Like much of the Asian American community, I was stunned and saddened to my core a couple of weeks ago to hear about the terrible murder of Sikh people in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Adding to the tragedy, there seems to be little empathy or coverage of this terrible event in the mainstream American press and consciousness. What little there has been in the mainstream press has been problematic.
Shortly after the incident, I received an email from Preeti Kaur with a poem about the hate crime. I was floored by it. I asked Preeti to write an artist's statement and her thoughts for this blog. Her response follows, with a link to her full poem at the end.
On August 5, 2012, while morning services were starting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a gunman barged into the place of worship with assault weapons. For over two hours, he terrorized the worshipers -- an innocent crowd consisting of faith scholars, elderly, women, and children. He ultimately shot six dead, seriously wounded three others including a police lieutenant, and ended his terror by fatally shooting himself to death. Posthumous investigations indicated the killer, Wade Michael Page, was a decades-long out-spoken member of white supremacist groups and bands.
As an American and a practicing Sikh, I was deeply aggrieved that this could happen in one of our places of worship. In times of grief, poetry can give us the space to connect our personal grief with external grief. Letters Home is a collection of poems which seek to connect the tragedy in Oak Creek with the larger narrative of violence in the name of a deep-seeded racial hatred in this country.
The Oak Creek shooting calls us to seek the guidance of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh from Punjab, India, who fought for the United States in World War I, but was denied American citizenship because of xenophobic laws during his era.
The Oak Creek killings rekindle our American remorse for the heinous murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first person killed in a hate crime after 9/11, for being an immigrant practicing his faith by visibly emphasizing his difference in wearing a turban. Practicing Sikh men, and some women, wear a turban to cover their long, unshorn hair, which they maintain as a commitment to acceptance, and to being a distinguishable beacon of sanctuary in times of danger. Yet in America, this difference exhibited by practicing Sikhs, especially in the post-9/11 years, has meant being subject to bullying in schools, being subject to racial epithets or violence in society, to the most extreme punishment: death.
Oak Creek calls on the Sikh community itself, again spotlighted in a time of tragedy, to respond with the dictates of our teachings: compassion, resilience, and a lived strength, especially in a time of loss.
Oak Creek re-awakens our historical amnesia and reminds us of the Bellingham Riots of 1907, where the Asiatic Exclusion League, a xenophobic organization of the time, violently ejected over 400 Sikh lumbermen from a Washington lumber-town.
Oak Creek brings alive Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was killed in Detroit in 1982 in a hate crime which has been historically labeled a case of mistaken identity. One cannot help suggesting, in this era of extreme Islamophobia played out on the national policy and media theaters, that perhaps Sikhs, who might look like a version of the so-called 'enemy' to people with crude knowledge of the world, were 'mistaken' for an alternative target-- a Muslim target. No one deserves brutality for being stereotyped as an enemy, no matter what their faith. No one deserves a political climate which justifies racist collective punishment. In the last two weeks alone our nation has seen eight attacks against places of worship, most of them Muslim places of worship. America needs to address the political climates which give vigor to hate-based violence within our borders.
Oak Creek also calls us to question collective punishment and supremacist ideologies around the world, from the 1984 pogroms against the Sikhs in Delhi, India, to the recent March 2012 massacre of villagers in Panjwai, Afghanistan.
Finally, Oak Creek should evoke a dirge of grief from all Americans. The symbolism of white supremacist violence against a place of worship inhabited by people of color is something our country witnessed in the 1963 bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. We have moved mountains since then, yet mountains remain.
President Obama still has not visited the families of the Oak Creek victims, as he has done in other recent mass-shootings in our nation, leaving many to wonder why a tragedy against a minority racialized community does not deserve the dignity of a President's gesture of shared national grief. What happened in Oak Creek is an American tragedy. I grieve for America.
Excerpt of poem Letters Home:
please forward to the 50 states/ the white house/ all territories/ the flagged patch on the moon
the gurdwara door is open
our bare feet like cracked glass
our covered heads bulletproof from ego
we turn our backs on bellingham
build our gurdwaras from post traumatic cinder
of bombed birmingham black church
nina simone sings tera bhaana meetha laage*
to tune of mississippi goddamn
gunpowder lines noses of children
left behind wailing mummy papa we will never forget you
‘the love that forgives’ a lullaby
which sears obedient
into a bittering lemon
i stand half mast, america
i grieve for my future son, america
i grieve for all nights, america
i grieve for all nights
*A Sikh prayer invoking acceptance of sacrifice. Literally, it means “May I experience Your will as sweet to me.”
For complete poem, please see here.
Preeti Kaur attended Gurdwara at the local Sikh center in Minneapolis for years as a student. She currently lives in California. Her poetry can be found at Qarrtsiluni Literary Magazine, The Loft's ¿ Nation of Immigrants? spoken word CD, the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, and The Sikh Review.