21 pages 42 minutes read

Danez Smith

dear white america

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


“dear white america” is a prose poem by Black, Queer, and HIV-positive (Poz) writer Danez Smith. The poem was originally published in their 2017 collection Don’t Call Us Dead, which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The collection, like much of Smith’s work, explores issues of racial injustice and disparities in America. In the collection’s opening poem, Smith conceptualizes an afterlife for their community members who have died at the hands of police violence. The emotional sequence substitutes the violent and grief-stricken reality Black men face here on Earth with a safe and loving environment. In the same vein, “dear white america” invokes SayHerName politics to imagine another world in which the Black lives that have been murdered at the hands of police brutality and other racist systems can thrive again.

Poet Biography

Danez Smith is a contemporary American poet, writer, and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota. They are queer, non-binary, and HIV positive. During their childhood in St. Paul, Smith has said that they struggled with reading up until the third grade. A teacher told them that being able to read would allow them to read video-game magazines, which pushed Smith to learn. Smith went on to attend Central High School, the oldest high school in the state of Minnesota and famous for educating many leaders across business, government, literature, arts, and sciences. They were a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they graduated with a bachelor of arts in 2012.

Alongside poets Fatimah Asghar, Franny Choi, Nate Marshall, Aaron Samuels, and Jamila Woods, Smith founded The Dark Noise Collective—a nationwide, multiracial, multi-genre collective that features highly exciting and evocative contemporary American poets. While these poets vary in their content and form, their work is rooted in a common desire for radical truth. As such, they combine their highly skilled poetic craft with themes of identity and intersectionality, and trauma and healing. Through their dynamic work, they aim to challenge archaic divisions within the poetic world.

Smith is also a spoken word poet and has twice been a finalist in Individual World Poetry Slam. They also are a co-host with Franny Choi of the poetry podcast VS, which is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Smith is the author of three poetry collections; the aforementioned Don’t Call Us Dead, [insert] Boy published in 2014, which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and Homie (2020), which won the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry, in addition to being a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the NAACP Image Award for Poetry. In addition to their full-length collections, Smith has also authored two chapbooks, hands on your knees (2013), and black movie, the 2015 winner of the Button Poetry Prize.

Smith has received many accolades for their work. They are a 2014 Ruth Lily Poetry Fellowship recipient, and a 2017 winner of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Their sonnet sequence “summer, somewhere” received the inaugural Four Quartets Prize from the Poetry Society of America in 2018. Their work has been featured widely, including on Buzzfeed, the New York Times, PBS NewsHour, best American Poetry, Poetry Magazine, and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Additionally, Smith was featured in Forbes’ annual 30 under 30 list. Smith’s writing has been widely celebrated for its necessary subject matter and performative force.

Poem Text

Smith, Danez. “dear white america.” 2017, Poetry Foundation.


“dear white america” begins with the speaker stating they’ve departed from the planet in search of something new; a darker planet or a solar system with proximity to a black hole. They then explain the reason for their leaving, which is to find a new God as they do not trust the God that has been given to them by white America. Their grandmother is portrayed as an avid churchgoer, a woman who yells her hallelujahs with strength and volume. The only thing stronger than this is her fear of the children in the choir disappearing and being murdered. After making this observation, the speaker instructs the reader, instructs white America, to take their God back. They acknowledge that this God’s songs are beautiful, but they say their miracles are inconsistent. Instead, the speaker wants Renisha, Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean, and Jonylah—all Black people murdered at the hands of police brutality—to receive the same treatment as Lazarus, to be risen to the heavens by God.

The speaker reaffirms that they have left Earth. They now offer a new reason, stating they are equally tired of white people telling them to “go back to Africa” and that they “just don’t see race” (Lines 9-10). The speaker posits these reactions to their Blackness as two sides of the same coin. They state that the poplar tree didn’t see race either. The speaker then switches to a collective “we,” saying that the Black people did not build the boats (presumably the ones that brought them to America) but qualifies this statement by saying they did leave a trail of themselves to guide them home.

The “we” also did not build white America’s prisons, but this is again qualified or rather restated by saying that they actually did, and they are the ones that fill them. The “we” did not ask to be a part of an America that they didn’t create and that was never for them, but once again the parenthetical questions their own statement; is Blackness not America? America is personified as aged and tired, having brittle joints that she drags in her torn clothing through Oakland.

The speaker next returns to the “I,” saying they cannot stand white America’s ground. They are tired of the recklessness of the laws. Every night, they count their brothers, their people. In the morning, when some are missing, have died, they count the holes their absences leave. They try to find their Black community, but there is nothing there. It is America’s magic trick to stop someone’s life, to end their breathing. “Abra-cadaver” (Line 18), Smith writes, playing on the magical idiom but infusing it with death. White America pretends to be innocent in this “white bread voodoo” (Lines 18-19), putting the guns in the hands of the Black community to keep their own hands clean.

The speaker tells white America that they’ve tried to love white America, but the country spoke too loudly and too frivolously at their brother’s funeral. White America is bothered by the speaker’s focus on race and asks; “why does it always have to be about race?” (Line 23). The speaker answers back that America is the one who decided the country would be about race, that they qualify Black Americans with their Blackness, that they do not care when Black girls go missing. Amber alerts are only for white America.

The speaker continues to answer the question of race. They list the “reasons” for the deaths of Black men. White America thinks that Black boys are too loud, and it has taken away the time of the speaker’s relatives. In return, the speaker asks white America, “how much time do you want for your progress?” (Line 31).

The speaker circles back to the point from which they began the poem, restating they’ve left Earth, now offering that they need to find somewhere their people can be safe, where the color of their skin is just the color of the earth and nothing more. Until that is a reality, they say goodbye and leave white America and its problems behind. Now, the speaker has left Earth and is among the planets, touching the things white America observes from below. They are naming, or rather, renaming the stars. Their new life, story, and history they create cannot be stolen or sold. The speaker ends the poem by listing all of the things that white America cannot do with the narrator’s new narrative, the things that white America has historically inflicted upon Black America.