Dr. Joshua Bennett is in a class of his own. The prolific African American poet is a thought leader for a generation of Black men growing up in an America that continues to be particularly brutal and violent towards his kind. Bennett started performing on college campuses at a young age and that is where he continues to lead as one of the brightest intellectuals and political thinkers of our time.
His debut poetry collection, The Sobbing School, won the 2015 National Poetry Series Award. In it, Bennett uses poetry to pass commentary on politics and social events and movements (especially the Black Lives Matter movement) as they impact and affect him and the larger society. Bennett is so brilliant that he was named a Harvard Society Fellow. Through that distinction, he has received generous financial support to pursue independent study of his choice.
Bennett’s poem, ‘Tamara’s Opus’, is perhaps a deviation from his usual socio-political analysis and gives us a glimpse into his personal life. The poem is a chilling tribute to his sister. In it, Bennett walks readers through his childhood naivete then confusion about his sister being deaf. He reveals his lack of effort, guilt, and regret at not doing well to understand or know his sister, being the ‘only member of his family who never learned sign language’.
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So touching is ‘Tamara’s Opus’ that Bennett was invited to perform at the White House in 2009. Read the poem and watch Bennett perform this powerful tribute below.
Tamara has never listened to hip hop.
Never danced to the rhythm of raindrops or fallen asleep to a chorus of chirping crickets. She has been Deaf
for as long as I’ve been alive.
And ever since the day I first turned five my father has said:
Nothing is wrong with Tamara.
God just makes
And at that moment
those nine letters felt like hammers
swung gracefully by unholy hands to shatter my stained glass innocence
into shards that can never be pieced back together
or do anything more than sever the ties between my sister and I. I waited,
was patient numberless years anticipating the second her ears would open like lotuses and allow my sunlight senses to seep into her insides
make her remember
all of those conversations we must have had in heaven back when God handpicked us to be sibling souls centuries ago.
I still remember
her 20th birthday.
Readily recall my awe-struck 11 year old eyes as I watched Deaf men and women of all ages dance in unison to the vibration of speakers booming so loud
that I imagined angels chastising us for disturbing their worship with such beautiful blasphemy.
Until you have seen a Deaf girl dance, you know
There was a barricade between us that I never took the time to destroy never even for a moment thought to look up the sign for sister, for family, for goodbye. I will see you again someday.
remember the face
of your little brother.
It is only now I see
that I was never willing to put in the extra effort to love her properly.
So as the only person in my family who is not fluent in sign language
I’ve decided to take this time to apologize.
I am sorry
for my silence.
For true love knows no frequency, and so
I will use these hands to speak volumes that can never be contained within the boundaries of sound waves
I will shout at the top of my fingertips until digits dance and relay these mental messages directly to your soul.
that there is no poem
that can make up for all the time we have lost so
if you can,
Watch Bennett’s chilling read of the poem at the White House in 2009: