Category Archives: African American poets

Black History Month: Tyehimba Jess

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If one had to name a quintessential poet for Black History Month, Tyehimba Jess would be an excellent choice. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Olio, black history is the heart and soul of his poetry. History is alive and personal for him, both a limiting and a transcendent force, depending on how one responds to it. And his poems are a powerful exalting and at the same time brutally honest force. For a perfect example of this, check out this multi-genre tour-de-force, too long for this blog space, but seriously worth your time.

And then there’s this interview with Jess on NPR. How many interviewees reply to questions with spontaneous poetry? This is evidence that Jess lives the historical black experience, his heart is in the impact of that history on the moment at hand. His message is wholly with him.

The title Olio refers to minstrel shows, a performance art which, according to Jess, “was based upon making caricatures of African Americans for the edification of mostly white audiences.” The black and sometimes blackface performers who were always “unidentified.” He wanted to discover who they’ve were, their names, their stories. After all, he says, “Characters have depth. They have multiple dimensions, right? A caricature, you only show one side of a person. They’re oafish. Or they’re silly. Or they’re dumb, etcetera. A character, you see multiple sides of their humanity.”

The book, then, is an effort to “humanize” these performers, present their real characters, to fill in the erasures perpetrated by the horror of slavery and racism. Among those he discovered, said interviewer Dan Wanschura, were people “like Blind Tom Wiggins, a 19th century pianist who, Jess says, earned his master a million dollars through his musical talent. And the McKoy twins, Millie and Christine, who were conjoined – people who Jess had never heard of before he began his research.”
“So Jess tells the story of the McKoy twins in a series of poems – how they were rented out by their owner to traveling shows around the country, how they were kidnapped and shipped to England for a while, and how, once emancipated, they earned enough money performing to buy the land where they and their family had been slaves.” What an amazing and redemptive story!

The book shows us that these people were in fact empowered by their performances and attained freedom that would otherwise been impossible. And Jess’ book gives them at last a place to perform as real, whole, human characters, speaking directly to our hearts. Another interesting note: there are also foldout pages, some with perforations in his book, which serve as a kind of physical representation of how the history can be transformed through art. One page, for example, lists reasons for lynching, and the other side of the page shows us their stories in poems that cancel out the reasons for lynching.

As Jess says, “We ride the wake of each other’s rhythm, beating our hearts’ syncopated tempo with music all our own with our mouths seeped in the glow of hand-me-down courage, drenched in spiritual a cappellas, flowing soul from bone through skin. We pay debts from broken chattel to circus stars. We sing straight from this nation’s barbed wired heart.” An answer to a question, an eloquent synopsis of how history can be deconstructed. And reconstructed on an entirely new, liberating template.

Jess’ previous collection was leadbellly, focused on the great bluesman, some of whose songs my brother used to sing, and in his wake, I also played (on guitar), singing them just to myself. From that collection, this poem:

leadbelly’s lessons

By Tyehimba Jess

mr. haney owned
shreveport ’s general store
where a dollar a week
bought my 12 year old frame’s
lift and lunge of barrel and crate
across a sawdust floor.
still, he wanted more.

the guitar refused to get naked
with haney. he would fumble
up the seams of its hidden croon;
hook, clasp and bodice of each tune
mangled down to a stunted strum. so,

he’d quit. he’d hoist bourbon
and order me to hoist song,
the velvet locomotive of marrow deep hum
i’d tote up from the swollen center of guitar,
its catch and slide caught between palms
and cradled ‘cross louisiana starlight.

his bottle and scowl grew louder
with each reel and jump that i played
while getting paid to show the way
of undressing music from its wooden clothes.

but it was like coaxin’ stone
to bathe in sky. he never let his flesh
wallow in the blue floatin’ ‘round his earth,
so he buried himself deeper in his own dirt.
he’d think on the hurt a white man can do
without second thought—he’d slur
nigger, someday i’m gonna kill you.
and stagger home.

it was there, alone,
in the dark, darkness of me
that i first learned the ways
of pure white envy.
and thank you, mr. haney,
for teaching me…

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets

Powerful Resistance Poem by Tracy K Smith

The Pulitzer Prize-winning new U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, is certainly a timely choice, and a voice for bringing poetry into our world, breaking down barriers and preconceptions. And what an advocate indeed; with the unforgettable found poem below, powerfully earth-conscious and bringing us a clear and stark vision of what exactly is happening to us and our planet as a direct result of corporate capitalist excess and greed. It’s a devastating poem that should give us all pause…and be moved to take whatever actions we have in our power to resist the now-openly-sanctioned ravaging of our selves, our bodies and our world, our only home, our future. What could be more important?? All kudos to Tracy K. Smith!
Note: the formatting of this poem did not properly transfer to this website (perhaps it could be but I didn’t know how to do it). To see the correct formatting intended by the author, please visit this site.

Watershed
By
Tracy K. Smith

200 cows more than 600 hilly acres

property would have been even larger
had J not sold 66 acres to DuPont for
waste from its Washington Works factory
where J was employed
did not want to sell
but needed money poor health
mysterious ailments

Not long after the sale cattle began to act
deranged
footage shot on a camcorder
grainy intercut with static
Images jump repeat sound accelerates
slows down
quality of a horror movie

the rippling shallow water the white ash
trees shedding their leaves
a large pipe
discharging green water
a skinny red cow
hair missing back humped

a dead black calf in snow its eye
a brilliant chemical blue

a calf’s bisected head
liver heart stomachs kidneys
gall bladder some dark some green

cows with stringy tails malformed hooves
lesions red receded eyes suffering slobbering
staggering like drunks

It don’t look like
anything I’ve been into before

I began rising through the ceiling of each floor in the hospital as though I were being pulled by some force outside my own volition. I continued rising until I passed through the roof itself and found myself in the sky. I began to move much more quickly past the mountain range near the hospital and over the city. I was swept away by some unknown force, and started to move at an enormous speed. Just moving like a thunderbolt through a darkness.

R’s taking on the case I found to be inconceivable

It just felt like the right thing to do
a great
opportunity to use my background for people who
really needed it

R: filed a federal suit
pulled permits
land deeds
a letter that mentioned
a substance at the landfill
PFOA
perfluorooctanoic acid

a soap-like agent used in
ScotchgardTM
TeflonTM

PFOA: was to be incinerated or
sent to chemical waste facilities
not to be flushed into water or sewers

DuPont:
pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds
into the Ohio River
dumped tons of PFOA sludge
into open unlined pits

PFOA:
increased the size of the liver in rats and rabbits
(results replicated in dogs)
caused birth defects in rats
caused cancerous testicular pancreatic and
liver tumors in lab animals
possible DNA damage from exposure
bound to plasma proteins in blood
was found circulating through each organ
high concentrations in the blood of factory workers
children of pregnant employees had eye defects
dust vented from factory chimneys settled well-beyond
the property line
entered the water table
concentration in drinking water 3x international safety limit
study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer
worth $1 billion in annual profit

(It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before)

Every individual thing glowed with life. Bands of energy were being dispersed from a huge universal heartbeat, faster than a raging river. I found I could move as fast as I could think.

DuPont:
did not make this information public
declined to disclose this finding
considered switching to new compound that appeared less toxic
and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time
decided against it
decided it needed to find a landfill for toxic sludge
bought 66 acres from a low-level employee
at the Washington Works facility

(J needed money
had been in poor health
a dead black calf
its eye chemical blue
cows slobbering
staggering like drunks)

I could perceive the Earth, outer space, and humanity from a spacious and indescribable ‘God’s eye view.’ I saw a planet to my left covered with vegetation of many colors no signs of mankind or any familiar shorelines. The waters were living waters, the grass was living, the trees and the animals were more alive than on earth.

D’s first husband had been a chemist
When you
worked at DuPont in this town you could have
everything you wanted
DuPont paid for his education
secured him a mortgage paid a generous salary
even gave him a free supply of PFOA

He explained that the planet we call Earth really has a proper name, has its own energy, is a true living being, was very strong but has been weakened considerably.

which she used
as soap in the family’s dishwasher

I could feel Earth’s desperate situation. Her aura appeared to be very strange, made me wonder if it was radioactivity. It was bleak, faded in color, and its sound was heart wrenching.

Sometimes
her husband came home sick—fever, nausea, diarrhea,
vomiting—‘Teflon flu’

an emergency hysterectomy
a second surgery

I could tell the Doctor everything he did upon my arrival down to the minute details of accompanying the nurse to the basement of the hospital to get the plasma for me; everything he did while also being instructed and shown around in Heaven.

Clients called R to say they had received diagnoses of cancer
or that a family member had died

W who had cancer had died of a heart attack

Two years later W’s wife died of cancer

They knew this stuff was harmful
and they put it in the water anyway

I suspect that Earth may be a place of education.

PFOA detected in:
American blood banks
blood or vital organs of:
Atlantic salmon
swordfish
gray seals
common cormorants
Alaskan polar bears
brown pelicans
sea turtles
sea eagles
California sea lions
Laysan albatrosses on a wildlife refuge
in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean;>

Viewing the myriad human faces with an indescribable, intimate, and profound love. This love was all around me, it was everywhere, but at the same time it was also me.

We see a situation

that has gone

from Washington Works

All that was important in life was the love we felt.

to statewide

All that was made, said, done, or even thought without love was undone.

to everywhere

it’s global

In my particular case, God took the form of a luminous warm water. It does not mean that a luminous warm water is God. It is just that, for me, it was experiencing the luminous warm water that I felt the most connection with the eternal.

Copyright © 2017 Tracy K. Smith.

Note re This Poem:

“‘Watershed’ is a found poem drawn from two sources: a New York Times Magazine January 6, 2016, article by Nathaniel Rich entitled, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,’ and excerpts of the narratives of survivors of near-death experiences as catalogued on http://www.nderf.org.”
—Tracy K. Smith

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Allison Joseph: Taking on Both Racism and Sexism

International Women’s Day this year, galvanized by the misogyny of President Trump, showed the world a powerful presentation of the importance of women and their essential contributions, calling for both recognition and justice in so many ways.

At the same time, just last month, the shortest month of the year, was Black History Month, for which I barely found enough time to do a few posts, despite that even a 31-day month would not be sufficient time to do bring up a tenth of the poets we need to hear about. One important poet being Allison Joseph.

Allison Joseph’s poetry addresses both concerns: that of racism and its insidious dehumanization of people of color, and civil rights, and that of women’s rights and the fight to be respected and given their due. Here are two strong poems demonstrating what a strong voice she is indeed on both issues.

SUNDOWN GHAZAL

By Allison Joseph

A sundown town was a town, city or neighborhood that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns.” The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois — Wikipedia

Don’t show your face in a sundown town,
or forget your race in a sundown town.

What ancient shame flushes my cheeks?
Reminded of my place in a sundown town.

“How’d you get so good-looking?” said with a wink.
Old white man loves my grace in a sundown town.

Lost in a neighborhood where dogs snap chains,
my body’s a dark space in a sundown town.

Shotguns, gun racks, Dixie stickers, rusted trucks.
Should I stray, armed with mace, in a sundown town?

Crimes thrive in black, white, every grade between.
Are you just another case in a sundown town?

Kink of your hair, curl of your lip,
be careful who you embrace in a sundown town.

State police, city cops, small-town hired hands.
All give chase in a sundown town.

Burned houses, riddled with junk and meth.
Hatred creeps its petty pace in a sundown town.

Black father, white mother, coffee-colored daughter.
What can love erase in a sundown town?

Rivers, tires, bodies—a confluence that cannot hide.
Hard not to leave a trace in a sundown town.

And here, first published on the PBS website:

Kitchen

By Allison Joseph

I remember this as her kitchen,
the one room in our house where no one
questioned my mother’s authority—
her cast iron pots bubbling over
on the stove, cracked tea cups
in the sink. How I hated
the difficult oven always hanging
off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger
rigged it shut, gas range whose flames
leapt beneath fingers when I turned
its knobs too quickly, floor tile
that never came clean no matter
how much dirt I swept from its
cracks. This was her domain—
kitchen for frying fish
and stewing chicken, for rice
and peas, plantains and yams,
for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.
Only she could make that faulty
oven door stay, only she could master
the fickle flames of the rangetop,
only she could make those worn dishes
and chipped plates fill a table
with food so rich and hot
my father could not complain.
And though I am her daughter, this house
no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,
I know she’d want me to save all this—
decades of platters and saucers, plates,
glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.

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Etheridge Knight: Power Voice (1931-1991)

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Sometimes it seems like I’m overusing the words “power” and “powerful” in reference to poetry and poets; perhaps even more so with African-American/ African poetry. Etheridge Knight’s name doesn’t come up too much these days, but it should. His poetry resonates, especially now with a president who doesn’t respect the first amendment, who wants to establish Fox News and Breitbart news as State TV, in whose wake heinous hate crimes are experiencing a revival against people of color, gays, Jews, Muslims, people of Indian descent, anyone who looks Foreign, Non-WASP, non-straight, Other. Knight’s work is a powerful voice for all people who have experienced oppression; his work is daringly universal and forthright, and deserves a place among the top tier poets.

His poetry is also characterized by its depth of understanding, as evidenced here:

A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison

By Etheridge Knight

After explanations and regulations, he
Walked warily in.
Black hair covered his chin, subscribing to
Villainous ideal.
“This can not be real,” he thought, “this is a
Classical mistake;
This is a cake baked with embarrassing icing;
Somebody’s got
Likely as not, a big fat tongue in cheek!
What have I to do
With a prim and proper-blooded lady?”
Christ in deed has risen
When a Junkie in prison visits with a Wasp woman.

“Hold your stupid face, man,
Learn a little grace, man; drop a notch the sacred shield.
She might have good reason,
Like: ‘I was in prison and ye visited me not,’ or—some such.
So sweep clear
Anachronistic fear, fight the fog,
And use no hot words.”

After the seating
And the greeting, they fished for a denominator,
Common or uncommon;
And could only summon up the fact that both were human.
“Be at ease, man!
Try to please, man!—the lady is as lost as you:
‘You got children, Ma’am?’” he said aloud.

The thrust broke the dam, and their lines wiggled in the water.
She offered no pills
To cure his many ills, no compact sermons, but small
And funny talk:
“My baby began to walk… simply cannot keep his room clean…”
Her chatter sparked no resurrection and truly
No shackles were shaken
But after she had taken her leave, he walked softly,
And for hours used no hot words.

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Remembering Monica Hand

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Monica Hand’s powerful and unique voice will be an enduring one through her poetry. In her own words: “My best poems express ideas concerned with civil rights and the human condition and do that in a way that the energy of the poem is felt in the gut, the heart, the throat and the head.” Sadly, she passed on December 15, 2016, unexpectedly and much too soon. She had published her first poetry collection in 2012, nina and Me. She was already an award-winning poet, despite having begun her writing career relatively late, and had almost immediately been recognized as an important voice, having discovered, through study and travel, much information about the African Diaspora, those displaced from their homes by the slave trade. Her poems deal with and recognize that, honoring those who had been treated with such dishonor, and raising the painfully real awareness of that history and its need for honest dissemination.

Wounding Corpus

By Monica Hand

This body – its muscles and its bones
its sagging milk glands no use as fare,
slightly curved back and arthritic knees
no good for carrying. Lost vessel.
Here resides asylum & dangerous
thoughts, capillaries of grief & greed
equally measured. A load like skin,
just like the mammoth’s, I cannot keep
myself cool. This body walks inside
bodies of wounding diction, a fit
inarticulate in its meaning.
To disappear, these unstable bones
rustle across continents, crippled,
a senile beast stuffed into a box.

And here is an ekphrastic poem, one that finds in this iconic painting a greater truth that goes to the heart of justice, a place where art, beauty, and transcendence itself can be applied to the human condition. To, as the poet herself put it, “heal traumas of the heart and the spirit” and to “resist injustices.” Now we are becoming painfully aware of how much we need her voice, still living in her words.

Water Lilies

By Monica Hand

—after Monet

I watch the light change its many colors.
Here, from my little boat on a little pond,

sky, clouds, algae, weeping willow without
edges, no horizon just changing light.

The mutable landscape floats round leaves.
To hold light in a frame is for the bourgeoisie.

Who would try to possess the water’s surface?
Who would flatten prisms of changing light?

Today I’m green. Tomorrow I may be white.
It’s all the same. Light is more than one color.

Black is an invention of man. Colors change,
close up and from the bottom of the pond.

Day-by-day, night-by-night, I see
my visions shift in the light, ever-changing

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Powerful Poem by Patricia Smith on Emmett Till Lynching

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The lynching — by which we mean racially-motivated torture and murder — of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a heinous crime which, by being brought out into the open and made public for all to see and know, is considered the spark (or one of the sparks) that lit up the civil rights movement in America.
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It is the subject of renowned poet Patricia Smith’s powerful piece, “Black, Poured Directly into the Wound.” The title alone speaks volumes, and this is an important event to remember during Black Histoy Month, all the more important considering that we now have a white supremacist sharing power, apparently, in the White House. We need voices like Smith’s, to point out, with an unforgettably sharp point, the ugly history and legacy of such a mindset.

Black, Poured Directly into the Wound

By Patricia Smith

Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly, and Emmett’s
red yesterdays refuse to rename her any kind of mother.
A pudge-cheeked otherwise, sugar whistler, her boy is
(through the fierce clenching mouth of her memory) a
grays-and-shadows child. Listen. Once she was pretty.
Windy hues goldened her skin. She was pert, brown-faced,
in every wide way the opposite of the raw, screeching thing
chaos has crafted. Now, threaded awkwardly, she tires of the
sorries, the Lawd have mercies. Grief’s damnable tint
is everywhere, darkening days she is no longer aware of.
She is gospel revolving, repeatedly emptied of light, pulled
and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.
Boys in the street stare at her, then avert their eyes, as if she
killed them all, shipped every one into the grips of Delta. She sits,
her chair carefully balanced on hell’s edge, and pays for sanity in
kisses upon the conjured forehead of her son. Beginning with A,
she recites (angry, away, awful) the alphabet of a world gone red.
Coffee scorches her throat as church ladies drift about her room,
black garb sweating their hips, filling cups with tap water, drinking,
drinking in glimpses of her steep undoing. The absence of a black
roomful of boy is measured, again, again. In the clutches of coffee,
red-eyed, Mamie knows their well-meaning murmur. One says She
a mama, still. Once you have a chile, you always a mama. Kisses
in multitudes rain from their dusty Baptist mouths, drowning her.
Sit still, she thinks, til they remember how your boy was killed.
She remembers. Gush and implosion, crushed, slippery, not a boy.
Taffeta and hymnals all these women know, not a son lost and
pulled from the wretched and rumbling Tallahatchie. Mamie, she
of the hollowed womb, is nobody’s mama anymore. She is
tinted echo, barren. Everything about her makes the sound sorry.
The white man’s hands on her child, dangled eye, twanging chaos,
things that she leans on, the only doors that open to let her in.
Faced with days and days of no him, she lets Chicago — windy,
pretty in the ways of the North — console her with its boorish grays.
A hug, more mourners and platters of fat meat. Will she make it through?
Is this how the face slap of sorrow changes the shape of a
mother? All the boys she sees now are laughing, drenched in red.
Emmett, in dreams, sings I am gold. He tells how dry it is, the prairie.

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Parneshia Jones Has a Word for This

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It’s not always that I find so many poems that fit a particular urgent need all at once, but this poem that came to my inbox and pierced right through the heart was the perfect answer to the catastrophe of Trumperica and all its ugly works and ways. For Black History Month, I’ve run coincidentally into a few other poems that are right on the money both on the politics and the toxic shock that comes out of having a fanatic run rampant, lying and clueless, over the Republic, democracy, and what’s left of human rights or compassion. Those poems I will publish within a few days. But for now, this packs a real punch. Plus, Gwendolyn Brooks, a hero in every sense of the word, needs to be recalled at times like this. So indeed, a fitting title.

What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do?

By
Parneshia Jones

Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.

I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.

I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).

For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.

How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?

Hold On.

When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.

She won a Pulitzer in the dark.

She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on.
She held on to all of us.

Hold On, she whispers.

Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.

They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.

Hold On.

We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.

Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.

Hold On, she says, two million light years away.

She’s right.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.

And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.

We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.

Hold On.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
and keep
Holding.

Copyright © 2017 by Parneshia Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

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Nikki Giovanni: Always New

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Ahhh… Black History Month finished on March 29th, and I still have so many poets I’ve missed. March came and went, keeping me too busy to post a single thing. Here we are in National Poetry Month, and I still have a post on Nikki Giovanni, so I will post it, then catch up with some recent publications of my own.

Nikki Giovanni was for me a breath of fresh air, unabashedly speaking truth to power. I loved to see her slight figure, so much like mine, coming up with the most explosive poems in an era crying out for truth to explode the prejudices and oppression asserted insidiously everywhere. Yet after so many decades we still need that voice. A voice that also speaks of the truth of love. So here she is, in a small sampling of her voluminous work.

Nikki-Rosa

By Nikki Giovanni

childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
your mother
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
concerns you
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
Christmases
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.

Mothers

By Nikki Giovanni

the last time i was home
to see my mother we kissed
exchanged pleasantries
and unpleasantries pulled a warm
comforting silence around
us and read separate books

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

mommy always sat in the dark
i don’t know how i knew that but she did

that night i stumbled into the kitchen
maybe because i’ve always been
a night person or perhaps because i had wet
the bed
she was sitting on a chair
the room was bathed in moonlight diffused through
those thousands of panes landlords who rented
to people with children were prone to put in windows
she may have been smoking but maybe not
her hair was three-quarters her height
which made me a strong believer in the samson myth
and very black

i’m sure i just hung there by the door
i remember thinking: what a beautiful lady

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by
“come here” she said “i’ll teach you
a poem: i see the moon
the moon sees me
god bless the moon
and god bless me”
i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

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Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

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A master of lyric verse, Paul Laurence Dunbar drew on many poetic traditions, writing mainly formal poetry. His famous rondeau, “We Wear the Mask,” below, was my model for learning the rondeau, a powerful form when used well, as Dunbar certainly did. The poet Nikki Giovanni was instrumental in helping bring his work to light as a poetic genius and one of the first African-American great poets to be recognized, even in his own, racially oppressive and segregated time. I also include below his poem, “Sympathy,” which inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Sympathy

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

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Lucille Clifton, Luminary 1936-2010

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Lucille Clifton’s much-lauded poetry shines through today with its eloquent simplicity and choice of worthy topics. But whatever I say about her many awards and her long and influential career cannot speak for her like her poems. Here are three on very different subjects, but all of them testimony to both the evil and the transcendence of humanity.

the lost baby poem

BY Lucille Clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas let black men call me stranger
always for your never named sake

slaveships

BY Lucille Clifton

loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing
Jesus
why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
and hot and red
as our bloody ankles
Jesus
Angel
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen country
Jesus
Angel
ever again
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace Of God
can this sin live

the message of crazy horse

BY Lucille Clifton

i would sit in the center of the world,
the Black Hills hooped around me and
dream of my dancing horse. my wife

was Black Shawl who gave me the daughter
i called They Are Afraid Of Her.
i was afraid of nothing

except Black Buffalo Woman.
my love for her i wore
instead of feathers. i did not dance

i dreamed. i am dreaming now
across the worlds. my medicine is strong.
my medicine is strong in the Black basket
of these fingers. i come again through this

Black Buffalo woman. hear me;
the hoop of the world is breaking.
fire burns in the four directions.
the dreamers are running away from the hills.
i have seen it. i am crazy horse.

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