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Terrance Hayes and Grand Tradition


By Ryder PittzPublished 4 years ago 4 min read
Terrance Hayes

"Probably twilight makes the blackness dangerous"—Terrence Hayes

Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous

Darkness. Probably all my encounters

Are existential jambalaya. Which is to say,

A nigga can survive. Something happened

In Sanford, something happened in Ferguson

And Brooklyn & Charleston, something happened

In Chicago & Cleveland & Baltimore & happens

Almost everywhere in this country every day.

Probably someone is prey in all of our encounters.

You won’t admit it. The names alive are like the names

In graves. Probably twilight makes blackness

Darkness. And a gate. Probably the dark blue skin

Of a black man matches the dark blue skin

Of his son the way one twilight matches another.

“Probably blackness makes the darkness dangerous” is a sonnet by the poet Terrence Hayes. The overwhelming theme of the poem is the day to day existence, and struggles African Americans face in modern day America. The poem deals with cities where atrocities are committed either against African Americans, or within the culture of African Americans, cities such as Charleston, Chicago, and Baltimore. Hayes attacks the problem of racism overtly, yet also disguises his uncertainty as hope.

Hayes claims this poem is a sonnet, though the only similarity the poem has with a traditional sonnet, either Italian or Shakespearean, is the line count: 14. Lines 1, 2, 4, 11, and 13 all contain ten syllables, but the rest follow no discernible meter at all. There is no rhyme scheme. I believe this poem is a sonnet, not necessarily because of its structure, but rather because the author has the final say in what the poem is. Hayes claims a place among the grand tradition of the Sonnet, and lays down a voice that cannot go unheard.

The first thing that strikes me about this poem is its title. The only word capitalized is “Probably.” This word is used five times in the piece, underlining its importance clearly. As the only capitalized word in the title, it highlights Hayes’ uncertainty about what he is saying. He sees everything happening to African Americans in this country, and finds it impossible to make a declarative statement about these things. Maybe he still has hope and love for America, but probably that hope, and love is fading away.

In the third and fourth lines, Hayes writes “Probably all my encounters are existential jambalaya.” I read this to mean all his encounters with white people in this country leave him in a crisis of existence. Maybe some encounters he has are good and fulfilling, leaving him with no uncomfortable feelings of inequality, while other encounters are filled with hatred, or subtle racism, bringing about dread and fear for his future. This would culminate in an existential jambalaya, a contradiction of two worlds that cannot be made sense of when combined. He follows this with “Which is to say, a nigga can survive.” On the surface, this line seems confident, that maybe African Americans can survive and thrive in an American environment. This illusion is shattered, though, with the inclusion of the word “nigga.” A word as powerful as this reminds the reader, and the author, that it’s not the pleasant encounters that matter. This word might be meant to degrade, it might even be meant as an empowering statement for the African American people, but I think it's a cautionary signal; even if all seems right in the world, somewhere out there lurks the racism that can kill.

Hayes illuminates this with the mention of “Something” happening in various cities around this country. Something happening every day. The massacre in Charleston. The Police brutality in Ferguson, Baltimore, Sanford, and Brooklyn. The gang violence in Chicago. The uncertainty is back in the next line, “Probably someone is prey in all of our encounters.” It seems the existential jambalaya is becoming less and less cluttered as the poem moves forward. The idea that someone is prey in every encounter signals despair of sorts that the author feels in a nation of systematic racism. He is still uncertain, yet the likelihood of him surviving is less and less every day.

The turn in this sonnet seems not to be in the last couplet, or even the last quatrain. I believe the turn is the entirety of the final five lines, where Hayes addresses the reader directly. “You won’t admit it.” Therein lies the problem, the ignorance or defiant denial of those not the prey. “the names alive are like the names in graves.” Hayes seems to want to describe those alive as already dead. However, rather than a statement, this line reads as an accusation. How can he be free and alive when he is also prey?

The poem finishes with Hayes’ uncertainty. “Probably the dark blue skin of a black man matches the dark blue skin of his son the way one twilight matches another.” He describes a father and son as matching, but is also describing how all African Americans are like other African Americans, with blue skin that shows in the darkness. The comparison to twilight is interesting, bringing forth an image of equality, and how two different things share a similar quality.

This poem brings forth an idea of uncertainty within the author. Though on the surface there may be a glimmer of hope, things are not as they seem. Maybe that’s why Hayes called this piece a sonnet, the structure is as uncertain as he is.

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About the Creator

Ryder Pittz

Poet, Traveler, Student

Constantly awed by the power of Humanity

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