Writers & Company

Jericho Brown's prize-winning poetry speaks with power and urgency about racism and violence

The American poet and 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his poetry collection The Tradition, the legacy of racial violence and hopes of finding justice in an unjust world.
Jericho Brown is an Atlanta-based writer and poet and a winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize. (Stephanie Mitchell)
Listen to the full episode53:54

Soon after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, Jericho Brown's poem Bullet Points started being widely shared on social media. 

The poem, from Brown's new collection, The Tradition, invokes the deaths of African Americans while in police custody in recent years, underlining a history of violence perpetrated by law enforcement.

In The Tradition, Brown tackles a range of difficult subjects with imagination and tenderness — from sexual identity to mass shootings to the vulnerability of the body. Praised for its combination of delicacy and urgency, the book was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  

Brown's previous collections,The New Testament and Please, have also won awards and received critical acclaim.

Brown spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Atlanta where he is director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.

Bullet Points

"When I wrote the poem, I was thinking about the supposed suicides of people of colour while in police custody. People like Jesus Huerta in North Carolina, who, after having been handcuffed on the walk from the police cruiser to the building where he was to be booked, somehow managed to shoot himself in the back of his own head; Victor White III in Louisiana, who, while handcuffed sitting in the backseat of a police cruiser, somehow managed to shoot himself in his upper back; Sandra Bland in Texas, who hung herself with a trash bag in a cell where there's video footage of her — and then suddenly there's technical difficulty and the video goes out at the moment that she supposedly hung herself with a trash bag. 

"I wrote the poem, quite honestly, to my mother, and thinking about my mother. Because if I'm ever found dead in police custody, I would want people to know, I want my family to know, that I hadn't killed myself.

When I wrote the poem, I was thinking about the supposed suicides of people of colour while in police custody.

"The poem suggests that if I do kill myself, you won't have to wonder. I won't leave you in a situation where you have to wonder if I did so in police custody. 

"That's how the poem came to be."

A demonstrator holds a placard depicting George Floyd during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., June 3, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Thinking about George Floyd

"George Floyd's video was travelling around and I was doing everything in my power to avoid it. But I ended up seeing a picture of this police officer with his hands in his pockets kneeling on this man's neck. The United States is a police state: You can see a police officer kneeling on a man's neck. You can be recording it and you can tell the police officer, 'I think he's dying.'

"You can't do anything to help the person who is being murdered right in front of you because you risk your own life in doing so. So you have no choice but to witness a murder. You have no choice but to video the fact of the murder occurring, but you can't actually do anything to stop the murder because the police are welcome to do whatever they please.

A lot of people keep talking about the fact that George Floyd died. But I like to think about what life would be like if he hadn't died.

"We know they're welcome to do whatever they please because this particular officer did this in a completely brazen fashion. I mean, his hands were in his pockets! Like nothing was going on. Like there wasn't a man dying under him. And the police officer clearly understood or believed that he would be protected no matter what.

"A lot of people keep talking about the fact that George Floyd died. But I like to think about what life would be like if he hadn't died. I'm interested in the fact that all of this is a problem because George Floyd died — I mean, you shouldn't be kneeling on anybody's neck. When I say I'm trying to avoid these images, I mean literally having to avoid seeing these things and then dealing, when you do see them, dealing with what that means for the human spirit, for your mental state."

Police clear the area around Lafayette Park and the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

What's going on

"[What's happening in the United States right now is timely] but it's also a part of the life that I've always lived and a part of the life that many Black people in this country live.

"I don't trust the police — I've never had a positive interaction with police officers — and that's not because I've done anything wrong. 

"I've had police follow me into my own front yard. I've had police throw me onto the hood of my car. I wasn't doing anything when any of those things happened. These things happening to me, that's not special. That happens to Black people in this nation every day. We have a problem with the fact of police — not because we have a problem with the fact of Black people in this country.

The older I get, the more I'm aware of all the ways I have been traumatized by these images of Black people being murdered by the police for no reason and by these experiences.

"I do feel angry. Feeling helpless is just how I walk around — and how a lot of people walk around feeling when moments like this occur.

"The older I get, the more I'm aware of all the ways I have been traumatized by these images of Black people being murdered by the police for no reason and by these experiences.

"I've turned more inward lately."

In the garden of good and evil

"I like flowers. I like to take care of my yard. I think of my appreciation for beauty in a landscape or in the landscape of my own home.

"I think of that as ancestral; I know my grandparents were interested in having a nice-looking yard. They believed that they were contributing to their neighbourhoods when they had nice-looking yards. I know my dad and my mom were the same way. 

"When I first moved to Atlanta, I was working on the flowerbed in front of the porch and one of my neighbours came up to the front door. She walked right by me as she walked to the front door and she rang the doorbell. It was very hot and I remember looking up at her saying, 'Hey can I help you?' because I thought it was strange that she's just standing there like I wasn't right there.

I realized in that moment that she hadn't imagined that I could possibly be invested in the beauty of my home, or that it could be my home.

"She said, 'I'm just looking for the man or the woman of the house.' And I told her, 'Hey it's me. I'm the man or the woman.' And she had this look on her face of embarrassment.

"I realized, in that moment, that she hadn't imagined that I could possibly be invested in the beauty of my home or that it could be my home. She could imagine that I was working on those flowers, but she couldn't imagine that they were mine.

"Her not being able to imagine that they were mine had to do with her not being able to see me as a whole human person — capable of the same things and the same appreciation that any whole human person would be capable of."

Jericho Brown's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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