Originally posted 8/10/2010.
advertised for tooth donors
when they needed to make dentures — offering
half empty mouths
and fuller pockets for some.
The ads read, often, “White Teeth Only.”
That didn’t refer to their color.
Some white folks back then
didn’t want African teeth in their faces, but
George Washington, denture wearing
father of his country,
didn’t care. Teeth were teeth
no matter where they came from
to George Washington,
even if they came
from slaves he always saw
as lazy and unwilling to work
in bad weather.
Suck it up,
he told his slaves. You’ll be free
when Martha and I die.
That’s a promise in our will,
right there in black and white.
Until then, smile and get going.
In an act of generosity,
Martha Washington freed all the slaves
George had brought to their marriage
upon his death,
keeping in bondage only those
she’d owned before the marriage.
124 slaves out of 300 got an early release –
an early example of how things get better.
They banned the slave trade here a few years later,
leaving the breeding of existing slaves
as the only source of new sweat. No more ships
full of anguished cargo, no more immoral raids
in Africa, no more need of the Middle Passage
Things, again, were getting better.
There were all those years of conflict
and finally a war to free the slaves
once and for all,
replacing human bondage by law
with human bondage by money,
but at least
no one could be called a slave,
at least the dentures
all came from free men.
Things kept getting better.
Say it with me: it gets better.
It’s what we always say:
don’t worry, it gets better.
Just hang on, it’ll get better,
suck it up, it’ll get better,
we know it’s cold but it will get better,
just ignore it and be strong, it will get better,
how about we wear a bracelet
in solidarity till it gets better,
a T-shirt till it gets better,
chin up, it will get better
don’t know how fast
it will happen but it will get better,
just look at history –
desperate teeth became pearls of honor,
the mouths they were torn from all became free,
those who suffered because the circumstances weren’t right
suffered on the future’s behalf
and see, it did get better –
don’t die now
or cry now
or despair now,
it may not feel like it
but it will get better.
George Washington, father of the country,
must have known what he was doing back then –
full medical care for his slaves,
would not break up their families,
kept them marginally happy
while still enslaved
till he had no need of them,
after which it was perfectly OK for it all
to get better.
It’s the American way
and it’s how we look at you now,
you pained, you pushed,
you bullied, you edged out
and crushed and murdered and starved
and regulated until you are
and say it again:
it gets better.
Who are we to say it?
Who are we to say
we are not the better
that was intended back then,
the better that is always intended?
Maybe better isn’t just a word.
is the choice to put ourselves
between the bully
and the victim, between
the system and the fodder
It’s up to us
to shut our empty mouths
stop comforting the sorrowful
after the fact,
stop giving up our bite
and put all the teeth
into the moment before us.
Step in between
predator and prey.
Take a blow
before we take a bow.
It only is better
if we are better.