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Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts is the winner of the 2016 PEN New England Award in Poetry, the winner of the 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year for Poetry, a winner of the National Council on Crime & Delinquency’s (NCCD) 2016 Media for a Just Society Award, was shortlisted for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award, made Library Journal’s “Best Books 2015: Poetry” list, was a finalist for the Firecracker Award in Poetry, and a finalist for the 2016 Wheatley Book Award in Poetry.

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Reginald Dwayne Betts

The poet Raymond Patterson once asked “But who can conceive / Of cities lost in a blackman?” That’s what these poems are about: what does it mean to be nearly broken by something you love? Bastards of the Reagan Era is a challenge, a confrontation of the hard realities that frame America. These poems question an incongruous America: “A black boy says sorbet / is one thing—a black boy says get the fuck out the car is quite another.” Within these poems, we see the city as distant lover, we hear “the sound that comes from all / the hurt & want that leads a man to turn his back to the world.”

“For the City That Nearly Broke Me”, from Bastards of the Reagan Era:

Stress this: the lit end
of anything will
burn you. & that is just
just a slick way of
saying: running will
never save you. This
man's first son caved, fell
to the pressure, to
the barrel's indent 
against his temple. 
A body given 
back to asphalt. 
Stress this: we never 
gave a fuck, not 'bout 
Malik or how the
bullet didn’t split
the air, but split those
edged-up, precise hairs
of his caesar, to save
the man the burden
of years fearing death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author


  • "Dwayne Betts describes my field, criminal law, as 'the business of human tragedy.' He's right. In Bastards of the Reagan Era, Betts does a remarkable job of describing the precise shape of that tragedy. It comes at the right moment, too, as many Americans are straining to see something beyond 'guilty' and 'prisoner' when they look at criminal law. Betts is a great poet, and a witness to truths that have for too long been shrouded in media fables and easy politics." -- Mark Osler
  • "Reginald Dwayne Betts paid a heavy price for the wisdom coursing through his fierce, unstoppable book of poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era. The redemption he has found in wrestling, fearlessly, with the destructive decisions--and decade--of his generation's trials is mesmerizing and beautiful in the language and rhythms of his pen. Betts's journey back--from prison all the way to Yale Law School--is as inspiring as it is rare, and should give us pause in condemning any man to social death. From rebirth comes justice--and power." -- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
  • "Patriarchal sentiment is not the reason Reginald Betts begins Bastards of the Reagan Era with a heart-wrenching praise song to his sons, Miles and Micah. He is celebrating the singular occasion of their continued breath. In this bitter, unflinching and triumphant work, Betts mercilessly probes the soul of the soulless machine charged with the disappearing and dismantling of black men's lives. This crisp assemblage of perseverance and loss relentlessly pummels the status quo, poems building each upon the other until the desolate inevitability of the narrative both enervates and empowers the reader. The poet himself warns, 'when I sing this awful tale, there is more than a dead black man in the center.'" -- Patricia Smith
  • "Poet and memoirist Betts (Shahid Reads His Own Palm) presents elegy after elegy in a devastatingly beautiful collection that calls out to young black men lost to the pitfalls of urban America. 'In the streets that grieve our silence, children die,/ they fall to bullets & asthma, they fall/ into each other’s arms as mothers watch on,' he writes. Betts keeps his forms as tight as his turns of phrase....These poems are aimed at readers willing to be moved and to be schooled, who appreciate poetry’s ability to cull beauty and hope from despair and desolation: 'They have known cells like rivers and brown and/ Black men returning to prison as if it’s/ The heaven God ejected them from.'" Read the full review.
  • "Betts, whose memoir, A Question of Freedom (2009), won the NAACP Image Award, begins his second poetry collection, a poetic evisceration of societal race norms, with a powerfully stirring love poem for his sons, Miles and Micah. His children’s presence is on display early to foreshadow a world that takes shape according to 'the business of human tragedy' and the need for us to become more fully human. The timing for this demanding, candid, resounding, and hopeful volume is perfect, as Betts takes the media to task for its failings, exposes manipulative politics, and turns criminal law upside down. With his own children always at the forefront of his critique, protest, and call for truth and justice, Betts uses heightened language and concentrated rhythms to look back over his own road from prison to writing, activism, and Yale Law School. An inspiring collection: 'Talk about them dudes on the roof / talking about the Library of Congress. / Talk about never owning a damn thing, / & then talk about us.'” -- Mark Eleveld, Booklist, October 1, 2015
  • "Taken as a whole, Bastards of the Reagan Era is an unrelenting visit into disturbing trends in American subcultures, from the concrete of the street to the steel bars of a prison cell. There is little mincing of words here but the content does not lend for such treatment and those who seek a more sobering look at society should find plenty of images to choose from." Read the full review.
  • "'Bastards of the Reagan Era,' Mr. Betts’s second volume of verse, demonstrates his ability to use the musical power of words to convey what it is like to grow up black and marginalized, and the crushing, humiliating experience of prison." Read the full review.
  • "This knocked the air out of my lungs and pumped me full and then killed me. It is beautiful and devastating and important."— Nathalie Kirsch, Harvard Bookstore
  • "Ultimately, Betts remains unbroken. Unbroken, he navigates what black mothers (and black fathers) fear most: that their children live in country where 'so many folks' have control over their bodies. The essence of the failed American penal system today is also the essence of slavery: the dismemberment of the black family and the evisceration of black bodies. Bastards of the Reagan Era should be mandatory reading for anyone who cares about America right now. Betts hurls a cuss at all that cages and offers an alternative for his own sons, the freedom that comes from the steadfast assurance of a father’s love." Read the full review.
  • "This is a book of haunting, of history, of how people become ghosts, or less than ghosts: numbers. The songs here, the rhymes and rhythms, similes and allusions and intellect, are a movement toward an antidote. Without them there is an unsettling, complacent quiet, and this book warns, 'people / Die within your silence' (42). And the opposite of silence is song, is voice. And this book is booming with both." Read the full review.
  • "Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Bastards of the Reagan Era reaches across cultural, racial, and economic walls. His poems accrue into name-by-name indictments of the bastards (Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) who fought self-perceived enemies, here and abroad, including those who still fall victim to 'wars' on drugs and poverty. Betts makes new music out of voices from behind bars, on street corners, all around the 'city that nearly broke me.'" From Kenyon Review's "Holiday Reading Recommendations".
  • "Betts’s poems resurrect our not-so-distant past, where race relations and the justice system are not merely riddled with hypocrisy, but eerily indistinguishable from those of our present moment. Expansive, fierce, and devastatingly raw, Bastards of the Reagan Era is a potent jeremiad that grieves the poet’s own turbulent youth and the enduring havoc of our democracy’s failures." Read the full review.