Tag Archives: civil rights

Audre Lorde 1934-1992: Poet and Activist Extraordinaire

Here we are in Women’s History month, and I haven’t done justice to Black History month yet, so in Audre Lorde we have it all: a black openly Lesbian woman. Born in 1934, she’s done some serious work for civil and human rights during difficult times, for women and for people of color, traveling extensively for this purpose as well as expressing her strongly held principles/ vision in her poetry. She has also published powerful essays and a memoir of her struggles with cancer in which she conveys brilliant insights and inspiration. She is also a highly quoted writer, and among her quotes are these:
“The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”


“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

I love this particular poem:


By Audre Lorde

Is the total black, being spoken
From the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open.
How a diamond comes into a knot of flame
How a sound comes into a word, coloured
By who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open
Like a diamond on glass windows
Singing out within the crash of passing sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—
And come whatever wills all chances
The stub remains
An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
Breeding like adders. Others know sun
Seeking like gypsies over my tongue
To explode through my lips
Like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
Bedevil me.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Another longer poem for Emmett Till is well-worth your time here. I provided a link so you can read it properly formatted, which I wasn’t able to do here.


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

Black History Month: Jericho Brown

Lately I’ve found less time to contribute to this blog, and this is especially frustrating during the too-short black history month. So to make up for it, I will continue to, if possible, add posts about Poets of color. But I’ve meant to feature in particular Jericho Brown, whose poetry is both unique and powerful. And he has much to say, as a poet, an African-American, a gay man, a compassionate human being. It’s worth reading an interview with him, of which this is one sample.

I’m including this ghazal because I love ghazals, and because he managed to write one that ends in prison — emblematic of so much.

(A Ghazal)



They lie like stones and dare not shift. Even asleep, everyone hears in prison.
Dwayne Betts deserves more than this dry ink for his teenage years in prison.

In the film we keep watching, Nina takes Darius to a steppers ball.
Lovers hustle, slide, and dip as if none of them has a brother in prison.

I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.
A book full of white characters examines insanity—but never in prison.

His whole family made a barricade of their bodies at the door to room 403.
He died without the man he wanted. What use is love at home or in prison?

We saw police pull sharks out of the water just to watch them not breathe.
A brother meets members of his family as he passes the mirrors in prison.

Sundays, I washed and dried her clothes after he threw them into the yard.
In the novel I love, Brownfield kills his wife, gets only seven years in prison.

I don’t want to point my own sinful finger, so let’s use your clean one instead.
Some bright citizen reading this never considered a son’s short hair in prison.

In our house lived three men with one name, and all three fought or ran.
I left Nelson Demery III for Jericho Brown, a name I earned in prison.

Jericho Brown, “Hustle” from The New Testament. Copyright © 2014 by Jericho Brown.

And if you haven’t read this poem, the poetic equivalent of a thunderstorm, you may never know that poetic lightning can strike, and it strikes twice.

Prayer of the Backhanded

By Jericho Brown

Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closet extension
Cord, not his braided belt, but God,
Bless the back of my daddy’s hand
Which, holding nothing tightly
Against me and not wrapped
In leather, eliminated the air
Between itself and my cheek.
Make full this dimpled cheek
Unworthy of its unfisted print
And forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target
Like hail from a blind sky,
Involuntary, fast, but brutal
In its bruising. Father, I bear the bridge
Of what might have been
A broken nose. I lift to you
What was a busted lip. Bless
The boy who believes
His best beatings lack
Intention, the mark of the beast.
Bring back to life the son
Who glories in the sin
Of immediacy, calling it love.
God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward in fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.

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Black History Month: Tyehimba Jess

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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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.


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:


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

Powerful Poem by Patricia Smith on Emmett Till Lynching

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.

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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RIP Julian Bond: “Habana”



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:


(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?”

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