The reference to this sly, witty Tony Hoagland poem comes from Henry Louis Gates, Jr, the black Harvard professor who was arrested while trying to get into his own home by a white cop, and after the usual race-fueled kerfluffle, both of them ended up having a beer at the White House with President Obama.
Gates had a PBS series wherein he’d trace ancestry via DNA and other historical documents for “famous people.” He also had done his own. The program wonderfully illustrated the perils of this country’s constant fear of The Dreaded Other by reminding all of us to be careful who you hate and fear (and arrest) because they’re probably your second cousin.
From Hoagland’s book, “Unincorported Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.”
Last night on TV the light-brown African-American professor
looked at the printout analysis of his own DNA
and learned that he was mostly Irish.
I can’t go back to Africa now, he thought,
controlling the expression on his face,
his big moment onscreen already turning out
different than he had imagined.
Nor would he ever be able to say the sentence,
“I be at the crib”
with the same brotherly ease as before.
I was tired from work, and I wanted to
turn off the television and go to bed,
but I couldn’t stop watching that transformation,
the bones in his face rearranging,
his freckles becoming explicable
thanks to the hinge on a 18th-century door
between the kitchen of a Massachusetts merchant
and the southernmost room where a slave-woman slept;
thanks to the macramé of chromosomes, and the electron microscope
and the longing for knowledge
which sometimes makes things more
confusing than they were before.
That’s how I feel while I watch, as if
eavesdropping on the family next door, --
pressing my ear to the wall
slowly starting to make out the words,
not certain why I am so interested.
My ear glued to the wall.
The merchant raising a tiny oil can, and tilting it
to squeeze three drops
into the hinge to keep it quiet.