James Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” is a poem of apocalyptic scale, written at a time when the specter of nuclear annihilation hung over the world’s so-called superpowers, held like an axe by the “pink and alabaster pragmatists” of the white power structure, as Baldwin so cuttingly described them. It is a long, furious, and fearless poem, seventeen pages that mix politics with pop culture with black historical and literary references, and snippets of Negro spirituals dripping with venomous irony, all to expose the matrix of colonization and systematic oppression that continued to plague black people in the US—who “don’t own nothing / got no flag,” whose very names remain “hand-me-downs”—well after the civil rights movement was declared victorious, sanctified, then sanitized and anesthetized by those same keepers of red button.
We were thinking about apocalypse and unrest, and inevitably about “Staggerlee wonders,” as the images flooded out of Ferguson all summer and into the autumn and then reached a fever pitch in the wake of the Darren Wilson grand jury decision. “Staggerlee wonders” is a poem that could have been written for the current moment, a poem imbued with the spirit of #BlackLivesMatter, with the heartbreak and the anger of #ICantBreathe. All of these images and influences were swirling through our minds when we asked the poet Jericho Brown to channel the voice of Baldwin for this video.
“James Baldwin was never afraid to say it,” Nikky Finney observed in her introduction to Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, in which “Staggerlee wonders” appears. Baldwin was a fierce intellect, one of the great minds of the twentieth century. In “Staggerlee wonders,” Baldwin is saying it like he never stopped saying it. As this troubled 2014 comes to a close and a new year of possibility opens before us, let us not be afraid to hear it.