In honor of Black History Month
by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
There is a strong tradition of women in America being involved in social justice movements. The Abolitionist, Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements all have notable women in their histories. So it should be no surprise that the works of a number of outstanding African American women poets reflect the ongoing struggle for equality and the end of racism, often relating their own confrontations with discrimination.
Nikki Giovanni (1943 – ) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but her family moved first to Cleveland, Ohio shortly after her birth, and then to Wyoming when she was five. She came back to Knoxville in 1958 to live with her grandparents while going to high school, and went on, after a rocky start, to graduate from Fiske University. Giovannni is a poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. Her strong, militant poetry was forged during the Civil Rights and Black Power era.
BLK History Month
If Black History Month is not
viable then wind does not
carry the seeds and drop them
on fertile ground
rain does not
dampen the land
and encourage the seeds
sun does not
warm the earth
and kiss the seedlings
and tell them plain:
You’re As Good As Anybody Else
You’ve Got A Place Here, Too
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
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
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
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
“BLK History Month” from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, © 2002 by Nikki Giovanni – HarperCollins Publishers
“Nikki-Rosa” from Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment, © 1968, 1970 by Nikki Giovanni – HarperCollins Publishers
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is one of the most influential and widely read African American poets of the 20th century. She was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize (for poetry, in 1950), and the first black woman Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1985–1986).
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
“kitchenette building” from Selected Poems, © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks – Harper & Row
Robin Coste Lewis was born in Compton California. In 2015, she won the National Book Award for Poetry for her collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus. This poem is Coste Lewis’ side of a conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks in her “kitchenette building.”
for and after Gwendolyn Brooks
for and after the kitchenette building
We meet – sometimes – between the dry hours,
Between clefts in the involuntary plan,
Refusing to think of rent or food – how
Civic the slick to satisfied from man.
And democratic. A Lucky Strike each, we
Sponge each other off, while what’s grayed
In and gray slinks ashamed down the drain.
No need to articulate great restraint,
No need to see each other’s mouth lip
The obvious. Giddy. Fingers garnished
With fumes of onions and garlic, I slip
Back into my shift then watch her hands – wordless –
Reattach her stockings to the martyred
Rubber moons wavering at her garter.
“The Mothers” from Voyage of the Sable Venus, © 2015 by Robin Coste Lewis – Alfred A. Knopf
Natasha Trethewey (1966 – ) was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Native Guard, and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate (2012-2013). When her white father, a Canadian emigrant, met her black mother, at Kentucky State College, it was illegal for interracial couples to be married in Kentucky, so they had to cross the state line into Ohio for the wedding. Many parts of the South were still segregated even in the early 1970s, as this memory of her childhood attests.
I am four in this photograph, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
my hands on the flowered hips
of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,
curl around wet sand. The sun cuts
the rippling Gulf in flashes with each
tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet
glinting like switchblades. I am alone
except for my grandmother, other side
of the camera, telling me how to pose.
It is 1970, two years after they opened
the rest of this beach to us,
forty years since the photograph
where she stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,
her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.
“History Lesson” from Domestic Work, © 2000 by Natasha Tretheway – Graywolf Press
Nikky Finney (1957- ) was born in South Carolina. Her father, an attorney, and her mother, a teacher, were both committed activists in the Civil Rights movement, so it has been very much a part of her life.
Dancing with Strom
I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there’s not enough
troops in the army to force the southern people to break
down segregation and accept the Negro [pronounced Nigra]
into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes,
and into our churches.
—Strom Thurmond, South Carolina
Senator and Presidential Candidate
for the States’ Rights Party, 1948
I said, “I’m gonna fight Thurmond from the mountain
to the sea.”
—Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Civil
Rights Matriarch, South Carolina, 1948
The youngest has been married off.
He is as tall as Abraham Lincoln. Here, on his
wedding day, he flaunts the high spinning laugh
of a newly freed slave. I stand above him, just
off the second-floor landing, watching
the celebration unfold.
Uncle-cousins, bosom buddies, convertible cars
of nosy paramours, strolling churlish penny-
pinchers pour onto the mansion estate. Below,
Strom Thurmond is dancing with my mother.
The favorite son of South Carolina has already
danced with the giddy bride and the giddy bride’s
mother. More women await: Easter dressy,
drenched in caramel, double exposed, triple cinched,
lined up, leggy, ready.
I refuse to leave the porch.
If I walk down I imagine he will extend his
hand, assume I am next in his happy darky line,
#427 on his dance card. His history
and mine, burnt cork and blackboard chalk,
concentric, pancaked, one face, two histories,
slow dragging, doing the nasty.
My father knows all this.
Daddy’s Black Chief Justice legs straddle the boilerplate
carapace of the CSS H. L. Hunley, lost Confederate
submarine, soon to be found just off the coast of
Charleston. He keeps it fully submerged by
applying the weight of every treatise he has
ever written against the death penalty of
South Carolina. Chanting “Briggs v. Elliott,”
he keeps the ironside door of the submarine shut.
His eyes are a Black father’s beacon, search-
lights blazing for the married-off sons, and
on the unmarried, whale-eyed nose-in-book
daughter, born unmoored, quiet, yellow,
strategically placed under hospital lights to
fully bake. The one with the most to lose.
There will be no trouble. Still, he chain-
smokes. A burning stick of mint & Indian
leaf seesaws between his lips. He wants
me to remember that trouble is a fire that
runs like a staircase up then down. Even
on a beautiful day in June.
I remember the new research just out:
What the Negro gave America
Enslaved Africans gifted porches to North
America. Once off the boats they were told,
then made, to build themselves a place—to live.
They build the house that will keep them alive.
Rather than be the bloody human floret on
yet another southern tree, they imagine higher
ground. They build landings with floor enough
to see the trouble coming. Their arced imaginations
nail the necessary out into the floral air. On the
backs and fronts of twentypenny houses,
a watching place is made for the ones who will
come tipping with torch & hog tie through the
quiet woods, hoping to hang them as decoration
in the porcupine hair of longleaf.
The architecture of Black people is sui generis.
This is architecture dreamed by the enslaved:
Their design will be stolen.
Their wits will outlast gold.
My eyes seek historical rest from the kiss-
kiss theater below; Strom Thurmond’s
I search the tops of yellow pine while my
fingers reach, catch, pinch my father’s
Long before AC African people did the
math: how to cool down the hot air of
If I could descend, without being trotted
out by some roughrider driven by his
submarine dreams, this is what I’d take
my time and scribble into the three-tiered,
white créme wedding cake:
Filibuster. States’ Rights. The Grand Inquisition
of the great Thurgood Marshall. This wedding
reception would not have been possible without
the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (opposed by
The Dixiecrat senator has not worn his
sandy seersucker fedora to the vows.
The top of Strom Thurmond’s bald head
reveals a birthmark tattooed in contrapposto
pose: Segregation Forever.
All my life he has been the face of hatred;
the blue eyes of the Confederate flag,
the pasty bald of white men pulling wooly
heads up into the dark skirts of trees,
the sharp, slobbering, amber teeth of
German shepherds, still clenched inside
the tissue-thin, (still marching), band-leader
legs of Black schoolteachers, the single-
minded pupae growing between the legs of
white boys crossing the tracks, ready to
force Black girls into fifth-grade positions,
Palmetto state-sanctioned sex 101.
I didn’t want to dance with him.
My young cousin arrives at my elbow.
Her beautiful lips the color of soft-skin
mangoes. She pulls, teasing the stitches
of my satin bridesmaid gown, “You better
go on down there and dance with Strom—
while he still has something left.”
I don’t tell her it is unsouthern for her
to call him by his first name, as if they
are familiar. I don’t tell her: To bear
witness to marriage is to believe that
everything moving through the sweet
wedding air can be confidently, left—
I stand on the landing high above the
beginnings of Love, holding a plastic
champagne flute, drinking in the warm
June air of South Carolina. I hear my
youngest brother’s top hat joy. Looking
down I find him, deep in the giddy crowd,
modern, integrated, interpretive.
For ten seconds I consider dancing with
Strom. His Confederate hands touch
every shoulder, finger, back that I love.
I listen to the sound of Black laughter
shimmying. All worry floats beyond
the gurgling submarine bubbles,
the white railing, every drop of
I close my eyes and Uncle Freddie
appears out of a baby’s breath of fog.
(The dead are never porch bound.)
He moves with ease where I cannot.
He walks out on the rice-thrown air,
heaving a lightning bolt instead of
a wave. Suddenly, there is a table set,
complete with 1963 dining room stars,
they twinkle twinkle up & behind him.
Thelonious, Martin, Malcolm, Nina,
Dakota, all mouths Negro wide &
open have come to sing me down.
His tattered almanac sleeps curled like
a wintering slug in his back pocket.
His dark Dogon eyes jet to the scene
below, then zoom past me until they are
lost in the waning sugilite sky. Turning
in the shadows of the wheat fields,
he whispers a truth plucked from
the foreword tucked in his back pocket:
Veritas: Black people will forgive you
quicker than you can say Orangeburg
History does not keep books on the
handiwork of slaves. But the enslaved
who built this Big House, long before
I arrived for this big wedding, knew
the power of a porch.
This native necessity of nailing down
a place, for the cooling off of air,
in order to lift the friendly, the kindly,
the so politely, the in-love-ly, jubilant,
into the arms of the grand peculiar,
for the greater good of
the public spectacular:
“Dancing with Strom” from Head Off & Split, © 2011 by Nikky Finney – Northwestern University Press
Nikki Finney answered a question about the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:
“…We do not live in a post-racial America…I’m always an optimist, but I’m also a realist. It’s going to change by people talking about it, by art, by keeping it in front of our faces. You can talk about tough things without indicting, without pointing your finger and jumping up on the table and making people feel terrible about who they are. That’s the humanity part. I want to have that conversation with people.”
I think all of these poems are part of that conversation.
- Ethiopian children with seedlings
- Birthday cake
- Mother and child in kitchenette flat, Chicago 1941 – by Russell Lee
- Woman drinking coke in 1960s
- Little girls on the beach
- Porch of the Lighthouse Inn, Tybee Island
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud