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In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae

— Xandria Phillips

You can be free / Or you can live writes Shane McCrae in his critique of white comfort, and exploration of gated interiors within Black consciousness. Naming is stressed as quintessential in In The Language of My Captor by way of unveiling the terrible intimacy in America’s colonial underpinnings. We carry the emotional implications of the names thrust upon us by white supremacy.

Like they would call a nigger Hambone Jones
Because a white boy spotted him       sucking on a ham bone

Probably thinking about his woman
and he’s hungry and he’s poor

They named you for a thing
your hunger made you do

This work, deeply psychological and historically weighted, demonstrates the way Black people are named and known by their poverty. In the Language of My Captor exiles my last name and feeds my first. Shane helps me imagine a world in which we recognized the criminality built around longing, and the severity of christening.

From the captive’s perspective, pity is jarring. A speaker not unlike Ota Benga subverts tropes about darkness and its proximity to death.

And so at first I thought the white men       / Were ghosts
one spoke my language
And said that he had spoken to my father
I did not fear them


thought they had been
whitened by the sun     / Like bones     wandering
I thought I could / Help them
I thought they didn’t


Know they were dead

Cover features a painting of a civil war era military leader, with an american flag tied in their hair.
Wesleyan University Press  |  2017  |  108 pp

Shane’s language dismantles itself by inverting anti-Black connotations. It falls apart and collects itself in breath that feels both highly technical and gut-uttered. When we speak of the possibility of an oppressor position inviting soul deterioration, it is rarely with a serious concern for loss of humanity, and rarely reconciled against enslavement’s high stakes. The question being, did only Black people die social and spiritual deaths during slavery? Trauma doesn’t paint itself neatly within the borders bodies make. Pain is infectious.

In tearing down the bars between master and captor, Shane demonstrates the way whiteness writes itself into a false sense of safety. Power is precarious in ‘Privacy 2’ when language betrays its master.

          / / Perhaps


by privacy he means / This
certainty he has that
The weapons he has made
Will not be used against him

Shane’s work reveals Blackness as an unexpected and subversive voyeur molded by underestimation. By exhibiting what people will do in front of those they have power over, I see the way false trust is born between people who have no intention of relinquishing force and those who know freedom and life cannot exist together in a body.


Wesleyan University Press