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Li-Young Lee

I can hear in your voice
you were born in one country
and will die in another,

and where you live is where you’ll be buried,
and when you dream it’s where you were born.

and the moon never hangs in both skies
on the same night,

and that’s why you think the moon has a sister,
that’s why your day is hostage to your nights,

and that’s why you can’t sleep except by forgetting,
you can’t love except by remembering.

And that’s why you’re divided: yes and no,
I want to die. I want to live.
Never go away. Leave me alone.

I can hear by what you say
your first words must have been mother and father.

Even before your own name, mother.
Long before amen, father.

And you put one word in your left shoe,
one in your right, and you go walking.

And when you lie down you tuck them
under your pillow, where they give rise
to other words: childhood, fate, and rescue
Heaven, wine, return.

And even god and death are offspring.
Even world is begotten, even summer
a descendant. And the apple tree. Look and see

the entire lineage alive
in every leaf and branching
decision, snug inside each fast bud,

together in the flower, and again
in the pulp, mingling in the fragrance
of the first mouthful and the last.

I can tell by your silence you’ve seen the petals
immense in their vanishing.

Flying, they build your only dwelling.
Falling, they sow shadows at your feet.

And when you close your eyes
you can hear the ancient fountains
from which they derive,

rock and water ceaselessly declaring
the laws of coming and going.

Every year, Youth Speaks gathers our communities together to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We cipher to make sense of the dream we are weaving together.  We talk story to draw from the depths of this river the truths we need to fortify ourselves on this ongoing journey.  We celebrate and sorrow together.  We comfort each other.  We rededicate ourselves to the upward climb.

This dream we are weaving together is more than slender promises.  It is more than fanciful imagery.  It is more than stentorian voices placed, picture perfect, before monuments.  It cannot be well-polished platitudes, the fine silver and good china that we bring out before polite company.  If it is, we are as good as dead already.

We need to talk about this dream we are weaving together—how it is frayed at the edges.  How it is ribbed with scarlet.  How it leaves stains on our fingers.  We must talk about this river—how it is flecked with blood.  How it keeps catching bodies.  How its mouth is full of the dead.

Brethren, sistren—it must be said.  NO GUNS.  It must be cried out in the streets that we are willing to turn our swords into ploughshares.  It must be hollered from the rooftops that we are down to fashion our nines into scythes.  It must be announced that we are willing to lay down our weapons first.  Even the OGs who keep watch over our blocks keep their guns on safety, praying that they never have to bust a shot.  

Brethren, sistren—this is not about the right to bear arms.  This is not about the 2nd amendment or the National Rifle Association.  This is not about waistbands, dresser drawers, glove compartments or the pieces that are tucked in them.  This is about our love affair with the rhetoric of bloodshed.  This is about how we have grown up waving our hands in the air in the mimicry of gunshot.  This is about how our speech and walk and tough talk are seasoned with the language of fallen bodies.  This is about dismantling a culture of violence.  This is about our survival.

We are not here to argue about the value of deterrents.  We are not here to squabble amongst ourselves about the wisdom of self-defense tactics.  We are not here to disqualify anyone.  We are here to admit guilt.  We are here to empty ourselves of mental clip and spiritual strap.  We are here to demilitarize our intellects.  We are here to wail.  The burden of the bodies on our backs smothers our potential wings.  We cannot bust a gat right now—we are carrying caskets.

This is for Sandy Hook and the South Side of Chicago.  This is for Syria and East Oakland.  This is for Sunnydale and Sudan.  This is for the body you carry in secret, the violence we hide from view.  This is for the mourning you do in private.  This is for you—the part you cannot name.  The part of you labeled madman.  The piece of you called insane; the section of your self that is a school, riddled with bullets.  

We are here together, victim and aggressor united in uneasy bodies.  We have been called criminal, madmen, insane, marked for death. And we have been called victim, mark, target, easy prey.  We have been called too brown, too woman, too other, too foreign, too much a physical reminder of a legacy of blood.  We know the grip of the handle and the whistle of the flying bullet.  We are both sides of the police tape.

There is someone, somewhere, tonight, that you have not made peace with.  There is a small space that is hidden from public view, where you must dismantle your pride.  There is an interaction that no one can name, but wherein you must divest yourself of your unfair advantage.  There is a vengeance you have sworn that you must lay down to rest.  

We will argue until the end of days about who is the worst, the most unfit, the oppressor.  But love is not the inheritance of such as these.  It is those who are willing, first, to lay down their weapons that will make the streetlamps bend and bow, make the empire crumble and weep. 

Denizen Kane