IRVINGTON, NJ — For Craig Garner, the poet laureate of Irvington, he felt compelled to write his latest collection, “The Hypocrisy of Democracy in America … A Poetic Appeal for Change,” unlike the other books he’s written, because of the current circumstances regarding blacks in America today, This is Garner’s ninth book of poetry, but from the very beginning, he knew it would be much different than anything he’d published before.
“I had just finished reading this book that I quoted by a young man named Eddie S. Glaude Jr., ‘Democracy in Black, How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,’ and I was so impressed and embarrassed how democracy is not working for black people,” Garner said in a recent interview. In fact, he even quotes from Glaude in the introduction to his new book.
In a written statement, Garner said he believes the root cause of the mayhem is the hypocrisy of democracy in America, since the justice system rarely — if ever — gives black people a chance to thrive in this world.
“If you live in a country that professes to give everyone the opportunity to succeed, there cannot be a myriad of obstacles that are almost impossible to navigate for your survival,” he stated. “In essence, you shouldn’t have to live your life fearing that you will be killed for practically doing nothing but being black. This book clearly delineates instances where there is no fair way of living in this country without facing some serious dire consequences when you are not in the majority.
“When you have the justice system, the prison complex and the government conspiring against you, there is really very little one can do to make it out here in this so-called land of the free and home of the brave.”
“I guess I kind of assumed that democracy was working for everybody,” Garner said in his interview. “But it was becoming more clear that it doesn’t work for black men and women. Then I did some research on one of my heroes, Malcolm X, who said democracy is hypocrisy, and that’s where I got the title for this book.”
The first poem in the collection, “The Hypocrisy of America,” makes this mindset very clear: “Everything we do and everything/we see/is filled with blatant hypocrisy/Since our country espouse freedom/For all in this land/But will lock you up if/you try to make a stand/Claim you have the right to/Express yourself/And you have the right to/Seek out mad wealth/But you better not cry and/You better not shout/Else somebody is liable to/Call you out/The minute that you’re not/Acting the same/Some folks will decide that/It’s the end of your game/They’ll Kaepernick your decisions/As bold face lies/And associate your attitude/with militant ties/Threaten your life or worse/Yet your families too/Will have you not knowing/What you should do/Just for being an American.”
It’s clear, from the very beginning, that the poet feels a need to both express and reveal burdens placed on black society, and he does so with crisp lines of poetry that expose an unfair society within wallowing in pity.
“I was assuming you could reap the benefits of being an American in democracy; then I did some research on Martin Luther King Jr., but the main influence was my cousin, June Key, who passed away earlier this year, and she was really an inspiration,” Garner said. “She told me to join this writing collective. She worked at Passaic County Community College and she did a lot to help me get a better focus and how I should be thinking about it. David Berkowitz killed those four people and turns out they had a screwdriver and he thought it was a weapon and he got off. It’s supposed to be the land of the free and home of the brave. Where’s the justice in allowing people to be killed by police or whomever?”
Key was an inspiration to everyone who knew her, said Garner, and it wasn’t a surprise that he waxed eloquent about her in “Tribute to June H. Key,” as follows: “Like the wind blows the sails/of a ship moving through time/Or the anchor that is dropped/at the end of the line/Sister June was always there/for family and friends/Was dedicated to a fault/to making fences mend/She was a Poet, a teacher and/Administrator too/Was always willing and able/To tell you what you could do” and later “She was a phenomenal woman/who will surely be missed/As she moves on to heaven/and her spiritual bliss/Honor her memory if you will/By simply trying to be/A better person in this world/For you and for me/God Bless Her and her family.”
But this collection of prose was not nearly as cheerful, as it still focused heavily on the hard times facing the black community. According to Garner, hundreds of black men and women are being murdered by the police, while other black men in their community and also being imprisoned at a record rate heretofore unseen in this society. And, in the meantime, someone is rarely, if ever, convicted for these tragic deaths of blacks. This is happening so often that it has become almost commonplace in our communities, he continued, but the impact of it is much greater because the ultimate result is you end up with a child without a father, a wife without a husband and a community without father figures to help take the community in a positive direction.
“I wrote ‘Desensitized’ because the news was making it seem like it was OK for blacks to be killed,” he said. The poem begins: “Watching my brothers/killed every day/on the six o’clock news/Without understanding/how all of this/is affecting our views/Allowing us to feel/nothing at all/for those tragic souls/Concentrating on going to work/and just playing our roll.”
Indeed, with lines such as: “Since they’re gone forever and/won’t be coming back/Based on senseless murder after/coming under attack/Yet we go on with our lives as/if this is the norm/Not even affecting how we/live or perform…/in our daily lives,” it’s easy to see how desensitized the black community could feel today.
“The culmination was this thing about appropriating our culture,” Garner continued.. “Black history felt diminished recently. It was the culmination of a lot of things coming together all at once, but the main thing is all these young people being killed and no one doing anything about it. I had a friend who died. He was in Vietnam and, for 20 years, he went to the vet hospital and nothing was ever found. I was in the service during the Vietnam War and, though I didn’t go over there, I had friends who went over there and came back and couldn’t function anymore. I really needed to get that in there. The main thing is that democracy thing really irked me.”
This anger and dissatisfaction finds a voice in “Coming Home w/PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), in which the poet opines: Coming home after being/assigned to a place so far away/Coming home to your family/To start a new day/Even though you’re not quite/Ready to start over again/Since the pain you’ve experience/Is still stored deep within/Since the loss of friends/Is still fresh in your mind/And you’ll never forget those/That you left behind/Now there are days when the pain/Is simply too much to bear/So you don’t want to get up/And you really don’t care/Can’t sleep can’t eat or do/what normal folks do/Still caught up in the frightening/Images that you had to view/Sweating profusely when it’s/Not even hot/Scared of what may happen/If you lose what you got/Feeling isolated and alone/With no one to trust/Getting into an argument/Over the least little fuss/And all the while wondering/If you made the right choice/When you signed up to join/After hearing that voice.”
Garner isn’t trying to encapsulate the entire Vietnam experience; rather, he makes a successful attempt to relay the angst and frustration so many veterans faced after that war. This is something with which even veterans of today’s wars can connect.
This entire undertaking is being done in a country that professes to be a Democratic nation following the ideals of a democracy, said Garner. The primary ideal of this democracy is that it is a nation built for the people, by the people, yet many of the very blacks being killed are not receiving justice in this land of the free and home of the brave. He argues that many of the laws and processes in place to protect citizens of this country are rarely used to help the most vulnerable of people in this country and, to add insult to injury, many are actually blamed for their own situation.
“I started thinking about Malcolm X being murdered and I wanted to put in something about Medgar Evers being murdered in his driveway for getting people to vote,” said Garner.
He continues exposing the lies of American freedom with his poem, “Disremembering History,” which begins: “Everyone’s trying to act/Like they don’t know/That America’s history/Has a terrible under-toe/Since so many African Americans/Have lost their lives/Since the Pilgrims came here/To try and survive/Based on a flawed/White Supremacy Mindset/Now everyone wants to/conveniently forget/That for over two hundred/Years we were enslaved/Beaten, murdered and/Lynched to the end/Of our days/Cast out of society/Just for being Black/Then unmercifully waging/A full-bore attack/On the Black men, women/And their children too/Leaving many not knowing/What they could do/Systematically ensuring that/They wouldn’t have a life/Systematically ensuring/That they would have strife/Implementing laws that/Ensured our fate/Then locking us up at/A record rate/Disregarding our pleas/For Civil rights/Disremembering our history/And tragic plight.”
Garner pulls no punches in how he views the disrespect shown blacks, either in his poetry or when he is being interviewed, as he continues to explain his inspiration. “Lastly, Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest boxers ever and they took his title from him because he didn’t want to go into the service. My all-time hero is (early 20th-century football player and civil rights activist) Paul Robeson and they took his passport, because he said in 1920s and 1930s that the Russians treated him better than we did. He was really treated badly in this country. This really shouldn’t be happening and I felt the need to point these things out in no uncertain terms, especially these unarmed men who were killed by police.”
“Given these times of increased hatred and fearful uprisings of people dedicated to the elimination or stagnation of people of color and given the current climate being fostered by the latest president, it is incumbent upon all people that believe in justice and righteousness to speak out boldly against these injustices and place the blame squarely where it belongs,” said Garner in a prepared statement. He added, “There is no more time to procrastinate and hope things get better, because they’re not. It is time to pick up the baton and move forth with a strong degree of honesty and purpose to eliminate these tragedies from continuing. This book is my attempt to put the issues out there such that others will at least take on the challenge of doing something about this madness.”
“To be honest, when I was writing this book, I felt a certain freedom to write and put poems in this book I probably wouldn’t do if I wasn’t retired,” said Garner in his interview. “Most of my stuff is from the heart anyway. This is really stuff I felt needed to be put out there with a really strong conviction.”
Even the inevitability of aging was addressed by Garner in his latest collection with the poem “Retired … So Now What!” In it, he confesses, “No longer have to wake up/At the crack of dawn/Getting ready for work/singing the same/Old song/Rushing out the door/Trying to beat the traffic/Hoping to avoid something/That could be tragic/Can sleep all hours of the/Day and night/Use the time as I see fit/And decide what’s right/Counting down the days/till the next check arrives/Make Doctor’s appointments/more often just to stay alive” and later “Can’t believe I made it/In life this far/No longer need new clothes/Or a fancy car/Cause I earned the right/to finally do my thing/Live happily ever after/Just like a king/Thank God!”
Retired he may be, but that doesn’t mean the poet has disconnected from the world completely.
“I have a marketing person who does my social marketing,” Garner said. “She sends my stuff out to social media to about 10 or 20 different websites. My publisher has a marketing package I can purchased that goes to Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and I try to send it out to as many people as I can. I used to go to all these bookstores. I used to go to readings. I used to do a lot of stuff. I’m trying to do it better. World Association Publishers publishes all my books. This is the ninth book of poems, 10th counting a semi-autobiography called ‘Trouble.’ “
Garner was even honored by the Newark Public Library when he was included in the library’s 2016 edition of “Newark’s Literary Lights.”
His autobiography may be called “Trouble,” but as far as Garner is concerned, he’s going to keep calling it as he sees it. That’s what his readers have come to expect and it’s exactly what they want him to keep delivering.
“I point out things that are going on and tell the truth. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
David Jablonski is the managing editor of the Record-Transcript, Irvington Herald, Vailsburg Leader and Cranford Life. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-686-7700, ext.125.