Oakland was home to the National Poetry Slam last week. Spoken Word poets from all around the country came to speak their craft. One of the most moving sessions was “Disability, Visible and Invisible,” and below is a poem by first place winners in the Group Piece Finals, Mallary McHenry and Chris Walonski of Colorado.

Mental Illness Can Put the Whole Family in a Straight Jacket”

The counselors claim you’re more afraid of me than I am of you,
But the same could be said for rattlesnakes.
Mom didn’t brainwash me
To believe you’re paranoid.
It’s just, when I smile,
You study the sharpness of my teeth.

Dear Uncle,
We tip-toe around your name at the dinner table
The way strangers walk past signs reading
“Beware of dogs.”
No one asks if you will bite them;
We just assume that you will.
We hang family photos on padded walls.
You were every cautionary tale,
Every warning label written in fine print:
“Drinking may cause outbursts,”
Medication may have side effects,
Keep out of reach of children.
Mother kept you away from us
And we never questioned why.

I never heard bedtime stories.
You were too busy reciting them to your suspicions.
Mom is trying to get you fired,
I am stealing your life-savings,
Rachel is lacing your food with pills,
The neighbors hear you through baby monitors,
Everything is a baby monitor.
When you lost your mind,
We lost your mind too.
Madness makes you an absent father
who still lives in his children’s house.

No one ever denied your brilliance–
You could debate theoretical physics or
dissect architectural structures at a glance,
Your brothers marched with Doctor King,
You bit dogs that Alabama whites released on you.
You spoke back to the voices in your head
In a time when people could not tell
what color you were defying,
But there is a fine line between genius
And madness.

Conversations dissolved into the rainbow woman
who wrote the Bible,
the gorilla who replaced Jesus Christ.
We all laughed about how your red pants
told you to throw bricks through Macy’s store windows.
Your story was a rough draft
In the footnotes of black history
because no one could read your writing.

That 3 a.m. you sprinted into the woods with a rope,
Revealed you weren’t running toward your death,
You were trying to give your illness a voice,
Articulating internal monologues
That preached suicide as salvation.
The noose, an external vocal chord,
Bullet holes are just ways of giving the skull a second mouth.
When you hear voices that command involuntary muscles:
Lungs breathe,
Heart beat,
Brain think,
Louder than conversations of strangers,
We shouldn’t question why you could never sleep,
Why your fists were always clenched,
Why snarls curl at the end of every sentence,
But we still question.
I fear that we share this savage inheritance,
An insane gene.

Dear Uncle,
I have not yet heard these voices,
But I am scared that I will.
How many years do I have before your sickness becomes mine?
Or worse, my children?
Dad, I do not refuse your advice out of spite;
I refuse for fear that I will become you,
Less your son,
More a self-fulfilling prophecy.
we were surprised you died of natural causes instead of by your own hand.
Was our Eulogy your life’s greatest achievement?

I don’t want you to be diagnosed.
If you were, I’d feel guilty for my anger.
Maybe the both of us need to seek help.
For the sake of my own sanity,
Dad, please tell me you were never dog,
Uncle, please tell me you were never rattlesnake.
I wish I wasn’t scared of you.
I wish I didn’t have to be.

Mallory, in an email, said of the Poetry Slam, “There were countless people who touched our lives and cemented reminders of why we do this.  Ultimately, we do this because we want to make a difference. We do this because this is a safe space to speak our truth.  We do this to listen to others.  We do this to heal.  This is a moment we will never forget.”

Oakland hosted the poetry slam as a benefit for Elevate Oakland to promote arts in the Oakland Unified School District. These sponsoring organizations provided generous support: the City of Oakland, Visit Oakland, Venue, the New Parkway Theater, Impact HUB Oakland and Elevate Oakland.

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at barbara@oaklandlocal.com

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