Tag Archives: African-American rights

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Formal poets, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

Remembering Monica Hand

image
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

Leave a comment

Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, Remembering Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

Powerful Poem by Patricia Smith on Emmett Till Lynching

image
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.
image

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

image
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!

Leave a comment

Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Human Rights, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Poets, Remembering Poets

Amiri Baraka, Revolutionary Poet 1934-2014

image
Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial names in poetry, a field not known particularly for its controversy, and I say “is” because even since his death in 2014 his work continues to provoke. Now that certainly says something about the power of his poetry. His initial fame came as one of the beat poets, under his birth name, Leroi Jones. But under both names, his focus has always been a social and political one, mainly as a stand, in no uncertain terms, against oppression and injustice, in particular against African-Americans. And he names names with no hesitation.

Perhaps the most well-known and problematic controversy was over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” referencing 9/11. The link above also gives context to the controversy itself in which the state of New Jersey, which had selected Baraka as its Poet Laureate, literally dissolved the post of Poet Laureate under the patently false bit of rhetoric “arts should focus on the art, not the individual (artist)” — as if this was a sudden bolt of intellectual lightning. The purpose of eliminating the position of Poet Laureate was to remove Mr. Baraka because some were offended by his poem. “Some” meaning the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which called the poem “antisemitic” for its implication that Israel was somehow complicit in 9/11. Whether or not one agrees with this opinion, Baraka’s argument on behalf of his poem and his refusal to retract it, was simply that Israel is not the same as Judaism or Jews, but a nation. This implies that the nation could make mistakes, even egregious ones.

Of course, what is at stake is not a “mistake” but complicity in a crime which has become pivotal as the raison d’être of the global war on terror, something Israel would likely find useful to its security, but also something Israel would not to be associated with in this way. That 9/11 was the crime that triggered invasions of other countries, military actions against “terrorism” and the hyping and flame-fanning of war-mongers keen to incite anti-Muslim sentiment, makes such an accusation quite consequential. Nevertheless, it is technically an opinion and not a legal accusation, certainly not a denigration of the Jewish people any more than accusations, within the same poem, against the CIA accusing it also of complicity, is somehow a slander against the American people. State actions are always separate from their people. (Not always an easy fact to maintain in a politicized world.)

Importantly, the poem expressed an opinion, one covered in the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The very same poem also ranted against the Holocaust and against discrimination against Jews among others including African-Americans. Many Jews within the nation of Israel have voiced opinions highly unfavorable of Israeli government policies and actions with impunity. That the ADL would strongarm the State of New Jersey, which was bound by contract to keep Baraka as its Poet Laureate at its contracted salary, to go around their legal obligations by removing the post entirely, indicates there are forces more influential, certainly in this case, than democracy itself or the constitution. That those “forces” or that group would be able to railroad their demands through is also testament to how little people understand what freedom of speech or expression means. That political voices or voices of dissent would be thus deliberately suppressed while pornography or demonstrations by the KKK be allowed under the first amendment speaks volumes. Pornography only offends families of children or women (and some men) who find it misogynist — certainly not so different from antisemitism — but these people have no clout. And without clout, apparently, the Bill of Rights is just another contract to work around and circumvent. Was anyone offended at this unfair treatment or at the defamation of a man merely expressing his opinion. He was outspoken, and not all his opinions are ones I would necessarily agree with. But I would fight to the death for his right to say them.

Meanwhile, here is an older poem about racism, a less controversial subject these days, thankfully. Unless, of course, one accuses the “wrong” person…

Dope

BY Amiri Baraka

uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu uuu ray light morning fire lynch yet
uuuuuuu, yester-pain in dreams
comes again. race-pain, people our people
our people
everywhere . . . yeh . . . uuuuu, yeh
uuuuu. yeh
our people
yes people
every people
most people
uuuuuu, yeh uuuuu, most people
in pain
yester-pain, and pain today
(Screams) ooowow! ooowow! It must be
the devil
(jumps up like a claw stuck him) oooo
wow! oooowow! (screams)

It must be the devil
It must be the devil
it must be the devil
(shakes like evangelical sanctify
shakes tambourine like evangelical sanctify
in heat)

ooowow! ooowow! yeh, devil, yeh, devil
ooowow!

Must be the devil must be the devil
(waves plate like collection) mus is mus is
mus is
mus is be the devil, cain be rockefeller
(eyes roll
up batting, and jumping all the way around
to face the
other direction) caint be him, no lawd
aint be dupont, no lawd, cain be, no lawd,
no way
noway, naw saw, no way jose — cain be
them rich folks
theys good to us theys good to us theys
good to us theys
good to us theys good to us, i know, the
massa tolt me
so, i seed it on channel 7, i seed it on
channel 9 i seed
it on channel 4 and 2 and 5. Rich folks
good to us
poor folks aint shit, hallelujah, hallelujah,
ooowow! oowow!
must be the devil, going to heaven after i
die, after we die
everything going to be different, after we die
we aint gon be
hungry, ain gon be pain, ain gon be sufferin
wont go thru this
again, after we die, after we die owooo!
owowoooo!
after we die, its all gonna be good, have all
the money we
need after we die, have all the food we
need after we die
have a nice house like the rich folks, after
we die, after we die, after we
die, we can live like rev ike, after we die,
hallelujah, hallelujah, must be
the devil, it ain capitalism, it aint capitalism,
it aint capitalism,
naw it aint that, jimmy carter wdnt lie,
“lifes unfair” but it aint capitalism
must be the devil, owow! it ain the police,
jimmy carter wdnt lie, you
know rosalynn wdnt not lillian, his
drunken racist brother aint no reflection
on jimmy, must be the devil got in im, i tell
you, the devil killed malcolm
and dr king too, even killed both kennedies,
and pablo neruda and overthrew
allende’s govt. killed lumumba, and is
negotiating with step and fetchit,
sleep n eat and birmingham, over there in
“Rhodesia”, goin’ under the name
ian smith, must be the devil, caint be vortser,
caint be apartheid, caint
be imperialism, jimmy carter wdnt lie, didnt
you hear him say in his state
of the union message, i swear on rosalynn’s
face-lifted catatonia, i wdnt lie
nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied, hoover
lied hoover sucked (dicks) too
but jimmy dont, jimmy wdnt jimmy aint lying,
must be the devil, put yr
money on the plate, must be the devil, in
heaven we’all all be straight
cain be rockefeller, he gave amos pootbootie a
scholarship to Behavior
Modification Univ, and Genevieve Almoswhite
works for his foundation
Must be niggers! Cain be Mellon, he gave
Winky Suckass, a fellowship in
his bank put him in charge of closing out
mortgages in the lowlife
Pittsburgh Hill nigger section, caint be him.
(Goes on babbling, and wailing, jerking
in pathocrazy grin stupor)
Yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yes-
suh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh,
put yr money in the plate, dont be late, dont
have to wait, you gonna be in
heaven after you die, you gon get all you need
once you gone, yessuh, i heard
it on the jeffersons, i heard it on the rookies,
I swallowed it
whole on roots: wasn’t it nice slavery was so
cool and
all you had to do was wear derbies and vests
and train chickens and buy your
way free if you had a mind to, must be the
devil, wasnt no white folks,
lazy niggers chained theyselves and threw
they own black asses in the bottom
of the boats, [(well now that you mention it King
Assblackuwasi helped throw yr ass in
the bottom of the boat, yo mamma, wife, and
you never seed em no more)] must
a been the devil, gimme your money put your
money on this plate, heaven be here soon,
just got to die, just got to stop living, close yr
eyes stop
breathin and bammm-O heaven be here, you
have all a what you need, Bam-O
all a sudden, heaven be here, you have all you
need, that assembly line
you work on will dissolve in thin air owowoo!
owowoo! Just gotta die
just gotta die, this ol world aint nuthin, must be
the devil got you
thinkin so, it cain be rockefeller, it cain be mor-
gan, it caint be capitalism
it caint be national oppression owow! No Way!
Now go back to work and cool
it, go back to work and lay back, just a little
while longer till you pass
its all gonna be alright once you gone. gimme
that last bitta silver you got
stashed there sister, gimme that dust now broth-
er man, itll be ok on the
other side, yo soul be clean be washed pure
white. yes. yes. yes. owow.
now go back to work, go to sleep, yes, go to
sleep, go back to work, yes
owow. owow. uuuuuuuuuu, uuuuuuuuuuu,
uuuuuuuuuuu. yes, uuuuuuu. yes.
uuuuuuuuuu.
a men.

Source: The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Basic Books, 2009)

Leave a comment

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

Langston Hughes: World-Opener

image

What would a list of African-American poets be without Langston Hughes? Prolific, entirely original, yet intentionally accessible, Hughes is a mountain: one of the most iconic American poets, certainly one of the most well-known and well-received African-American poets, with an impressive lifetime career not only as a poet, but also a novelist, short story writer, playwright, song lyricist, radio writer, translator, author of children’s books, lecturer, world traveler, and more. In the words of Donald B. Gibson,

During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read. He has been, unlike most nonblack poets other than Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg, a poet of the people. . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.

One need only read the poem below to see how Hughes brought his original voice, for and about “ordinary” people, and in particular people of color, in the scope and breadth of Walt Whitman, and also in the same tradition in terms of using poetry to in a sense celebrate humanness and the universality and higher aims of human life, taking into account as many walks of life as possible. This in a time when doing this wasn’t cool. African Americans involved in literature and the arts felt he focused to his detriment on the suffering and oppression and the actual life of Harlem and the ghettos. The white literary establishment was ambivalent but some felt he was too “simple” or down to earth. In retrospect, all these views fell by the wayside. The mountain stands higher, and longer.

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

1 Comment

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

RIP Julian Bond: “Habana”

image

image

In memory of Julian Bond, who died on August 18, 2015 in Fort Walton Beach, Florida (who knew?! A place I visited not infrequently), famous for his work in behalf of Civil Rights and justice, and to that end, as co-founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center, not to mention as president of the NAACP and serving for 20 years on the Georgia State Legislature…here we remind the world of his other title, poet, with this now-timely remembrance of his youthful visits to Cuba:

HABANA

(According to Bond, this poem was based on conversations he had during his first trip to Cuba as a nineteen-year-old college student at Morehouse, soon after the Cuban Revolution.)

Soldiers fuzz the city in khaki confusion
Pincushioned with weapons
Seedy orange venders squeeze among the pulpy masses
Camera pregnant tourists click down the Prado
Lotería salesmen tear along the dotted line
Guitars pluck loafers into corner bars
Uniformed schoolgirls genuflect languorously
Climactic roaming rainbow dresses cling slowly
Punctuating neon orgasms in the mambo night
And above Fidel’s sandpaper voice,
“You want a girl, maybe?”

Leave a comment

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