by Patricia Smith

View an image of the poet

Hearing Patricia Smith’s ‘Skinhead’ for the first time, it takes a moment for us to register that she, a black woman, is speaking as a white male. The unexpected subversion jolts us to attention. We sit, whether viewing or reading, waiting to discover what the outcome will be. The poet is not only at odds with her narrator, but actively despised by him. She channels a white supremacist, placing herself in the shoes of a perpetrator of hate, never once sharing her sympathy for his victims, nor explicitly condemning his actions.

Smith occupies the bigoted character of her subject throughout, pushing on even as his graphic words challenge our endurance. At one point, the narrator describes the thrill and arousal that he experiences when violently attacking black men and women on the street, lead pipe in hand: ‘I get hard listening to their skin burst.’ On stage, the words are said quietly, following a pause. Detached from any verse, they break the poem’s rhythm, striking the audience more forcefully than the bully’s metal weapon ever could.

Words by Sophia Martin-Pavlou

‘They call me skinhead,’ snarls a white supremacist, ‘and I got my own beauty.’ Patricia Smith’s poem channels the rabid racism of her protagonist, subverting his hate-fuelled worldview by presenting it via the mouth and hand of a black woman. Performed on the stage, the tension present here is exacerbated by the audience, with each of the work’s cathartic climaxes inviting a reaction. In one passage, the titular thug sticks his pinkie up, raising one of two remaining digits after a factory accident claimed three others. ‘I know it’s the wrong goddamned finger,’ he growls, ‘but fuck you all anyway.’

Onlookers applaud, presumably thrilled by the release of that explosive expletive. Swept up in the emotion, their desire to yell profanities is fulfilled. Anger is unleashed at the character before them, in support of the poet who created him. But the effect is more complicated; the narrator’s venom is targeted at his anti-racist critics. Within the context of the performance, to cheer could be understood as supporting his views. In any case, if the audience does agree with Smith’s agenda, it is here turning hatred against itself, revelling in the opportunity to co-opt the words of those who they disagree with, aggressing safe in the knowledge that the violence was not theirs.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Watch a performance of the poem here, and read it here. Christian McEwen has interviewed Patricia Smith for Teachers & Writers Magazine, as have Kaveh Akbar for Divedapper, Dr. Tameka Cage-Conley for Samsonia Way, and Jill Williams for Cobalt Review.

Question of the day

When we perform in character, do we lose our own voice? Share your thoughts on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

On the contrary. Depending on the circumstances, I find performing in character gains me another voice, a new voice. Then I have two.

– Yumi Zouma, synth pop group (via The Brief →)

Conversely, performing in character might be a way of ensuring that our voices are heard, loudly and with emphasis!

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

Read more: Poetry