Harryette Mullen Lecture on the American Dream
Mud is thicker than water. Pull your head up by your chin straps. Put the pedal to the metal. Peddle to the middle. Put the medal on the pedestal. I pledge Sister Sledgehammer & Father knows beds, but I am not my breather’s keeper. I pledge to earn every holler & if found guilty, I pledge to repay my Bill of Rights to Society. From me to shining me. Money, money, money, monkey. We’re number none. Our number’s done. E pluribus Unnumbskull. For wares & several fears we go. Praise be to Guard. Slops & Slobbers. Maladies & Gentrifications. Don’t kill us, we’ll kill you. With lobotomy & Jesus for all.
If Terrance Hayes were a musician (though he is), he would play the bassoon. We would see him walk on stage with a strange gait, halfway between a faux-limping rap star and a real-limping ex-slave. And we’d laugh at him because he’d be holding a bassoon. Most people don’t play bassoon in dive bars. He’d soak up the laughter and laugh back with us. Yes, it is ridiculous that I’m going to play bassoon in this blues bar, he’d say. Then he would start playing. The funny, strained sound of the bassoon just barely reaching our ears. We’d still be laughing, because the only thing funnier-looking than a bassoon is the person who plays it. But soon we’d realize that bassoon is the bluest instrument. The bassoon holds all the pain of the generations of bassoon makers whose wives left them, whose children died at birth, who turned to drink after their fathers died. There was one bassoon maker who laboured over a single bassoon for so many years that when he finally finished he even talked like a bassoon, just as strained, just as free.
Even if you love the racket of ascension,
you must know how the power leaves you.
And at this pitch who has time for meditation?
the sea walled in by buildings. I do miss
the quiet, don’t you? When I said, “Fuck the deer
antlered and hithered in fur,” it was because
I had seen the faces of presidents balled into a fist.
If I were in charge, I would know how to fix
the world: free health care or free physicals,
at least, and an abiding love for the abstract.
When I said, “All of history is saved for us,”
it was because I scorned the emancipated sky.
Does the anthem choke you up? When I asked
God if anyone born to slaves would die
a slave, He said: “Sure as rock descending
a hillside.” That’s why I’m not a Christian.