Editorial. New York Times. NY Times, 16 Dec. 1988. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/17/us/texas-judge-eases-sentence-for-killer-of-2-homosexuals.html>.
Carney, Jason Christopher. Starve the Vulture. NYC: Akashic, 2015. Print.
Mercia, Dan, and Evan Perez. “Eric Holder Seeks to cut Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences.” CNN. CNN, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/12/politics/holder-mandatory-minimums/index.html>.
Paz, Octavio. the Other Voice. Trans. Helen Lane. N.p.: Harvest International, 1990. Print.