I first became aware of Ai's writings in the early 90s when I stumbled across a volume of her poetry in my university's library. The strength and forcefulness of the author's writing in poems such as "The Kid" literally slapped me awake from the everyday workings of academia. (see "Vice - New and Selected Poems" by Ai, published 1999 by W.W. Norton & Company, author photograph by Heather Conley)
Speaking of being slapped awake, it seems appropriate to mention at this time of economic turmoil, that the beast known as America's middle class (consumption or die!) might finally get an inkling that it was just playing the part of obedient sheep all along. As is often the case, the misinformed of America's middle and lower classes were fooled by a dangling carrot. The sad truth is that the idea behind the building and distribution of wealth, and a fair shake at life has always been and continues to be a major problem in our country of stars and stripes
It is said that in the United States alone, the top 5 percent of the wealthy controls nearly 50 percent of the nation's wealth. How do you suppose this imbalance affects the lives of just one group in our great society, that of black men for instance? An article written by Erik Eckholm for the New York Times on March 20, 2006 notes that "The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless - that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000."
The article continues "Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison."
An so it is that in these troubled economic times, I ask everyone to think back to April 29, 1992 and reflect. Who or what is the real enemy? On that day, the acquittals on the main charges of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King sparked a series of riots across Los Angeles. Having grown up in the inner city, I remember being shocked at the time that many of my middle-class classmates and coworkers could only focus on the "horrifying" news images of looting, fires, and street violence across L.A. Somehow we're trained to look at the aftermath, but not at how we got there in the first place.
In her poem "Riot Act, April 29, 1992", the poet Ai saw so much more. The issues of excessive force, pent-up anger, racial profiling, rampant unemployment, and the inaccessible American Dream were finally on view for all to see on prime time television! This is what happened to society's carefully orchestrated house of cards on "the day the wealth finally trickled down to the rest of us." - PS