Danez Smith “Don’t Call Us Dead”

Danez Smith is a black, male-bodied, male-attracted, non-binary, HIV positive poet and the poems they weave make it clear how each of those seemingly disparate aspects of them are actually a web in which they’re caught and struggle. If all of the words they use were pulled out of their form and organized into which appears most, “blood” would likely be first, followed by “red” and “black”. Blood is what ties these poems together – in mourning for their fellow Black boys, whose very existence is fenced by the fatal violences of HIV and societal indifference and hatred of their race. A sense of mourning is strong throughout; I imagined Danez reading their poetry while wearing a black mourning veil. They make it clearest in “every day is a funeral & a miracle”: “… just how/ will i survive the little/ cops running inside/ my veins, hunting/ white blood cells […] today, Tamir Rice/ tomorrow, my liver/ today, Rekia Boyd/ tomorrow, the kidneys/ today, John Crawford/ tomorrow, my lungs”. 

Their story isn’t just about pain, though. They tell it with a survivor’s voice, strong and unafraid. They don’t speak with shame, even when discussing shame, because walking through that shame is only a part of their story, and also contains love and joy and brightness. Even in “at the down-low house party”, in which they describe the pressure of fear of who they are in a roomful of other people similarly afraid, they focus on the one person who is not afraid, the “glittering Boi [who] shows up, starts voguing & shit” in order to revel with them. The effect is to show us the tunnel Smith used to live in and the light they live in now. This experience will be familiar to anyone who has had to deny who they are because of others’ abuse and mistrust, but then made the difficult journey away from that denial. The very fact that they are still here to tell their story, and telling it, is an indication of their triumph.

Smith plays with cadence to turn their poetry into song, too. Rather than a survivor who is merely surviving, they are a survivor who is thriving, standing on top of what may look like to others like a garbage heap but is actually full of treasures. They are asking us to see them not as a tortured wreck to be pitied but an emblem of the humanity of their whole self. They’re not perfect, they’re perfectly flawed, in a way that our polarized binary of a language can hardly express. Yet they use that very language to express themselves.

As they both inhabit and exist outside of the structures our society builds, they also hold up an image of themselves that is simultaneously a mirror. I found within these pages my own prejudices: my own internalized homonegativity, my own racist tendencies, my own inability to viscerally understand Smith as a person rather than a type. I found myself facing an uncomfortable series of questions such as “why don’t they write their feelings rather than experiences?” and then “why do I consider their identity more real and whole than their humanity?” This is the core issue of racism and anti-racism, as I understand it, and Smith smears the reader’s face with our own discomfort. It’s too simplistic to ask whether we should continue to look at it or not. The questions are how we should look at it, what we should take with us from it, and how that should change us.