Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae (Factory Hollow Press 2014)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
In the past few months, I have read two books by Shane McCrae. First, I read his latest collection In the Language of My Captor – a series of persona poems and loosely autobiographical musings which focus on the complicated nature of race and racism in American history. I fell in love with the way McCrae refuses to bow down to stereotypical narratives of what it means to be black. As a mixed-race man raised by white grandparents, McCrae explores is own nuanced identity beside the identities and imagined experiences of African Americans kept in cages by white museum curators, all the while refusing to preference once experience of blackness in America over another. In In the Language of My Captors, McCrae acknowledges the complicated nature of communicating this spectrum of black experience in the language of white Europeans – this is particularly true when thinking about poetry as a genre whose canon is made up almost entirely of white, male faces.
Typically, it’s considered best practices to review an author’s most recently published work – the work that is in the spotlight, the one that publicists and presses want to showcase. But we don’t do a lot of things around here in a typical fashion, and besides, that practice is rooted more in the (unfortunately necessary) capitalist nature of book reviewing, not in the gushing, awe-inspiring, I-have-to-tell-someone-about-this desire to appreciate a book for what it is, for what it does. In this vein, I’ve chosen to review McCrae’s collection from 2014, Forgiveness Forgiveness, which looks at blackness in America from a different angle – the angle of childhood stories about race, and how revision can give us the tools to alter those stories, and in so doing transform our conception of self.
In Forgiveness Forgiveness, McCrae introduces readers to Little Brown Koko, a young black character McCrae found in a picture book on a bookshelf in his childhood home. McCrae writes and rewrites the story of Little Brown Koko, his life and his eventual death, and in so doing reflects on his own childhood, living as a mixed-race boy in predominantly white, rural Texas. As he writes Little Brown Koko’s story over and over again, McCrae illuminates the way that racist stereotypes and caricatures of black and brown people contribute to racialized brutality and crime; he illuminates, also, his own pain as a black boy raised by a racist grandfather, trying to find an identity to fit both his grandfather’s idea of “proper” white America, and his own fundamentally different understanding of the world.
A number of threads run through the stories of Little Brown Koko. The first, and most significant, is Koko’s innocence and the way that even as a child he is subject to white gaze – McCrae writes, “It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s little what / matters is that he’s black” (12) and
“In the book as I remember it
I saw him also in the words
but wrong in the words
In my head as I read the words
His body / Hadn’t been
flattened swelled until it wasn’t anymore
a body until it was
a white man’s black boy’s body.” (24-25)
The idea of what it means to be a white man’s idea of a black boy becomes more significant in later passages, when McCrae writes on his experiences with his grandfather, a racist who “had called me a nigger first” (31). McCrae writes on understanding himself through his white grandfather’s idea of who he was – sometimes a black boy, a “nigger,” and sometimes just a boy who “tanned easily.” But after finding Little Brown Koko among the “family photographs or stacks of Playboys” on the bookshelves in his childhood home, McCrae began to understand himself, to see himself. Not only that, he began to see the way his grandfather saw him – as half real man, half caricature. Not quite “a son – he had always wanted a man to be the man he was” (35).
Later, McCrae juxtaposes the brutality of his grandfather with the brutality of the author and illustrator of Little Brown Koko, who take the young fictional boy out for coffee after he’s been castrated. In these sections, Little Brown Koko bleeds to death slowly as the white men who imagined him turn a blind eye to his brutalized body. The fictional black boy and the real black man are inseparable in this section. Their violence is a shared violence. Meanwhile, the white men talk about the good they’ve done. They say to one another: “In the black community / sometimes it takes / somebody white / To get a story told / So people listen no- / body is telling the truth about how things are” (46).
In the midst of this violence, this brutality, what can be done? McCrae writes about historical and contemporary violence against black men beside poems which reveal the sexual and physical violence he experienced at the hands of his own white grandfather. He writes about beatings, and was beaten. And while part of the work of this collection is revealing that violence, the book is primarily about revision – about the ways that stories of trauma and violence can and must be rewritten by victims, about the agency that revision can provide. About finding the truth through the victim’s mouth – the complicated, painful, brutal truth.
Ultimately, McCrae comes to the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness which is a shock, which is painful. Forgiveness which acknowledges ignorance without permitting or condoning the perpetuation of ignorance. Forgiveness which finds itself, surprising itself, because the only living person to remember the violent truth is the victim himself. He writes:
“He threw me was I’m
told I was when I was three
into a wall
I can’t get mad about it anymore
Beat me I don’t remember anything
I’m told it was
almost every day I try
I can’t get mad” (82)
I wonder, sitting here, whether I was drawn to write about Forgiveness Forgiveness precisely because McCrae ends here. Not with anger, but with acceptance. I wonder if my positionality, as a white woman, gives me a plurality of reasons for wanting this ending – first, because selfishly and foolishly I want to be forgiven (as a “liberal,” as a sensitive person) for the brutality of the entire white race, and second, because I want to believe, as a woman, that forgiving what seems like unforgivable, excruciating, systematic violence is possible. I don’t know if I do believe it. At the end of this collection, McCrae writes about holding his grandmother, her brain consumed by dementia, and acknowledging that neither she nor he could have stopped his grandfather from causing the pain that he did. I want to believe this kind of love is possible.
One of my favorite theories about the healing power of writing comes from author and composition scholar Marian MacCurdy, who believes that through writing, victims of trauma can find agency in events that robbed them of their power, their identity, their safety. She writes in her book The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma: “The human impulse to transmute suffering into something more permanent than the clay we are composed of is universal. Art heals grief.”
I will return again and again to Forgiveness Forgiveness because I want to believe this is possible – that art, that time, heals grief. As Black History Month comes to a close, I want to remember the significance of this thought – that as we read and create homes for the stories of marginalized people, people who are statistically more likely to be the victims of violence, we are creating space for the idea that these communities might heal slowly, collectively, through the power of that art. It is not enough – nothing is enough. But they are stories that deserve to be told, and to be read. And no matter how stomach-turning they are (for white, cis-, male, heterosexual, able-bodied) readers, we must, we have to read them.