|Thea Matthews is an American-born poet, educator, and author of African and Indigenous Mexican descent. Born in San Francisco, California, she earned her B.A. in Sociology at UC Berkeley where she studied and taught June Jordan’s program Poetry for the People led by Aya de Leon. She has experience with community organizing and activism with the Black Lives Matter movement. Her debut poetry collection Unearth [The Flowers] was published by Red Light Lit Press in June 2020. This book enhances survivorship visibility of sexual violence, and exemplifies triumph over trauma. She writes on the complexities of humanity, grief, and resiliency. Currently, she resides in Brooklyn, New York, is an MFA- Poetry candidate at New York University, and working on a series titled AMERICANA.|
As an artist, a writer, and activist, I have critically examined degrees of trauma as social problems that perpetuate cycles of individual and collective trauma. I have acknowledged the collective “soul wound,” a term coined by Mary Yellow Horse in her research with Native American nations. This soul wound stems from living in conditions inundated with the impact of historical trauma. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities continue to habitually deal with aftershocks of historical trauma in tandem with the present realities of systemic negligence and evolved configurations of abuse.
In recent years, I have been part of political organizing for Black Lives Matter demonstrations. And currently, I am working on a series of poems bearing the same title–– Americana. As a manuscript in-progress, Americana interrogates U.S. history, as well as the questions: What does it truly mean to be an American? What is Justice? What is Freedom / Liberty? In writing these poems, I cross-examine the evidence of U.S. past and present times; and I implore poetic forms to reveal the complex truth of our value system imbedded within this country’s national anthem and flag.
As an artist and human being, I know art has a unique power to truly change the psyche of an individual. The act of creation, as we are all creators, affirms the ability to authenticate what we have experienced as well as the vision we have for creating a new world. Based on my experience, I acknowledge and accept I was raised in a myth of democracy, of freedom, of a developed nation.
In 2020, police have killed 1, 127 individuals. African Americans are disproportionately at risk of police brutality and likely to be victims of state vigilante violence. In fact, Blacks are three times more likely to be murdered by police than their non-black / white counterparts. From its history, the United States emerged from terror, rape, and genocide. To this day, officials have not publicly acknowledged nor sought to amend the facts of the First People’s genocide and centuries of agonizing abuse African Americans have been forced to endure.
So, is the United States a developed country? If we are considering a developed country to be one that values as well as practices democracy and human rights for all, then the answer is simple: no. Over the last four centuries, this country has proven to uphold a warped definition of democracy coupled with negligence and systemic oppression. This in turns perpetuates a society that is highly divisive on an interpersonal and systemic level of organization.
Democracy, by definition, is a government system by the people, for the people. How can there be true democracy when not everyone in this country is deemed human nor respected as a human being? In fact, human rights are habitually violated, neglected, and outright disregarded. So-called “Liberty” from the Emancipation Proclamation was a mere business deal in 1863 and subsequently thanks to the 13th Amendment kept countless African Americans in bondage via sharecropping and imprisonment. And, time and time again has shown, the legacy of slavery and lynching prevails in this country, regardless of race / ethnicity in uniform.
Within the last two centuries, the racial face of political power has shifted; however, this country’s power structure wears the system of terror over its heart. A truly developed, democratic society is not one of mere shifting faces. Having Black skin be in power has proven to still perpetuate white supremacy and state vigilante violence. Franz Fanon knew this from his work in Black Skin White Masks. Superiority and inferiority are both forms of enslavement; switching places merely keeps the systemic structure intact. Simple.
Barak Obama became the country’s first African American president in 2009. Under his administration from January 2009 to January 2017, approximately 91 African Americans were killed by this country’s police state. Each death has been met with acquittal. Now, murder is defined as premeditated killing. Although each police officer did not pre-plan each victim’s death, for how could they, the criminal justice system has repeatedly illustrated the American value of Black lives. Victims were of various ages, some where children, and many were below the age of 30.
Under the Obama’s Administration, video footage of the specific killings went viral and the nation saw a man pleading for his life before being fatally shot (Oscar Grant, killed in 2009), the body of a young man lay in his pool of blood for over four hours (Michael Brown Jr., killed in 2014), and a man repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” in a choke hold (Eric Garner, killed in 2014). Specifically, these deaths served as a catalyst for the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists, artists, educators, families, students, including myself, were outraged. These accumulated deaths and subsequent injustice led to countless marches of the People chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
Copyright Thea Matthews, 2020
Now, one can say if you don’t defy the law you will not killed. The law was never meant to protect all. The country stands divided with acknowledging human rights as well as the history of trauma against BIPOC communities, especially if the domain remains white supremacist and patriarchal by nature. In 2017, Donald Trump became the country’s 45th President. Under his administration and monstrous demeaner, the nation again confirmed its division of who is willing to uphold misogyny, sexism, and racism, and who is not. Hate crimes rose roughly 20 percent under the Trump administration.
In the summer of 2020, particularly two deaths led to national uprisings and national guard intervention. On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor, a26-year-old emergency medical technician was killed my multiple gunshot wounds in a botched raid in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 25, 2020, father and hip-hop artist George Floyd was killed by brute force in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. The last words in the video footage is Floyd saying he can’t breath and calling for his mother. He was 49 years old. Thousands of People ran into the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” and demonstrations of civil unrest ensued to illustrate justifiable anger towards this country’s police state.
Copyright Thea Matthews, 2020 Copyright Thea Matthews, 2020
One of the other protest chants has been “Defund. Disarm. Dismantle” in regards to shifting the nation’s police state. In 2021, the Trump era and blatant rise of white supremacy and patriarchy “subsided” with Joe Biden winning as U.S.’s 46th President, and Kamala Harris as the first African American vice president. As a country, we seemingly have a breather yet many of us know we are still far from being part of truly developed society. So far, more than 20 major cities in this country have begun to defund police budgets. This is great news; however this is only a beginning. This is not our destination; the program of action all of us must work towards to truly shift the hypermilitarized police state this country has exhibited requires vigilance and pressuring persistence on government officials to truly rectify the situation at hand.
We have a long way to go. The struggle continues…
 Reading from left to right, each Americana poem is in Trimeric. The first poem features lyrics from the United States’ National Anthem “Star Spangled Banner,” originally written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, and was adopted as the anthem in 1931. Each name is a killed victim of U.S. police brutality. The remaining two poems incorporate symbolism of the national flag and U.S. historical events.
 During the Civil War era, the executive order was originally issued in 1862 and then declared on January 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. This document did not end slavery; more importantly it served as a means to gain favor with European countries and garner support of the Union, rather than Confederacy.
 In 1865, the 13th Amendment (Amendment XIII) was ratified, abolishing U.S. “slavery;” however, the caveat is “except as punishment for a crime.” Therefore, the 13th Amendment formally institutionalized the criminalization of African Americans and the enforcement of U.S. slavery / involuntary servitude through this constitutional amendment.
- Duran, Eduardo, Bonnie Duran, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, and Susan Yellow Horse-Davis. “Healing the American Indian soul wound.” In International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma, pp. 341-354. Springer, Boston, MA, 1998.
- Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 2008.