While I was studying for finals I ran into Phillip Winkle, one of the slam poets who performed at Emory’s Minds on Mics Showcase that I, along with several other classmates, attended. We started talking about slam poetry, and I asked him some questions about his performance. I was curious as to how he prepares his performances and what he does to get “in character.” He told me that besides simply memorizing the words for each poem, he tries to associate a certain feeling with each poem, so that when he performs them he naturally gets into a certain mindset. This prompted Phillip to show me a YouTube video of what he said was considered some of the finest slam poetry. This particular poem had won numerous awards and had gained recognition within slam poetry circles, according to Phillip. The poem, called Skinhead, was written by Patricia Smith and originally published in her collection, Little Towns, Big Talk in 1992.
This poem is one thing to read, but to watch Smith perform the poem was pretty extraordinary. Skinhead is a poem that is told from the perspective of a white male who is a self-described racist and homophobe who enjoys attacking people of color and homosexuals. The narrator views himself as someone who is trying to win back America from those who he considers to be inferior. He describes a work accident that resulted in him losing a few of his fingers as well as his ability to work; he now resents non-white Americans for holding jobs like the one used to do. The honesty and transparency of the narrator’s racism is appalling and disgusting; he is one of the more foul characters I have come across in literature, far worse than any Hollywood villain. In one passage the narrator says:
It’s a kick to watch their eyes get big,
round and gleaming like cartoon jungle boys,
right in that second when they know
the pipe’s gonna come down, and I got this thing
I like to say, listen to this, I like to say
“Hey, nigger, Abe Lincoln’s been dead a long time.”
I get hard listening to their skin burst.
I was born to make things right.
These chilling lines demonstrate the narrator’s sociopathic behavior; he takes pleasure (he claims it to be sexual pleasure, it is unclear if this is hyperbole or not) hearing his victims’ skin burst. The line “I was born to make things right” is a motif that occurs several times throughout the poem. The narrator uses this as a justification for his racial crusade. He sees himself as doing a service to America since it is being taken over and jeopardized by his enemies (which probably include all non-whites and non-Christians, as well as LGBT people etc…. the list probably goes on and on).
Reading this poem and watching Patricia Smith perform this poem are two very different experiences. While the words alone constitute a powerful and well-written poem, Smith’s performance of the poem is on another level. You might think that Skinhead would somehow lose its effectiveness if it were performed by a black woman, the antithesis of the narrator. In practice, the opposite is true. Smith, against all odds, puts on the costume of a white male skinhead in an amazingly convincing way. Her crackling laugh towards the end of the piece adds to the character’s already haunting persona. It is especially fascinating to see someone get into the mindset of her oppressor. Smith allows her fictional character’s voice to be heard, when people like this are normally on the fringes of society and are generally ignored by all except like-minded people. Smith obviously doesn’t do this out of empathy or as a means to help advertize this fictional character’s cause. Instead, this poem serves as an exposé of a mindset that society often ignores in the hope that it will fade away as just another ghost of America’s ugly history in regards to racial discrimination and bigotry. Smith rightfully doesn’t think that this is something that should be ignored, rather, she is making sure that we are well aware of the fact that this issue is real and is current, and that we still have much more in common with those pages from our history books documenting 1950s America than we would like to admit.
This performance is absolutely worth watching. It may not be uplifting but it’s definitely a good use of a few minutes as a study break. Good luck with finals everyone.
Transcription of the words:
Live performance of the poem: