Inequality, Plain and Simple

I stumbled upon a deceptively simple poem called “beverly, huh.” by Jamila Woods the other day. Woods is one of the recipients of the 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships. I’m always interested to read the poets that win these fellowships both as a measure of the poetic climate and a chance to read great writing. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but other times I’m deeply satisfied that such a great writer was recognized. This holds true for Jamila Woods. Her poem immediately struck me as being in conversation with the likes of Lucille Clifton, Jude Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks, yet having wholly her own voice – 2015-style.

beverly, huh.

you must be
made of money.
your parents
must have grown
on trees.
bet you’re black
tinged with green.
bet you sleep
on bags of it.
bet your barbies
climb it.
bet you never
bet you never
had to ask.
bet you golf.
bet you tennis.
bet you got
a summer house.
bet you got
a credit card
for your 5th birthday.
bet you played
with bills for toys.
bet you chew
them up
for dinner.
bet you spit
your black out
like tobacco
that’s why you talk so
bet you listen to green day.
bet you ain’t never heard of al.
bet your daddy wears a robe
around the house.
bet his hands are soft as a frog’s belly.
bet your house is on a hill.
bet the grass is freshly cut.
bet you feel like a princess.
bet the police protect your house.
bet you know their first names.
bet your house has a hundred rooms.
bet a black lady comes to clean them.

The repetition of the “bet” that’s woven through this poem gives it an informal, conversational feel, a grounding and intensity as the things Woods “bets” on become more and more layered. The stakes keep getting upped with each and every “bet” and the way the poem spills down the page in a freestyle, spoken word kind of form, adds to the heightening. No fancy words. No clever phrases. No capitalization. Just plainly stated assumptions. And those assumptions touch upon that place where race and class intersect, and this is what makes it so accessible and moving. Regardless of where we are on the color spectrum or the class scale, it’s something we all experience – consciously or not – being a part of a race, a part of a class.

There’s so much humanity in Woods’ “bets” that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the speaker. In this time of the greatest income inequality we’ve ever seen in this country, and the way that inequality disproportionately affects people of color, it’s poems like this one that need to be seen, heard, and shared.

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