Minnie Bruce Pratt: When I Say ‘Steal,’ Who Do You Think Of?

Photo by Leslie Feinberg

I became familiar with the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt when I was in high school and read “Motionless On The Dark Side Of The Light,” in the No More Masks: An Anthology of 20th Century American Women Poets.

Pratt was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1946. She graduated from Bibb County High School when it was under segregation, and entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a year after George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” in an attempt to stop desegregation.

She says that she received her real education “into the great liberation struggles of the 20th century through grass-roots organizing with women in the army-base town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and through teaching at historically Black universities.” Since coming into women’s liberation, and coming out as a lesbian in 1975 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Pratt has been active in organizing that intersects women’s and gender issues, LGBT issues, anti-racism work, and critiques of empire. Currently, she is a professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where she also serves as faculty for a developing Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender Studies Program.

I came across a lecture she gave in 2004 and wanted to share an excerpt here. The first time I read it, I was struck by the oddness of it pushing up against the gospel readings from Matthew 6 and Luke 12. It has the whiff of Advent about it.

“Every week Miz Nell Weaver had us memorize a Bible verse, one for each letter of the alphabet. This was in the fourth grade, Centreville, Alabama, 1956. One by one, on Fridays, our name would be called and we would go into the only privacy there was, the cloakroom at the back of the classroom, and there in the narrow space jumbled with coats and book bags, we would stand in front of her and open our mouths and recite. “I” was In the beginning, of course. And “L” was Lay not up treasure on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal. Lay up treasure in heaven, where moth and rust doth not corrupt and thieves do not break through and steal. (Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.)

Who did I think was stealing? What was the endangered treasure, that which would rot away and be lost? Why was I being taught that any security I might ever have would be after I was dead?

I was a child, and treasure was something inside my house, something I could hold, like the silverware Mama kept in a leatherette case in the dining room. I was a white child of the southern segregation who knew nothing of slavery, of how people of the African diaspora had once been owned as property. I was a child of the U. S. during the Cold War, who listened to my pa sit in front of the TV set and rant against any one who questioned the ownership and disposition of property as it stood-vicious comments, red-baiting, accusations of communism, of perversion, about those fighting for an end to segregation, for unions in the mills and factory.

I was a child who worried all the time about money, because I watched my pa and my mama worry all the time about money. I was a child surrounded by economic insecurity, with no knowledge of the huge economic and political forces that buffeted all of us in my little Bibb County town. …

What if the wealth that working people make every day, every penny that we now produce for corporations above and beyond the wages we are paid—what if that wealth—the thousands in profit on cars made by non-unionized workers in Alabama, the huge difference between the wages paid to women sewing jeans in Mexico and what the clothes are sold for here—what if all that wealth, that surplus value, didn’t go to the Scrushies, or the Morgan Stanley banks, didn’t go to the McWanes or the Drummond Corporations? What if the wealth came back to the people who created that wealth, in the form of free health care, free schooling as far as you ever wanted to go, inexpensive good food, cheap housing, recreation of all sorts, books, music, computers accessible to everyone? What if we were to remove the profit motive?

It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Not for this earth. But it’s a dream that people have been working to make come true on earth for a while. It’s the dream that Rev. King was working on when he went to Memphis to speak at the garbage workers strike, when he connected the fate of Black people in the U.S. to that of the people of Viet Nam, when he was assassinated just as he began to link together the struggle against racism and against national oppression and against colonial oppression and the struggle against the exploitation of workers.

And if you are from the South, and you want “justice” and you want “social change”—that is, if you and your heart have almost been broken by what you know happens to people here, what has happened to you—if you know the history of this place, of your own life—it is a dream for you, too.”–Minnie Bruce Pratt, from lecture When I Say ‘Steal,’ Who Do You Think Of?

Minnie Bruce Pratt has published six books of poetry:
The Sound of One Fork (1981)
We Say We Love Each Other (1992)
Crime Against Nature (1984)
Walking Back Up Depot Street (1999)
The Dirt She Ate: Selected and New Poems (2003)

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