American poet and educator Tracy K. Smith employs three rhetorical techniques in “Declaration” to assert that contemporary U.S. law enforcement reveals a vestige of American chattel slavery in its disproportionate racial discrimination toward Black Americans.
Smith firstly employs the erasure poem genre. The erasure poetry genre or blackout poetry genre refers to poetry in which the poet obscures portions of an already existing text to create a wholly new work from what remains (poets.org). In Smith’s case, she obscures portions of the Declaration of Independence, and in doing so, pushes the reader to focus on lines that relate to present-day police brutality. For instance, this poem’s first two lines read “He has / sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.” While “Officers” in the original text most likely refers to the British soldiers during the eighteenth century, Smith wants the reader to relate “Officers” to U.S. police officers since the following verbs that follow include “taking away,” “destroyed, “ravaged,” and “plundered.” This connection between these actions and “Officers” in the present day exists because during the eighteenth century, the antebellum U.S. slave patrols, which coincidentally serve as the origins of modern-day policing, monitored and enforced discipline upon slaves.
Smith’s intentional indentation and gaps in this poem also symbolize the absence of the subject matter of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, yet he wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” so Smith’s omission of this section of the Declaration of Independence drives Smith’s claim that Black Americans did not have equal social standing with White Americans then and do not have equal social standing with White Americans now, both spatially in this poem just as in the real world.
Smith also erases “of Independence” from the original text’s title to represent the lack of liberty Black Americans still deal with in the present day due to the mass incarceration that occurs as a result of U.S. law enforcement’s racial discrimination against Black Americans.
Smith secondly employs repetition. As mentioned previously, Smith utilizes repetition in the form of parallelism with the string of third person singular verbs that relates to the subject “He.” Smith incorporates this parallelism in order to not only paint the similarities between present-day U.S. police brutality and antebellum slave patrols but to also scale the disproportionality of racial discrimination against Black Americans. This long list of negative actions sends Smith’s message that Black Americans have faced and still face tremendous social changes because the reader most likely associates these verbs with the present-day U.S. police brutality and thus pauses to think about how contemporary U.S. law enforcement emulates antebellum slave patrols. The parallelism helps the reader think about the aforementioned matters since it is painstakingly deliberate and direct.
Smith lastly utilizes punctuation, specifically em dashes. Every time a line is followed by an em dash, the reader experiences a period of sonic tension since the em dashes abruptly pause the reading in order for the focus on the action written (e.g. “to bear—”) to settle in the reader. Smith evokes this tension in the reader through the em dashes to illustrate the tension that she claims exists between the principles written in the Declaration of Independence and the racial discrimination and police brutality demonstrated by U.S. police officers: the U.S. was founded on Enlightenment ideals of universal rights and freedom, yet the justice system and law enforcement disproportionately discriminate Black Americans.