"The poetry of a people comes from the deep recesses of the unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories." —Margaret Walker
The Black literary tradition is rich and exhaustive, and 20 poems could never hope to scratch its surface. But each one of these poems also contains a world within itself—a refracted look at one's wounds or visions of new ones or, often, both bound up together in the ways only American poetry can achieve.
These are laments, songs of revolution (both internal and societal), and recipes for change. Some feel like prophecies for the current moment and others feel like visions of even bigger seismic shifts. They speak best for themselves but they call all of us to join them. From Amiri Baraka to Octavia E. Butler, black poetry is truly something amazing to behold. In honor of Black Lives Matter, here are 20 revolutionary poems by black poets.
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can't
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can't do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
as I need to be
alone because I can't do what I want to do with my own
who in the hell set things up
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
but does not ejaculate then he did not rape me
and if after stabbing him if after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head if even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented and there was
no rape because finally you understand finally
they fucked me over because I was wrong I was
wrong again to be me being me where I was/wrong
to be who I am
which is exactly like South Africa
penetrating into Namibia penetrating into
Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if
Pretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like the
proof of the monster jackboot ejaculation on Blackland
after Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabwe
and if after all of my kinsmen and women resist even to
self-immolation of the villages and if after that
we lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will they
claim my consent:
Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people of
the wrong skin on the wrong continent and what
in the hell is everybody being reasonable about
and according to the Times this week
back in 1966 the C.I.A. decided that they had this problem
and the problem was a man named Nkrumah so they
killed him and before that it was Patrice Lumumba
and before that it was my father on the campus
of my Ivy League school and my father afraid
to walk into the cafeteria because he said he
was wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong
gender identity and he was paying my tuition and
it was my father saying I was wrong saying that
I should have been a boy because he wanted one/a
boy and that I should have been lighter skinned and
that I should have had straighter hair and that
I should not be so boy crazy but instead I should
just be one/a boy and before that
it was my mother pleading plastic surgery for
my nose and braces for my teeth and telling me
to let the books loose to let them loose in other
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it's about walking out at night
or whether it's about the love that I feel or
whether it's about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/
but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
the F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuy
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardon
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can't tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life
2. A Journey by Nikki Giovanni
Though the rail has been ridden . . . winter clouds cover . . . autumn's exuberant quilt . . . we must provide our own guide-posts . . .
I have heard . . . from previous visitors . . . the road washes out sometimes . . . and passengers are compelled . . . to continue groping . . . or turn back . . . I am not afraid . . .
I am not afraid . . . of rough spots . . . or lonely times . . . I don't fear . . . the success of this endeavor . . . I am Ra . . . in a space . . . not to be discovered . . . but invented . . .
I promise you nothing . . . I accept your promise . . . of the same we are simply riding . . . a wave . . . that may carry . . . or crash . . .
It's a journey . . . and I want . . . to go . . .
Disembark the Turners seem to say,
those starburst barges glowing in the dusk,
but I can't read old Rembrandt,
his guarded eyes are jewels, like black men.
Even the loaned, marble busts
of kings and soldiers fail to arrest you.
It's nearly closing time. The elderly linger,
rapt. Who has looked at either of you lately
with such tenderness?
Entering the narrow hall,
I ignore my favorite portraits, their ruffles
and bodices, carnations and powder puffs,
afraid to share my joy with you,
yet your bearing in this space—the procession
of your shoulders, the crowns of your heads—
makes them sing anew.
You are both good men.
Walk into the Fragonard Room. You both seem bored still.
It's fine. Perhaps we can progress like these panels,
slowly and without words, here—the city
where I first knew men in the dark—
in this gold and feminine room.
4. Bullet Points by Jericho Brown
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do,
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home. Yes, I may be at risk,
But I promise you, I trust the maggots
Who live beneath the floorboards
Of my house to do what they must
To any carcass more than I trust
An officer of the law of the land
To shut my eyes like a man
Of God might, or to cover me with a sheet
So clean my mother could have used it
To tuck me in. When I kill me, I will
Do it the same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
Calling worst. I promise if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me. He took
Me from us and left my body, which is,
No matter what we've been taught,
Greater than the settlement
A city can pay a mother to stop crying,
And more beautiful than the new bullet
Fished from the folds of my brain.
Tracy K Smith
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we'll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we'll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don't look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits -
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.
7. Between the World and Me by Langston Hughes
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me....
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat, and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches, butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull....
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by icy walls of fear—
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that my life be burned....
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun....
8. A Litany for Survival by Audre Lorde
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children's mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother's milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
A Poem in Three Parts
A riot is the language of the unheard.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe, all whitebluerose below his golden hair, wrapped richly in right linen and right wool, almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff; almost forgot Grandtully (which is The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim's, the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.
Because the "Negroes" were coming down the street.
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty (not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka) and they were coming toward him in rough ranks. In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud. And not detainable. And not discreet.
Gross. Gross. "Que tu es grossier!" John Cabot itched instantly beneath the nourished white that told his story of glory to the World. "Don't let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!" he
whispered to any handy angel in the sky.
But, in a thrilling announcement, on It drove and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili, malign, mocked John. And, in terrific touch, old averted doubt jerked forward decently, cried, "Cabot! John! You are a desperate man, and the desperate die expensively today."
John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire and broken glass and blood, and he cried "Lord! Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do."
THE THIRD SERMON ON THE WARPLAND
"In Egyptian mythology, a bird
which lived for five hundred
years and then consumed itself
in fire, rising renewed from the ashes."
The earth is a beautiful place.
Watermirrors and things to be reflected.
Goldenrod across the little lagoon.
The Black Philosopher says
"Our chains are in the keep of the Keeper
in a labeled cabinet
on the second shelf by the cookies,
sonatas, the arabesques. . . .
There's a rattle, sometimes.
You do not hear it who mind only
cookies and crunch them.
You do not hear the remarkable music—'A
Death Song For You Before You Die.'
If you could hear it
you would make music too.
West Madison Street.
In "Jessie's Kitchen"
nobody's eating Jessie's Perfect Food.
cry up across the sky, spreading
and hissing This is
The young men run.
They will not steal Bing Crosby but will steal
Melvin Van Peebles who made Lillie
a thing of Zampoughi a thing of red wiggles and trebles
(and I know there are twenty wire stalks sticking out of her
as her underfed haunches jerk jazz.)
A clean riot is not one in which little rioters
long-stomped, long-straddled, BEANLESS
but knowing no Why
go steal in hell
a radio, sit to hear James Brown
and Mingus, Young-Holt, Coleman, John on V.O.N.
and sun themselves in Sin.
is going on
is going on.
That is their way of lighting candles in the darkness.
A White Philosopher said
'It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.'
These candles curse—
inverting the deeps of the darkness.
GUARD HERE, GUNS LOADED.
The young men run.
The children in ritual chatter
their Own and old geography.
The Law comes sirening across the town.
A woman is dead.
She lies among the boxes
(that held the haughty hats, the Polish sausages)
in newish, thorough, firm virginity
as rich as fudge is if you've had five pieces.
Not again shall she
partake of steak
on Christmas mornings, nor of nighttime
chicken and wine at Val Gray Ward's
of Mr. Beetley, Exit Jones, Junk Smith
nor neat New-baby Williams (man-to-many)
"He treat me right."
That was a gut gal.
"We'll do an us!" yells Yancey, a twittering twelve.
"Instead of your deathintheafternoon,
kill 'em, bull!
kill 'em, bull!"
The Black Philosopher blares
"I tell you, exhaustive black integrity
would assure a blackless Amrica. . . ."
Nine die, Sun-Times will tell
and will tell too
in small black-bordered oblongs "Rumor? check it
A Poem to Peanut.
"Coooooool!" purrs Peanut. Peanut is
Richard—a Ranger and a gentleman.
A Signature. A Herald. And a Span.
This Peanut will not let his men explode.
And Rico will not.
Neither will Sengali.
Nor Bop nor Jeff, Geronimo nor Lover.
These merely peer and purr,
and pass the Passion over.
The Disciples stir
and thousandfold confer
with ranging Rangermen;
mutual in their "Yeah!—
this AIN'T all upinheah!"
"But WHY do These People offend themselves?" say they
who say also "It's time.
It's time to help
Lies are told and legends made.
Phoenix rises unafraid.
The Black Philosopher will remember:
"There they came to life and exulted,
the hurt mute.
Then is was over.
The dust, as they say, settled."
AN ASPECT OF LOVE, ALIVE IN THE ICE AND FIRE
In a package of minutes there is this We.
Merry foreigners in our morning,
we laugh, we touch each other,
are responsible props and posts.
A physical light is in the room.
Because the world is at the window
we cannot wonder very long.
You rise. Although
genial, you are in yourself again.
your direct and respectable stride.
You are direct and self-accepting as a lion
in Afrikan velvet. You are level, lean,
There is a moment in Camaraderie
when interruption is not to be understood.
I cannot bear an interruption.
This is the shining joy;
the time of not-to-end.
On the street we smile.
in different directions
down the imperturbable street.
Plant twelve date palms in a ring around the tarmac. Make them
tall, slight towers, leaning into the wind as princes do. Fear that
the sweetness of dates will churn your stomach. Plant them anyways.
Plant the pudge of his fuzzless face in the arrested time of a school portrait.
Plant his exotic name—found in a book that spelled dreams
of eminence and hope for an uncertain coupling—in your ear.
Know that whether it leaches into the soil or not, this ground
was watered with his blood. This tarmac turned a rioting red. Strike that.
There was a screech of brakes, and sirens howling like a cliché, then
a volley of pops that might have been a game if only
what came next was not such utter silence.
The tarmac was red. There was no riot.
Build a circle of palms and something to keep them safe.
Build a greenhouse around the twelve palms.
Yes, a green house. This land is not our land.
Dig up the tarmac, the dark heavy loam of this side of town.
Be sure to wear gloves as you dig through the brownfield's
mystification. Once the Cuyahoga River was a wall of fire.
God knows how rain melts metal.
Dig into that earth and build
a foundation. Quarry it.
Let the little boys and little girls of Shaker Heights and Orange
bring a Game Boy or cellphone, or other toy made our of coltan that,
chances are, a little boy or little girl dug up by hand in the DRC.
Let the children lay their shiny toys in the foundation.
Seal up ground with molten lead. Die-cast its melted weight.
Yes, make a typecaster's mold, and leave it a dull grey, like flint.
Stamp out a broadside, only set it in the foundation's floor.
Let us read the letter that says this officer was unfit.
Let us go over it step by step, every time we walk toward the green
house of imaging what this boy's boyhood should have been,
the fulfilling of his name, his promise.
Plant an oasis here. How is not my problem.
Let someone who remember how cook de rice.
Let she cook de rice with palm oil 'til is yellow an sticky.
Of course dem have palm oil in Cleveland. Dis no Third World we livin in.
Let she cook she rice an peas. Let she say
how she know to do it from a film she seen. In de film, dem people from
de sea island gone to Sierra Leone and dema find dey people,
dey people dat sing de same song with de same words. Come to
find out dem words is not jes playplay words, dem words for weeping. So dema
sit down together, an weep together, dey South Carolina an Sierra Leone family.
Dey weep over de war, an de water, an de fresh and de forgotten,
an dey cook dat rice 'til is yellow and sticky. Dey nyam it with dey hand,
outta banana leaf and de old, old man, him say,
you never forget the language you cry in.
Let all dem little girls from Shaker Heights skip the gymnastics meet.
Let dem come and eat rice and eat rice 'til they don't want to eat rice no more
an let dem still have rice to eat. Let them lose their innocence.
Let horizons settle low.
Let dates and raisin and apples and nuts seem a strange mockery
of the new, the sweet, the hoped for. Let us share the matter.
Let us sit here under these date palms,
and haggle over whose fault it is. Let the rage that says tear this shit down
tear this shit down.
Let us start with the glass walls of the greenhouse, as a demonstration.
Let the rage that says I cannot speak not speak.
Let it suck speech into its terrible maw and leave us shuddering in silence.
Let the rage that says, black lives matter matter.
Let that other rage that says all lives matter be torn down. Let the matter with how
we don't all matter in the same way churn up a monumental penitence.
Let the date palm offer us shade.
Let us ask why we are still here.
Let us lower eyes as we face his mother, his father, his sister.
"What a crowd! What a turnout!" —DONALD TRUMP, TO VICTIMS OF HURRICANE HARVEY
America you're what a turnout great
Crowd a great crowd big smiles America
The hurricane is everywhere but here an
Important man is talking here Ameri-
ca the important president is talking
And if the heavens open up the heavens
Open above the president the heavens
Open to assume him bodily into heaven
As they have opened to assume great men
Who will come back and bring the end with them
America he trumpets the end of your
Suffering both swan and horseman trumpeting
From the back of the beast the fire and rose are one
On the president's bright head the flames implanted
To make a gilded crown America
The hurricane is everywhere but here
America a great man is a poison
That kills the sky the weather in the sky
For who America can look above him
You're what a great a crowd big smiles the ratings
The body of a storm is a man's body
It has an eye and everything in the eye
Is dead a calm man is a man who has
Let weakness overcome his urge for death
America the president is talking
You're what a great a turnout you could be
Anywhere but your anywhere is here
And every inch of the stadium except those
Feet occupied by the stage after his speech will
Be used to shelter those displaced by the storm
Except those feet occupied by the they're
Armed folks police assigned to guard the stage
Which must remain in place for the duration
Of the hurricane except those feet of dead
Unmarked space called The Safety Zone between
Those officers and you you must not vi-
olate The Safety Zone you must not leave
The Safety Zone the president suggests
You find the edge it's at a common sense
Distance it is farther than you can throw
A rock no farther than a bullet flies
& if you are not innocent, say this: i am worthy of forgiveness, of breath after breath
i tell you this: i let blue eyes dress me in guilt
walked around stores convinced the very skin of my palm was stolen
& what good has that brought me? days filled flinching
thinking the sirens were reaching for me
& when the sirens were for me
did i not make peace with god?
so many white people are alive because
we know how to control ourselves.
how many times have we died on a whim
wielded like gallows in their sun-shy hands?
here, standing in my own body, i say: the next time
they murder us for the crime of their imaginations
i don't know what i'll do.
i did not come to preach of peace
for that is not the hunted's duty.
i came here to say what i can't say
without my name being added to a list
what my mother fears i will say
what she wishes to say herself
i came here to say
i can't bring myself to write it down
sometimes i dream of pulling a red apology
from a pig's collared neck & wake up crackin up
if i dream of setting fire to cul-de-sacs
i wake chained to the bed
i don't like thinking about doing to white folks
what white folks done to us
when i do
i don't dance
o my people
how long will we
reach for god
instead of something sharper?
my lovely doe
with a taste for meat
by his hand
"Give your daughters difficult names.
Names that command the full use of the tongue.
My name makes you want to tell me the truth.
My name does not allow me to trust anyone
who cannot pronounce it right."
Many of my contemporaries,
Have a name that brings the tongue to worship.
Names that feel like ritual in your mouth.
I don't want a name said without pause,
muttered without intention.
I am through with names that leave me unmoved.
Names that leave the speaker's mouth unscathed.
I want a name like fire,
like my hand gripping massa's whip—
I want a name from before the ships
A name Donald Trump might choke on.
I want a name that catches you in the throat
if you say it wrong
and if you're afraid to say it wrong,
then I guess you should be.
I want a name only the brave can say
a name that only fits right in the mouth of those who love me right,
because only the brave
can love me right
Assétou Xango is the name you take when you are tired
of burying your jewels under thick layers of
Assétou the light
Xango the pickaxe
so that people must mine your soul
just to get your attention.
If you have to ask why I changed my name,
it is already too far beyond your comprehension.
Call me callous,
but with a name like Xango
I cannot afford to tread lightly.
You go hard
or you go home
and I am centuries
and ships away
from any semblance
of a homeland.
I am a thief's poor bookkeeping skills way from any source of ancestry.
I am blindly collecting the shattered pieces of a continent
much larger than my comprehension.
I hate explaining my name to people:
their eyes peering over my journal
looking for a history they can rewrite
Ask me what my name means...
What the fuck does your name mean Linda?
Not every word needs an English equivalent in order to have significance.
I am done folding myself up to fit your stereotype.
Your black friend.
Your African Queen Meme.
Your hurt feelings.
Your desire to learn the rhetoric of solidarity
without the practice.
I do not have time to carry your allyship.
I am trying to build a continent,
My name is the only thing I have that is unassimilated
and I'm not even sure I can call it mine.
The body is a safeless place if you do not know its name.
Assétou is what it sounds like when you are trying to bend a syllable
into a home.
With shaky shudders
And wind whistling through your empty,
I feel empty.
There is no safety in a name.
No home in a body.
A name is honestly just a name
A name is honestly just a ritual
And it still sounds like reverence.
A certain doubleness, by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another.
— Henry David Thoreaui
I didn't choose the word —
it came pouring out of my throat
like the water inside a drowned man.
I didn't even push on my stomach.
I just lay there, dead (like he told me)
& "I" came out.
(I'm sorry, Father.
"I" wasn't my fault.)
(How did "I" feel?)
Felt almost alive
when I'd get in, like the Trojan horse.
I'd sit on the bench
(I didn't look out of the eyeholes
so I wouldn't see the carnage).
(Is "I" speaking another language?)
I said, "I" is dangerous.
But at the time I couldn't tell
which one of us was speaking.
"I" was the closest I could get to the
one I loved (who I believe was
smothered in her playpen).
Perhaps she gave birth
to "I" before she died.
I deny "I,"
& the closer
I get, the more
"I" keeps receding.
I found "I"
in the bulrushes
raised by a dirtiness
I loved "I" like a stinky bed.
While I hid in a sentence
with a bunch of other words.
(What is "I"?)
A transmission through space?
A dismemberment of the spirit?
More like opening the chest &
throwing the heart out with the gizzards.
Years later "I" came back
wanting to be known.
Like the unspeakable
name of God, I tried
my 2 letters, leaving
the "O" for breath,
like in the Bible,
I am not the "I"
in my poems. "I"
is the net I try to pull me in with.
I try to talk
with "I," but "I" doesn't trust
me. "I" says I am
slippery by nature.
I made "I" do
what I wasn't supposed to do,
what I didn't want to do —
stand as an example,
stand in for what I was hiding.
I treated "I" as if
"I" wasn't human.
They say that what I write
belongs to me, that it is my true
experience. They think it validates
But why pretend?
"I" is a kind of terminal survival.
I didn't promise
"I" anything & in that way
"I" is the one I was most
17. America Will Be by Joshua Bennett
After Langston Hughes
I am now at the age where my father calls me brother
when we say goodbye. Take care of yourself, brother,
he whispers a half beat before we hang up the phone,
and it is as if some great bridge has unfolded over the air
between us. He is 68 years old. He was born in the throat
of Jim Crow Alabama, one of ten children, their bodies side
by side in the kitchen each morning like a pair of hands
exalting. Over breakfast, I ask him to tell me the hardest thing
about going to school back then, expecting some history
I have already memorized. Boycotts & attack dogs, fire
hoses, Bull Connor in his personal tank, candy paint
shining white as a slaver's ghost. He says: Having to read
the Canterbury Tales. He says: eating lunch alone. Now, I hear
the word America & think first of my father's loneliness,
the hands holding the pens that stabbed him as he walked
through the hallway, unclenched palms settling
onto a wooden desk, taking notes, trying to pretend
the shame didn't feel like an inheritance. You say democracy
& I see the men holding documents that sent him off
to war a year later, Motown blaring from a country
boy's bunker as napalm scarred the sky into jigsaw
patterns, his eyes open wide as the blooming blue
heart of the light bulb in a Crown Heights basement
where he & my mother will dance for the first time, their bodies
swaying like rockets in the impossible dark & yes I know
that this is more than likely not what you mean
when you sing liberty but it is the only kind
I know or can readily claim, the times where those hunted
by history are underground & somehow daring to love
what they cannot hold or fully fathom when the stranger
is not a threat but the promise of a different ending
I woke up this morning and there were men on television
lauding a wall big enough to box out an entire world,
families torn with the stroke of a pen, citizenship
little more than some garment that can be stolen or reduced
to cinder at a tyrant's whim my father knows this grew up
knowing this witnessed firsthand the firebombs
the Klan multiple messiahs love soaked & shot through
somehow still believes in this grand blood-stained
experiment still votes still prays that his children might
make a life unlike any he has ever seen. He looks
at me like the promise of another cosmos and I never
know what to tell him. All of the books in my head
have made me cynical and distant, but there's a choir
in him that calls me forward my disbelief built as it is
from the bricks of his belief not in any America
you might see on network news or hear heralded
before a football game but in the quiet
power of Sam Cooke singing that he was born
by a river that remains unnamed that he runs
alongside to this day, some vast and future country,
some nation within a nation, black as candor,
loud as the sound of my father's
unfettered laughter over cheese eggs & coffee
his eyes shut tight as armories his fists
unclenched as if he were invincible
18. A Brief History of Hostility by Jamaal May
In the beginning
there was the war.
The war said let there be war
and there was war.
The war said let there be peace
and there was war.
The people said music and rain
evaporating against fire in the brush
was a kind of music
and so was the beast.
The beast that roared
or bleated when brought down
was silent when skinned
but loud after the skin
was pulled taut over wood
and the people said music
and the thump thump
thump said drum.
war drum. The drum said war
is coming to meet you in the field.
The field said war
tastes like copper,
said give us some more, said look
at the wild flowers our war plants
in a grove and grows
just for us.
Outside sheets are pulling
this way and that.
Fields are smoke,
smoke is air.
We wait for fingers to be bent
knuckle to knuckle,
the porch overrun
with rope and shotgun
but the hounds don't show.
We beat the drum and sing
like there's nothing outside
but rust-colored clay and fields
of wild flowers growing
farther than we can walk.
Torches may come like fox paws
to steal away what we plant,
but with our bodies bound
by the skin, my arc to his curve,
we are stalks that will bend
and bend and bend…
fire for heat
fire for light
fire for casting figures on a dungeon wall
fire for teaching shadows to writhe
fire for keeping beasts at bay
fire to give them back to the earth
fire for the siege
fire to singe
fire to roast
fire to fuse rubber soles to collapsed crossbeams
fire for Gehenna
fire for Dante
fire for Fallujah
fire for readied aim
fire in the forge that folds steel like a flag
fire to curl worms like cigarette ash
fire to give them back to the earth
fire for ancient reasons: to call down rain
fire to catch it and turn it into steam
fire for churches
fire for a stockpile of books
fire for a bible-black cloak tied to a stake
fire for smoke signals
fire to shape gun muzzle and magazine
fire to leap from the gut of a furnace
fire for Hephaestus
fire for pyres' sake
fire licking the toes of a quiet brown man
fire for his home
fire for her flag
fire for this sand, to coax it into glass
fire to cure mirrors
fire to cure leeches
Fire to compose a nocturne of cinders
fire for the trash cans illuminating streets
fire for fuel
fire for fields
fire for the field hand's fourth death
fire to make a cross visible for several yards
fire from the dragon's mouth
fire for smoking out tangos
fire to stoke like rage and fill the sky with human remains
fire to give them back to the earth
fire to make twine fall from bound wrists
fire to mark them all and bubble black
any flesh it touches as it frees
They took the light from our eyes. Possessive.
Took the moisture from our throats. My arms,
my lips, my sternum, sucked dry, and
lovers of autumn say, Look, here is beauty.
Tallness only made me an obvious target made of
off-kilter limbs. I'd fall either way. I should get a
to-the-death tattoo or metal ribbon of some sort.
War took our prayers like nothing else can,
left us dumber than remote drones. Make
me a loyal soldier and I'll make you a
lamenting so thick, metallic, so tank-tread-hard.
Now make tomorrow a gate shaped like a man.
I can't promise, when it's time, I won't hesitate,
cannot say I won't forget to return in fall and
guess the names of the leaves before they change.
The war said bring us your dead
and we died. The people said music
and bending flower, so we sang ballads
in the aisles of churches and fruit markets.
The requiem was everywhere: a comet's tail
disappearing into the atmosphere,
the wide mouths of the bereft men that have sung…
On currents of air, seeds were carried
as the processional carried us
through the streets of a forgetting city,
between the cold iron of gates.
The field said soil is rich wherever we fall.
Aren't graveyards and battlefields
our most efficient gardens?
Journeys begin there too if the flowers are taken
into account, and shouldn't we always
take the flowers into account? Bring them to us.
We'll come back to you. Peace will come to you
as a rosewood-colored road paver
in your grandmother's town, as a trench
scraped into canvas, as a violin bow, a shovel,
an easel, a brushstroke that covers
burial mounds in grass. And love, you say,
is a constant blade, a trowel that plants
and uproots, and tomorrow
will be a tornado, you say. Then war,
a sick wind, will come to part the air,
straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;
For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and Miss
Choomby and company;
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
people who and the places where and the days when, in
memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
were black and poor and small and different and nobody
cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people's pockets needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs and
societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
Here we are –
Here we are –
We are born
Not with purpose,
But with potential.
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
James Weldon Johnson
(THE MOB SPEAKS:)
See! There he stands; not brave, but with an air
Of sullen stupor. Mark him well! Is he
Not more like brute than man? Look in his eye!
No light is there; none, save the glint that shines
In the now glaring, and now shifting orbs
Of some wild animal caught in the hunter's trap.
How came this beast in human shape and form?
Speak man!—We call you man because you wear
His shape—How are you thus? Are you not from
That docile, child-like, tender-hearted race
Which we have known three centuries? Not from
That more than faithful race which through three wars
Fed our dear wives and nursed our helpless babes
Without a single breach of trust? Speak out!
(THE VICTIM SPEAKS:)
I am, and am not.
(THE MOB SPEAKS AGAIN:)
Then who, why are you?
(THE VICTIM SPEAKS AGAIN:)
I am a thing not new, I am as old
As human nature. I am that which lurks,
Ready to spring whenever a bar is loosed;
The ancient trait which fights incessantly
Against restraint, balks at the upward climb;
The weight forever seeking to obey
The law of downward pull—and I am more:
The bitter fruit am I of planted seed;
The resultant, the inevitable end
Of evil forces and the powers of wrong.
Lessons in degradation, taught and learned,
The memories of cruel sights and deeds,
The pent-up bitterness, the unspent hate
Filtered through fifteen generations have
Sprung up and found in me sporadic life.
In me the muttered curse of dying men,
On me the stain of conquered women, and
Consuming me the fearful fires of lust,
Lit long ago, by other hands than mine.
In me the down-crushed spirit, the hurled-back prayers
Of wretches now long dead—their dire bequests.
In me the echo of the stifled cry
Of children for their battered mothers' breasts.
I claim no race, no race claims me; I am
No more than human dregs; degenerate;
The monstrous offspring of the monster, Sin;
I am—just what I am. . . . The race that fed
Your wives and nursed your babes would do the same
Today. But I—
(THE MOB CONCLUDES:)
Enough, the brute must die!
Quick! Chain him to that oak! It will resist
The fire much longer than this slender pine.
Now bring the fuel! Pile it round him! Wait!
Pile not so fast or high! or we shall lose
The agony and terror in his face.
And now the torch! Good fuel that! the flames
Already leap head-high. Ha! hear that shriek!
And there's another! wilder than the first.
Fetch water! Water! Pour a little on
The fire, lest it should burn too fast. Hold so!
Now let it slowly blaze again. See there!
He squirms! He groans! His eyes bulge wildly out,
Searching around in vain appeal for help!
Another shriek, the last! Watch how the flesh
Grows crisp and hangs till, turned to ash, it sifts
Down through the coils of chain that hold erect
The ghastly frame against the bark-scorched tree.
Stop! to each man no more than one man's share.
You take that bone, and you this tooth; the chain,
Let us divide its links; this skull, of course,
In fair division, to the leader comes.
And now his fiendish crime has been avenged;
Let us back to our wives and children—say,
What did he mean by those last muttered words,
"Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we"?
The Root / Peter Kramer
If I was President
The first thing I would do
is call Mumia Abu-Jamal.
if I was president
the first thing I would do
is call Leonard Peltier.
if I was president
the first person I would call
is that rascal
the first person I'd call
is that other rascal
I would also call
I would make a conference call.
And I would say this:
Yo, you troublemakers,
it is time to let all of us
out of prison.
Pack up your things:
Dennis and John,
collect Alice Walker
If you can find her:
In Mendocino, Molokai, Mexico or
& head out to the prisons
where Mumia and Leonard
are waiting for you.
They will be traveling
Mumia used to own a lot
but they took most of those
away from him.
will probably want to drag along
some of his
who may well be
in New Delhi
will no doubt want to
dress up for the occasion
in a sparkly shalwar kemeez.
My next call is going to be
to the Cubans
all five of them;
so stop worrying.
For now, you're my fish.
I just had this long letter
from Alice and she has begged me
to put an end
to her suffering.
What? she said.
You think these men are the only ones who suffer
when Old Style America locks them up
& throws away
I can't tell you, she goes on,
has put me through,
and I have had a child to raise
& classes to teach
& food to buy
and just because
I'm a poet
it doesn't mean
I don't have to
pay the mortgage
or the rent.
Yet all these years,
nearly thirty or something
I have been running around
and the world
trying to arouse justice
for these men.
hasn't stopped me.
hasn't stopped me.
hasn't stopped me.
knowing the country
that I'm in,
as you are destined to learn
I know wrong
when I see it.
If that chair you're sitting in
you would have it moved
to another room.
You would burn it.
pack your things.
Alice and John and Dennis
are on their way.
They are bringing prayers from Nilak Butler and Bill Wapepah;
they are bringing sweet grass and white sage
from Pine Ridge.
I am the president
at least until the Corporations
purchase the next election,
and this is what I choose
on my first day.
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