Reflections on Oak Creek: America the Beautiful

This week we commemorate the one year anniversary of the hate violence that gripped the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when a gunman stormed into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on the morning of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the families and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the massacre. As we reflect on this day one year later, it is important to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broader history and context of racial and religious injustice in our country. To help us understand, reflect and move forward, SAALT is featuring a blog series featuring a range of diverse voices.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not reflect the positions or opinions of SAALT. They should be understood solely as the personal opinion of the author.

Gowri K_photo by Les Talusan_1

Gowri K.
Poet & Lawyer
Photo Credit: Les Talusan

When my parents moved to this country
They knew the warmth of melting pot
But not the burn of Go HOME n—–
Spray painted across first bought house
They thought was theirs now

As a child I stood beside my mother
Holding up grocery store checkout line
Because the cashier didn’t want to
Understand her foreign-tongued English

Just as she didn’t want to understand
When I shamefully descended kindergarten bus
Asking why do they call me the color of ketchup
After all, I was born speaking American

Just like I didn’t want to understand
When my grandmother told me
Be careful in the city—there are black people
Demanding my mother explain how
Prejudice could exist between brown people
Being told she only knows anyone besides our people
Through the tv and you see
How racist the news can be

Just like I didn’t want to understand
When I stood behind my father in a
Crowd of strangers in Sri Lanka
Beaming at his ease conversing in Sinhala
After decades away before realizing
Memory can function as survival skill

Just like my parents didn’t want to understand
When my brother and I flew home to visit
In the year after 9/11 and told them about the
Airport security agent conducting
“Random” checks who
Looked at the two of us and said
I have to pull one of you out of line for questioning—
You can decide which one

Like my three-year old niece
Didn’t understand when I told her
Your mom is Indian and
Your dad is Sri Lankan
So you’re both
Replying that she was
Born in Minneapolis

I’m from this is America
From this is our home
From we have been here for decades
From we can’t go back now

I’m from still feeling like a foreigner
In certain places in this country where
I would blame myself for being there
If something were to happen to me

I’m from politics being something to
Discuss at dinner parties but keep
Behind learned vocabularies of
American assimilation in public

Fifty years ago
Four black children in Alabama were
Murdered at their church
Because they were proof of
What America could be

One year ago
Six Sikh adults in Wisconsin were
Murdered at their gurdwara
Because they were proof of
What America still is

A country
Whose fingerprints are
Caked with the blood of
Those it calls other

As it claims to crown thy good
With brotherhood

White hood
Cowboy hat
Baseball cap

None of these things is
More American
Than the others

Gowri K.
Poet and Lawyer

Gowri K. is a Sri Lankan Tamil American poet and lawyer. Her advocacy has addressed animal welfare, the environment, and the rights of prisoners and the criminally accused. She has co-authored two peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and her poetry has been published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Bourgeon, and Lantern Review. Gowri was a member of the 2010 DC Southern Fried Slam team and has performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She hosts open mics at Busboys and Poets and BloomBars, where she serves as poetry coordinator. Gowri is also the senior poetry editor at Jaggery: A DesiLit Arts and Literature Journal. She tweets on-the-spot haiku @gowricurry.