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A Look Into Simone John’s Testify: A Must-Read Analysis of Race, Gender, and Violence

John’s debut collection of poems examines the impact of state-sectioned violence on the black community

Simone John’s Testify is an unapologetically honest documentation of America’s brutal trend of both gender and race-based violence. Through a series of poems never more than a page in length and non-fictitious dialogue, John aims to provide insight into this crude phenomenon by “burdening readers with knowing.”

This self-proclaimed “Book of witness” is split into dual parts; the first falls back to the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, where John examines a testimony from Rachel Jeantel– Martin’s close friend. By interweaving the dialogue of the testimony with poems of clarification and vividly relatable lyrics from the works of Kendrick Lamar, Johns dares to suggest the unsettling normalcy of murders like Martin’s to the black community. She begins the ode with “Order of Events,” a poem that brings to light the context of this crime by reminding readers that while we were watching the All-Star basketball game a black body was being drained.

“Occupants peering through parted curtains, watching EMT’s lift the limp wrist of a stranger in the street.

Elsewhere, brown boys sat around the screen, waiting for the game to begin.”

-excerpt from Simone John’s Testify

Through Jeantel’s testimony on the last moments with her friend, readers earn a glimpse into a portrait of Martin’s final breaths. By heavily utilizing Jeantel’s voice throughout the first part of the poetry collection, John listens to Jeantel expose this traumatizing memory without chastising or judging. It’s incredibly easy to chalk Jeantel’s interviews up to “ghetto ignorance” as demonstrated in “Small Talk,” a poem stringed together by blurbs from the comment section, but what Simone does is dissect her testimony through the mind of a black woman, enabling readers to finally understand her thoughts. Instead of denouncing this chilling testimony of a girl losing her best friend, John opts not to muffle her voice but to tell her story.

As you trace Jeantel’s rendition of events, you can’t help but notice the traces of youth that ooze out of her interview responses, a sharp contrast to the actual subject matter that accentuates the innocence corrupted by this violence. In “How the man look like” Jeantel recalls Trayvon’s description of his stalker as a creepy a*s cr*cker- a step into the mindset of a scared black teenager that simply illustrates black America’s monster under the bed. The testimony tracks Martin’s paranoia from beginning to end, briefly pausing for poetic commentary, before landing on an array of recurring topics delicately underlined by free verse.

Through Trayvon’s story, John draws attention to the shortness of black lives, illustrating the lingering idea of young lives being “prematurely bookended.” She uses Martin merely as one heartbreaking example of a trend that the black community is all too familiar with. John describes this pattern of the tendency for “black children to age in dog years” as they are forced to face their mid-life in middle school. Eventually, she briefly caves into the unfairness of prematurely letting go of black youth as mothers are forced to raise men prepared to tread the line of authority in hopes not to make widows out of their mothers. She draws on this injustice by creating a poignant illustration of the black community unbound from the imagination of those from the outside and vibrantly colored in with Marvin Gaye on Sunday’s and Summertime barbecues.

“We know we age in dog years. Seen friends’

lives bookended by brackets before turning 21 “

-excerpt from Testify by Simone John

Later in the collection, Johns touches on this disillusion that those outside the black community tend to buy into. She writes in “Rorschach Test “ and “Red Line” how people see good-for-nothing ghettos ripe for gentrification where we see grandma’s house, the same way they see threat where we see a son. These portrayals emphasize how much of a transgression black death is to the black community, how infiltrations of our neighborhoods are like blood splattered on white roses. John refuses to shy away from this offense by calling out the b.s of white people, commenting on everything from their suffocating privilege to their ability to nitpick parts of our culture like it’s a buffet, leaving the unsavory scraps of racial profiling and police brutality for us.

John fearlessly focuses on the notion of black pain through the eyes of those who it truly affects. The opening half ties together the tip-toed topic of police brutality with personal pieces that demonstrate the connectedness of the matter to the black community.  The second part of the poetry collection shifts its focus to the murder of black women via a collection of “psalms for slaughtered women.”

Again, John utilizes Sandra Bland to carry the tone of transgressions against black women, enabling readers to follow Bland’s fear, anxiety, and confusion as if the emotions were their own. The author continuously plays on the image that she can see herself in Bland’s rearview mirror, drawing from the idea that every black woman can recognize the bite of a white man’s taunt. In this second section, John also uses excerpts from Bland’s fatal dashboard cam interview to emphasize the idea that her valid concerns went unacknowledged and brushed off. As illustrated in “ A woman’s perspective”  Bland’s interview is just another example of women urged to comfort and not to complain.

John carries over the tone of familiarity and unity to the last half. She further builds on the idea that black death against our women should be everyone’s problem because the next victims bear “names that sound like my nana’s friends” punctuating that this issue hits close to home. This emphasizes that they are taking away our grandmothers, our afternoon tea-timers, our Sunday book clubs. This relation adds normalcy into this sea of hurt and blame that invokes action.

Towards the end of the collection, John continuously evokes the sense of an expiration date on the remembrance of black women. She writes that their hashtag trends until they kill the next black boy, creating a plea for the deserved commemoration of black women who tend to fade away in a span of twenty-four hours. By Saying that murdered black girls’ cries are often drowned out, John by no means calls for a pity race of sort. She simply calls attention to a topic that is too often ignored. “A Brief History of Murder” illustrates the intertwined nature of gender within black murder that often goes unnoticed, she shades in the lines of mothers joining a club that they never applied for, of black girls tensing at the sound of police sirens, of the next black girl to be killed, whose name is already forgotten. John accentuates again and again that the worst part is not the murder, the worst part is the forgetting; however, in her collection of profound poetry, John dares to do the exact opposite by listing the names of deceased black women so that readers can too bear the weight of this melancholy.

“The first death comes by 

bullet. The second, when they’ve 

forgotten your name.” 

-excerpt from Testify by Simone John

John ends her debut collection with a simple plea to speak their names aloud and to not forget. Through Testify, Simone John bears light on this heinous crime against our people by bearing the weight of knowledge. Testify will be widely released later in the year, and I guarantee that this is not one that you want to skip out on. In today’s political and social climate, Testify is a thoughtful illustration of state-sanctioned violence and the beautiful symphony of black pain that accompanies it.

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Written by Nyah Hardmon

Nyah lives in Miami, FL where she studies journalism and creative writing- any questions, comments, or concerns can be sent to nthardmon@gmail.com.