By Walidah Imarisha
“shit, you gotta tag trains”
he said, twirling a spray paint can like a six shooter.
“yo, walls are nice and all,
but how else people as far as st. louis and cali
goin to see your name?
now that's fucking immortality.”
traintracks cross cross this country like the river lethe
where truth is what is remembered,
imbedded into the soil and into our minds
into our history
as mighty engines rumble over
uneasingly sleeping ground.
outlaws used to rob trains,
conquering symbols of the expanding force of civilization
that carried them to the west
in its belly,
like unwanted children,
vomiting them onto unfaimiliar ground,
only to have them return in a prodigal blaze of bullets
and perform manifest destiny
on the cargo that slept in its belly,
where they had refused to sleep.
one graf artist said
“i can't afford no billboards,
this is my billboard.”
one slave said
“here is your freedom,”
holding a loft a gun…
but others preferred to make their voices heard
through the soles of their feet rather than the barrels of rifles.
which metamorphisized into wheels
as they rolled through the underground railroad
not as outlaws
but as contraband.
they stole themselves in plantation hold-ups.
and wasn't john henry trying to hold up progress
when this big ole black man challenged a train to a duel?
they had to use that steam-powered powerful engine to push his dead body
off of the tracks
with his two
they dumped his body on the side of the road,
imported asian labor to drive rails into his still warm shell,
the blood from his burst heart
seeping into the ground,
mixing with the culture and screams
of stolen land
stolen red land
while chinese exclusion laws were forced to build
the industrial revolution
on john henry's corpse.
riding trains over him until he disappeared,
until he became a breathing part of the earth
rails expanding like lungs,
breathing out locomotive trains,
which during the depression transported hoboes
from one end of the country to the other,
in a period where times were hard for everyone…
and a whole lot harder
ask the scottsboro boys
or the one remaining
because when these black men tried to ride the rails
to escape crushing southern poverty,
laced with sharecropping destinies,
they ended up at the end of a court room noose.
freedom of movement comes with a price
for those who are still
just as spray paint cans are contraband
for those who live in a place with no free walls,
only blank walls,
only prison walls,
so static and lifeless you long to see paint
and words and pictures fly by
you long to see your self fly by in a blur,
flying off box cars and coloring the countryside and cities at every stop,
dripping pieces of sweat and fear and pride
onto the blood-soaked stolen land
where once outlaws dared to defy
the unquestioned faceless authority of the train tracks,
which cut this nation like a surgeon's blade…
just as nightly train yards are defiled
by voices screaming to be heard
from tags that rumble across the country
etched into the sides of manifest destiny..
by walidah imarisha