Fallen at Charleston

— featuring: Martín Espada, Terrance Hayes, Shauna Morgan Kirlew, Brenda Marie Osbey, Safiya Sinclair, Frank X Walker, Afaa Michael Weaver, and more.

Fallen at Charleston
by Brenda Marie Osbey


1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike, courtesy of the Waring Historical Library

Within minutes of having been stopped by a policeman for driving with a broken brakelight in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Lamar Scott lay dead, face down in a grassy lot near the intersection of Remount Road and Craig Street.

Video footage shows clearly that Michael Slager twice used his Taser and then, from a distance of at least fifteen feet, fired eight rounds, striking Scott in the back, buttocks, ear and heart as the man fled on foot. Slager calls in the incident, stating simply, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” He then approaches the fallen man, instructs him to put his hands behind his back, and, receiving no response, handcuffs him and walks away. After another officer arrives and requests a medical kit, Slager reaches down, places his Taser beside Scott’s body, and only then does he check the man’s pulse. Paramedics arrive and pronounce Scott dead on the scene. Videotaped by a passerby, start to finish, the event times out at under five minutes. Slager and his attorney, David Aylor, will at first claim that the officer feared for his life. Immediately upon release of the video, Aylor will resign as counsel.

Two months later, Dylann Roof will enter Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston proper and join the congregants gathered there for Wednesday night prayer service, before opening fire and killing nine people. Upon arrest, he will confess that he had hoped to instigate a “race war” because African Americans are “taking over the world.”

Emanuel AME, “Mother Emanuel,” is the home church of Telemaque (eventually known as “Denmark”) Vesey, famed for having organized the 1822 slave rebellion popularly known as the Charleston Rising. Suppressed on Sunday 16 June, the planned insurrection ended with trial by the newly formed Committee of Vigilance and Safety made up of members of the city council and wealthy landowners. Four officers of the city guard were formed into a special police force assigned with locating participants and potential informants. Twenty-four hours later, no fewer than ten were in custody. Continue reading

How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way by Martín Espada

Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
                                                                            Walt Whitman

I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell 
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister’s heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,
hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the back seat of the squad car; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede barehanded into the bullets drilling his forehead.
Continue reading

Notes on the State of Virginia, III by Safiya Sinclair

                        – After W. E. B. Du Bois

Wild irises purpling my mouth each dawning—
                                                                 trauma souring the quiet street.
Its whole dark field roots me down and down. The mock-sun a blank obscuring. Fire whips
white-shock of lightning, bright Molotov angel, what ash marks assume a coon cemetery.

And all the names scratched out.
                                                                 What burns this house burns apishly.
                                                                 The mouth the church this immaculate body
such untouchable sounds we have made of ourselves. A blues archeology. Thus like a snake I writhe upward,
mottling and spine-thick, where heavy nouns flay through my tubercular,

                                                                 their heavens coil a twisted rope. Your veiled suffocation.
                                                                 Unknown asphyxiate. The mourning-dove which scales
                                                                 its double gaze in tongues knows this: the broken world
                                                                 was always broken.
Continue reading

What a Fellowship by Afaa Michael Weaver

 for Mother Emanuel A.M.E.

In these clasped hands we see the seeds
of what has come to be, the tiny black faces
of children chained into ships headed to sea,

not an invitation to a better life, not a vote
for the human, but the deadened greed, a wish
against what life means to the living, a cruelty

above the requirements of evil, our ambition
to live, to survive, to grow beyond chains now
our only hope in row after row of bloody pews.

Continue reading

Black 101 by Frank X Walker

“How are you afraid of a man
  running away from you?”
                                     -Toni Morrison

Fear is a magnetizer.
It changes the polarity of black bodies.
Makes them highly attractive to
bullets, police batons, tasers,
white rage, white guilt,
and blue-eyed blondes.

Fear is a multiplier.
It turns children into men,
men and women into monsters,
and non-compliant teens
into dangerous gangs
and threatening mobs. Continue reading

Blackbird* by Terrance Hayes

for Charleston


Say hello to the little boy
Whose poor head is filled with noise
For I’m the bird he’s fixed to kill
For singing this song in the field

Blue Blackbirds, Blue blackbirds
Hear what is done to the singing birds

His hands around my wondrous wings
Plucked feathers my mother once stroked
I held the song within my throat
I sang after my body broke

Black bluebird, Black bluebird
Hear what is done to a singing bird

And now to make my music still
He took a stone up from the field
I sang to the stone like a lover though
For none could not my crush my trembling throat

Continue reading

Live Oak and Riposte XIV by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

Live Oak

My roots run deep,
down into this soil
watered by the salt-spray borne
by my foremothers,
on whose limbs little white boys
climbed and hung their swings.

These heavy boughs,
thick and ligneous, spreading wide
and low enough for a man
to lean, rest his back
and hide behind the curtain
of Spanish moss soft enough
for the wind to murmur,
tell truths that come quietly
sometimes in wispy hushes.

His heritage runs deep too,
bloody tap-root, a bourbon barrel
ablaze, a beam in a dark cabin,
a boy-child without a likeness,
a resurrection fern,
fronds wrapped and waiting.


Riposte XIV: The [new] administration of justice and description of the laws
          after Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia

I do not smile, behave, show fear, or shake.
I do not keep my hands on the wheel or look straight ahead.
I let them wait              for       my       answer.
             Do you know how fast you were going?
I put my arm on the door, cock my elbow and point it in their direction.
They will kill me anyway.
I set my gaze to theirs, one pale face at a time.
I wait.

If any free person commit an offence against the commonwealth,
if it be below the degree of felony,
he is bound by a justice to appear before their court,
to answer it on indictment or information.

They will kill us anyway.
We are not free.

I do not conjure up tears.
I do not loosen the top buttons on my blouse.
I do not stay in my seat,
or call them sir or ma’am.
I do not explain.
My wallet is in the trunk.
I do not get back in the car.
I do not submit to their bullshit request.
Let’s see what else you have in the trunk?
I stand with arms folded.
I let them wait for my answer.
They will kill me anyway.

If the criminal be a slave
the trial by [the county court any armed, near-white person]
is final.

I do not move. I do not unfold my arms.
I do not look away.
I do not change my answer.
I do not let my pounding heart move me to a tremble.
I do not cry.
I do not look in the direction of two new flashing lights.
Which one will be the killer today?

We are not free.
We are not safe.
They will kill us anyway.



Shauna Morgan Kirlew‘s poems have been published in Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & CultureAnthology of Appalachian Writers Volume VIInterviewing the CaribbeanThe Pierian, and elsewhere. She lives in Virginia and teaches Literature of the African Diaspora at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

This is part 7 in the series Fallen at Charleston, guest-edited by Brenda Marie Osbey.

Fallen at Charleston

How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way” by Martín Espada

Notes on the State of Virginia, III” by Safiya Sinclair

What a Fellowship” by Afaa Michael Weaver

Black 101” by Frank X Walker

“Black Bird” by Terrance Hayes

“Live Oak” and “Riposte XIV” by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

Fallen at Charleston” by Brenda Marie Osbey

With South African Special Issue in Preparation, Illuminations to Increase Web-Presence: Brenda Marie Osbey to Kickstart New Sequence of Work Concerned with Racial Violence

Because the 2017 issue of Illuminations is dedicated to South African poetry, regular and new contributors will have to wait until June 2018 for the next appearance of an open issue of the magazine. So as not to discourage poets and writers from submitting their work, we have therefore decided to increase our web-presence by opening this blog site (illuminationsmagazine), on which we will post new work, reviews, and announcements. The site gives us for the first time a venue for posting notices of books received, too.

In the coming weeks you can expect to see us posting a series of pieces that continue the theme of Illuminations 31: issues of race and racial violence. We are very excited to open this sequence with a powerful introductory essay by noted New Orleanian poet Brenda Marie Osbey, and poems by Martin Espada, Safiya Sinclair, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Ms Osbey has been soliciting additional poems for this series, and we encourage other poets and writers to join the conversation, by sending us their own poetry and/or commentary.

Please check back in the next few days for the first in this new series, and check back regularly for additional announcements, notices, and reviews.

Simon Lewis

Editor, Illuminations: An International Magazine of Contemporary Writing