Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae
Factory Hollow Press, 2014; 87 pp
Reviewed by Annie Won
It has been said that unlike other memories, trauma continues to make its presence known until we make our peace with it; all other memories run currents around the trauma to understand and reconcile what has happened. No stranger to trauma, Forgiveness Forgiveness is an unflinching, fictionalized forwards-and-backwards telling of a part-black part-white narrator who is raped as a child, reared by racist white grandparents with an absent black father. The violent racism McCrae's narrator experiences easily parallels recent rage-provoking news of white-on-black violence against unarmed black men. The media too circles notions of the black man as a mythological object — someone who is to be feared, avoided, and occasionally killed — not without corresponding riots and necessarily uncomfortable conversation. What is uncomfortable must also be said.
The first section begins with the narrator's childhood recollection of Little Brown Koko, a stereotypical little black boy in a racist children's book who steals watermelons. Koko is repeatedly considered as strange, yet painfully familiar in "The Subject." McCrae writes, "It doesn't seem to matter that he's little what / Matters is that he's black / ... Although he is / subject to the book." Subject to the book, not of the book — yes, Koko is subject to this book, as is the narrator, as is any black man — in the book as I remember it / In the book as I remember it" ("The Light"). Reference to "the book" is a surrogate for legitimacy, for law enforcement, for judgment. Koko isn't real, and the narrator isn't, either, as noted in the acknowledgements; however the carriage of Koko by the narrator doubly states the importance of myth as a more palatable surrogate of unbearable truth. Tell the story so that it can be heard.
McCrae is conscious of the white American trope, of how tiring it is to hear about slavery and racism because one doesn't witness it with their own eyes — or do they. McCrae's narrator's own white mother "says she's getting tired and he's / A big boy get on down now you can walk / And lays him down bloody and writhing on the floor" ("3. They Present the Black Public Figure to America"). Violence is an old story we tell repeatedly. It is the black narrative. We should come to expect this — as eye-rolling cliché, as painful trauma, as daily unresolved narrative.
Does eschewing blackness make the "black problem" go away? The narrator writes, "my grandfather had called me a nigger first. / Which is impossible, because I wasn't / black ... / My grandfather especially didn't like black people... / And I didn't like black people, I was / afraid of black people" ("How My Grandfather Painted Water"). McCrae's narrator, as a child, attempts to avoid half-black identity, but still does not escape racism and abuse. McCrae writes, "Koko, /...was the only book in the / house that made me feel dirty" ("How My Grandfather Painted Water"). The sense of feeling "dirty" as part-black is entangled with the narrator's rape; as a child, it is confusing. "He leaned / Over the back of the couch and put me in his mouth / And I was four or five it felt / Good and I wanted him / To yell at me or hit me and not do it anymore" ("1. How He was Looked").
The section, "A Character Sketch," is held up by a single poem, "He Doesn't When He Does," during which the illustrator character (who illustrated "the book" earlier) "sees too many / wrong sad things in crying / But also sometimes feels apart like there's / no outside world inside him." How does one assemble an identity in the face of societal and familial estrangement, amplified by racial tensions — as genetically both black and white but perhaps culturally neither? And what is to be done about this trauma?
Given that the book's title is of forgiveness, the question resonates. The narrator's grandmother "wants to know / could I have chosen / which one to forgive" ("My Grandmother Doesn't Believe a Word of It"). Could violent actions be undone? How might one move forward? In the final poem, upon which the book is named, McCrae writes, "I can't get mad / The woman who remembered / all of it is dead / And all of it is dead" ("Forgiveness Forgiveness"). When witnesses die, and one is left with his own memories, what is to be done? Be anything but silent. Speak.