by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
February is Black History Month in the United States. When Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” in 1963, he wasn’t the first African-American to talk about a dream for a better and more just America, fulfilling the promise from its declaration as a nation that “all men are created equal.”
Here are four black poets – Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, Alice Walker and Langston Hughes, with fears and rage, as well as dreams, for their country.
Lucille Clifton’s poem imagines the thoughts of James Byrd, Jr., a 49-year-old African-American man, who was dragged by white racists for three miles behind a pickup-truck, conscious through most of the ordeal, until he hit the edge of a culvert, which severed his head and right arm. The murderers dumped the rest of his body in front of a black cemetery in Jasper, Texas. His horrible death caused the state of Texas to pass a hate crimes law, and later led, with the murder of Matthew Shepard, to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009.
jasper texas 1998
for j. byrd
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
“jasper texas 1998” from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, © 2000 by Lucille Clifton – BOA Editions, Ltd.
Robert Hayden imagines what an alien from another world might report back to his home planet about the humanoids on planet Earth who call themselves Americans, and what thoughts this alien might wish to keep private.
here among them . . . the americans . . . this baffling
multi people . . . extremes and variegations . . . their
noise . . . restlessness . . . their almost frightening
energy . . . how best describe these aliens in my
reports to The Counselors
disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations . . . white black
red brown yellow . . . the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live . . . . by which they justify
their cruelties to one another
charming savages . . . enlightened primitives . . . brash
new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy . . . how
describe them . . . do they indeed know what or who
they are . . . do not seem to . . . yet no other beings
in the universe make more extravagant claims
for their importance and identity
like us they have created a veritable populace
of machines that serve and soothe and pamper
and entertain . . . we have seen their flags and
foot prints on the moon . . . also the intricate
rubbish left behind . . . a wastefully ingenious
people . . . many it appears worship the Unknowable
Essence . . . the same for them as for us . . . but are
more faithful to their machine made gods
technologists their shamans
oceans deserts mountains grain fields canyons
forests . . . variousness of landscapes weathers
sun light moon light as at home . . . much here is
beautiful . . . dream like vistas reminding me of
home . . . item . . . have seen the rock place known
as garden of the gods and sacred to the first
indigenes . . . red monoliths of home . . . despite
the tensions i breath in i am attracted to
the vigorous americans . . . disturbing sensuous
appeal of so many . . . never to be admitted
something they call the american dream . . . sure
we still believe in it i guess . . . an earth man
in the tavern said . . . irregardless of the some
times night mare facts we always try to double
talk our way around . . . and its okay the dreams
okay and means whats good could be a damn sight
better . . . means every body in the good old u s a
should have the chance to get ahead or at least
should have three squares a day . . . as for myself
i do okay . . . not crying hunger with a loaf of
bread tucked under my arm you understand . . . i
fear one does not clearly follow i replied
notice you got a funny accent pal . . . like where
you from he asked . . . far from here i mumbled
he stared hard . . . i left
must be more careful . . . item . . . learn to use okay
their pass word . . . okay
crowds gathering in the streets today for some reason
obscure to me . . . noise and violent motion
repulsive physical contact . . . sentinels . . . pigs
i heard them called . . . with flailing clubs . . . rage
and bleeding and frenzy and screaming . . . machines
wailing . . . unbearable decibels . . . i fled lest
vibrations of the brutal scene do further harm
to my metabolism already over taxed
The Counselors would never permit such barbarous
confusion . . . they know what is best for our sereni
ty . . . we are an ancient race and have outgrown
illusions cherished here . . . item . . . their vaunted
liberty . . . no body pushes me around i have heard
them say . . . land of the free they sing . . . what do
they fear mistrust betray more than the freedom
they boast of in their ignorant pride . . . have seen
the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities
paradox on paradox . . . how have the americans
managed to survive
parades fireworks displays video spectacles
much grandiloquence much buying and selling
they are celebrating their history . . . earth men
in antique uniforms play at the carnage whereby
the americans achieved identity . . . we too recall
that struggle as enterprise of suffering and
faith uniquely theirs . . . blonde miss teen age
america waving from a red white and blue flower
float as the goddess of liberty . . . a divided
people seeking reassurance from a past few under
stand and many scorn . . . why should we sanction
old hypocrisies . . . thus dissenters . . . The Counse
lors would silence them
a decadent people The Counselors believe . . . i
do not find them decadent . . . a refutation not
permitted me . . . but for all their knowledge
power and inventiveness not yet more than raw
crude neophytes like earthlings everywhere
though i have easily passed for an american . . . in
bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans
hard hat yarmulka mini skirt . . . describe in some
detail for the amusement of The Counselors . . . and
though my skill in mimicry is impeccable . . . as
indeed The Counselors are aware . . . some thing
eludes me . . . some constant amid the variables
defies analysis and imitation . . . will i be judged
america . . . as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy . . . an organism that changes even as i
examine it . . . fact and fantasy never twice the
same . . . so many variables
exert greater caution . . . twice have aroused
suspicion . . . returned to the ship until rumors
of humanoids from outer space . . . so their scoff
ing media voices termed us . . . had been laughed
away . . . my crew and i laughed too of course
confess i am curiously drawn . . . unmentionable . . . to
the americans . . . doubt i could exist among them for
long however . . . psychic demands far too severe
much violence . . . much that repels . . . i am attracted
none the less . . . their variousness their ingenuity
their elan vital . . . and that some thing . . . essence
quiddity . . . i cannot penetrate or name
[American Journal] from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher, © 1978, 1982 by Robert Hayden, Liveright Publishing Corporation
Alice Walker speaks in this poem about the necessity to change how the poor are perceived and treated in order to change the world enough to endure the changes that are the consequences of human excesses, denials and procrastination.
To Change the World Enough
To change the world enough
you must cease to be afraid
of the poor.
We experience your fear as the least pardonable of
humiliations; in the past
it has sent us scurrying off
daunted and ashamed
into the shadows.
the world ending
the only one all of us have known
we seek the same
the same high place
and ample table.
The poor always believe
there is room enough
for all of us;
the very rich never seem to have heard
In us there is wisdom of how to share
loaves and fishes
we do this everyday.
Learn from us,
we ask you.
We enter now
the dreaded location
of Earth’s reckoning;
no longer far
or hidden in books
that claim to disclose
it is here.
We must walk together without fear.
There is no path without us
“To Change the World Enough” © 2014 by Alice Walker, from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database
Langston Hughes speaks powerfully about his hopes and dreams for a re-making of America, juxtaposing the American Myth with his reality as a “Negro” man who came of age in the 1920s. But here he is also crying out for all those struggling through the Great Depression, whose hopes for America were fading into desperate survival. His poem still speaks for millions today, the embodiment of their present fears and stubborn dreams for America’s future.
Let America Be America Again
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.”
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,
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!
“Let America Be American Again” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes – Alfred A. Knopf, Inc
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)
American author, poet and educator, Poet Laureate of Maryland (1979-1985); her work celebrates her African-American heritage and experience as a woman
Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
American poet, essayist and educator. The first African-American Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1976-1978)
Alice Walker (1944 – )
American novelist, short story writer, poet, and activist; author of
The Color Purple, which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
American poet-author-playwright, social activist, novelist, and columnist; major figure in New York’s Harlem Renaissance
- Children of James Byrd, Jr.
- Man sitting on suitcase in 1960s San Francisco
- African-American migrant family in the 1960s
- Black iron ore miners in the 1930s
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud