“Stretch or drown
Evolve or die
The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power”
— The Bridge Poem, Donna Kate Rushin (1981)
I don’t know how it is that Black literature written decades before the moment you read it can somehow perfectly capture your current experience, but that’s what The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Rushin did for me.
For most of my three decades (plus) on this earth I have either been a student or some type of educator. I have been in many rooms as either one of few people of color, and even more as the only girl/woman of color. At many times I have been a token whether or not I wanted to be. In these rooms I have felt the pressure to choose whether to ‘represent’ or be silent. But when I discovered this poem not only did I find words that so aptly captured my distress and frustration, but I found an answer on how to better navigate these rooms. The answer? I must be a bridge to my own power.
A couple years ago I was participating in a class discussion about a book on social control, and I found it fascinating. But part of my fascination was the distinct impression that the race and nationality of these authors (white, European and Australian) had shaped their analysis and ideas. Hoping to discuss this with the class, I brought it up— and my professor immediately shut it down. I forget his exact words, but it was something along the lines of that being “too simple” of a question. I immediately experienced intense frustration, felt many times before when White teachers had failed to recognize or address the way “whiteness” dominates the classroom. A couple examples: a reading list that fails to include a person of color author or a white guest speaker making an off-hand stereotypical comment about “those people,” which goes unchallenged by the teacher. In these cases, and countless more, I had previously become overwhelmed with emotion. I would find myself shaking in anger when I or another student of color would speak up and be ignored— and it was even worse when my voice failed me. In my distress I would find myself unable to participate in the class, sometimes to the detriment of my grades.
Now I don’t know if in that particular moment it was my professor’s inability to facilitate that discussion or his ignorance of its importance, but I caught myself before my frustration overwhelmed me. I took a deep breath, jotted down a note for myself, and followed the class to the next discussion point. I didn’t need him to validate my question, because I knew it mattered. When I left that room, I did my own research on how whiteness shapes social theory.
At some point in my twenties I discovered this poem. I learned from it that there is another option than representing us all or being silent. I must be a bridge to my own power.
The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Rushin (1981)
I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody
Can talk to anybody
Without me Right?
I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…
I’ve got the explain myself
I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.
I’m sick of it
I’m sick of filling in your gaps
Sick of being your insurance against
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people
Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip
I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long
I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf you your better selves
I am sick
Of having to remind you
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die
The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
I will be useful
-from This Bridge Called My Back
edited by: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua
Written by Erin Stephens for TBP