Whereas the race card is now everyone’s card
in a deck I did not cut. I hate card games,
the conceit of the shuffle. I hate when white people
hate white people because hating white people
is fashionable. A person’s color is a still thing
—from “Nonbinding Legislation, or a Resolution”
Cameron Barnett’s first collection, published by Autumn House Press, is powerful. Each poem in The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water is a full meal, and not always easy to digest. His craft is superb, pure excellence in both expression and thrust, but the themes are exhausting, necessary, and yes, every single thing is race. Barnett’s endurance analyzing America’s binary black and white world is honorable, essential, and true, yet leaves the reader bone-tired.
“Notes on Cameron Barnett,” builds into a waterfall of dilemma:
In 11th grade a friend asked me if my semen was black like me. I re-
minded him how often he called me the whitest black guy he knew.
Occasionally, a friend of mine likes to point out that all of my relation-
ships have been interracial. What’s up with that? he asks with a smirk.
Which to hate more: the question or the smirk?
What does white privilege look like in a black body?
Another black poet told me he liked my poem
for Emmett Till despite His story being overdone.
For weeks I thought about switching out
the murderers’ name and putting his in.
When I say I do not care for my skin, when I say I wanted to get rid of
it, when I say it has given me everything, when I say it does nothing for
me, when I say I am numb, when I say I don’t see my own race, when I
say it sees me, when I say every consequence carries a color, when I say
you can have it, when I say it is all mine . . . what do you hear?
Throughout the collection, water imagery abounds and drowns: fountains, pools, swimming, rain, oceans. Kendrick Lamar, Michael Brown, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all appear and swirl into the essential question: What is being black in the United States of America? Barnett’s answers are shrewd, compassionate, direct, honest, full of love and truth. The answers never shy from fact. The poem “Nigger” concludes:
Who are you, nigger? African beauty
behind American façade. You were not born
from a womb of nooses. You need not hang
your head in a new world.
When I first read these words on a flight to Bordeaux, I could not stop thinking about James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, and all the other African American artists who were forced abroad in order to live and work freely. The daily police murders, the school-to-prison pipeline, the judicial system’s gross injustices, the media’s gross misrepresentation, and the day-after-day microaggressions added onto the ghastly history of systematic racism make The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water a crucial collection.
If you are not ready to confront racial prejudices, then these poems will disturb and shock. If you are ready to face, discuss, and absorb America’s racialization, then Barnett’s verse will fill you rage, love, and tears. Forceful, dominant and unforgettable, Barnett’s words open doors with fire axes and halt ignorance with a glance.