TCS: “Today in America People Were Bought and Sold”

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“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’
Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’. . . No woman
has ever written enough.”

– bell hooks


Since this is the final Monday in the month of April, which is Black Women’s History Month, I think a kind of summing up is due, and I can’t think of any poet better suited to the task than Marilyn Nelson, who has written many poems based on Black American history, her family’s history, and her own experiences.

Marilyn Nelson (1946 – ) American poet, translator, educator, and children’s author, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a military family, and spent most of her childhood on a series of military bases. She is the daughter of Melvin M. Nelson, one the last Tuskegee Airmen, and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, a teacher. She earned a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and is now professor emerita at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. She was also Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2001 to 2006.  In 2004, Nelson was the founder and director of the Soul Mountain Retreat, which offers fellowships to emerging and established writers, with an emphasis on underrepresented racial or cultural groups. Among her many honors and awards are: the 1992 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction for The Homeplace; a 1995 Fulbright Teaching Fellowship (France); the 2001 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Carver: a Life in Poems; the 2012 Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement; her 2013 election as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets; the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature for advocating for racial rapprochement and women’s empowerment through her work, as well as the 2017 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children; and the 2019 Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her body of work. Nelson is also a three-time finalist for the National Book Award for The Homeplace, The Fields of Praise, and Carver: A Life in Poems.


How I Discovered Poetry

by Marilyn Nelson

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

 “How I Discovered Poetry” from The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, © 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 by Marilyn Nelson – Louisiana State University Press



by Marilyn Nelson

For Ruben Ahoueya

Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.

“Worth” from Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011, © 2012 by Marilyn Nelson – Louisiana State University Press


The Boley Rodeo

by Marilyn Nelson

A collective family myth
passed down across generations
takes on the polished gleam of truth,
and memories become legend.

The legend of black sod-busters
on a piece of red soil they own
in a township of black ranchers.
Their legendary rodeo.


Two Stars and Stripes flutter into
the arena, carried by two
men in jeans, red shirts, white Stetsons.
Guiding their horses with left hands,
holding the flagstaffs in their rights,
their backs straight and tall, their faces,
their chestnut faces, beautiful
in the light of the setting sun.

After them, two by two,
banners waving, hooves raising dust,
ride the Horse People of Boley,
a varicolored promenade.
They canter once around the ring,
then they circle into the sky.


In the cluster of five-year-old
contenders wearing life jackets
and bicycle helmets, paper
numbers safety-pinned to their backs,
you line up one by one for a turn
to hang on tight with your legs squeezed
at the sheep’s broad middle, fingers
holding handfuls of deep, warm wool
as the sheep destiny presents
runs you out to cheering applause.
Whether you’ll fall on top of it,
or it on you, you won’t fall far.
You have no front teeth anyway,
and a brown clown gone pick you up.


This horse was bred and born to buck.
He’s a good horse, he’ll give you points.
Gloved hand in the rigging’s handle,
bare brown hand waving in the air,
you whir your spurs at his shoulders
as he leaps, twists, and jolts your bones.
Four seconds or four hundred years.
But if you can get up and slap
the dust off your jeans with your hat,
the future’s eyes, looking at you,
will fill with forevering light:
light that will make generations
of proud brown people remember
the Black Horse People of Boley.


In truth there’s seldom a reason
for a man to wrestle a steer,
unless he’s a real ranch cowboy
dealing with ornery power.
Maybe, while rounding up the herd,
he bumps heads with testosterone,
and it’s testosterone-vs.-
testosterone. Bill Pickett learned,
watching dogs on a Boley ranch,
that sometimes you’ve got to bulldog
a hardhead with a kiss of pain.
Today, you slide from horse onto
the fleeing steer, grab his horns, pull
five hundred pounds of muscle down.


Roping always involves a team,
whether it’s two men or women
or one human and one smart horse.
The aim: to bring down and hog-tie
a big scared baby of a calf
or a full-grown and pissed-off steer.
You gallop out swinging your loop
with one hand, the other holding
the slack and the unneeded reins.
You down him with a careful toss,
tie three of his hooves together,
step back with wide arms and a grin.
A rope isn’t always a noose:
ropes in brown hands can be lassos.


It’s not the leather riding gloves
and it’s not the fringed buckskin chaps,
not the worn-in and dusty boots,
not the spurs’ blunted silver stars,
not the 10x wide-brimmed straw hat
(both winged helmet and regal crown):
it’s not clothes that make the cowboy.
It’s something behind a bronzed face,
in the level gaze from dark eyes,
and, of course, it’s heart that puts you,
the reins in one hand, one hand free,
waving with the horse’s rhythm,
your heels spurring from neck to flank,
on this bronc called America.


Thunder explodes out of the chute.
Mane and tail whip in the speed wind,
agile hooves pound a swift tempo
circling around the first barrel.
One hand grips the horn, the other
communicates with the taut reins,
though your thighs give the best guidance,
telling your horse to maneuver
in circles that hug the barrels.
Three barrels, a tight cloverleaf
you gallop through with one joined will.
This contest pits you and your horse
against the clock and your best time.
Sister, your dreadlocks are flying!


Before telegraph, news traveled
from mouth to ear, from hand to hand.
News arrived old. From sea to sea
took weeks, unless carried by boys
stationed along the stagecoach route
to race a cross-country relay.
Your pulse gallops toward the handoff,
when your teammate takes the baton
and the noise and flurry go on
without you. Your leg run, you and
your horse (your partner, your friend) stand
encompassed in adrenalin,
watching, as the Ancestors must,
unable to help, but cheering.


Let’s hear it for the barrel men,
for the bullfighters, for the clowns,
for the men on the side ready
to run toward trouble. Give it up
for the musical director
(thanks for the hip-hop, bro!). And for
the announcer and all the folks
cheering in the stands. That baby
wearing a tiny cowboy hat.
That man the same black as his horse,
in that white suit and fedora.
His Tennessee Walker’s proud gait
as he nods to his own rhythm,
tail an ebony waterfall.


Boley bulls are bred for bucking,
bred to be mean, to be “Bad Boys.”
They teach you to sit strong, hold on,
and with one hand reach for the sky.
After riding a Boley bull
a cowboy thinks, Hell, I’ve been there.
I’ve held the bull-rope, raked my spurs,
while that bad boy tried to kill me.
A ton of Brahma seeing red
gives you a whole new perspective,
a who-you-think-you-talking-to
fearlessness. You’ve seen the bull’s eye:
you know you can’t die more than once.
You’ve lived through eight Mississippis.

“The Boley Rodeo” from Poetry magazine, April 2019 issue, © 2019 by Marilyn Nelson

Daughters 1900

by Marilyn Nelson

Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,
are bickering. The eldest has come home
with new truths she can hardly wait to teach.

She lectures them: the younger daughters search
the sky, elbow each other’s ribs, and groan.
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch

and blue-sprigged dresses, like a stand of birch
saplings whose leaves are going yellow-brown
with new truths. They can hardly wait to teach,

themselves, to be called “Ma’am,” to march
high-heeled across the hanging bridge to town.
Five daughters. In the slant light on the porch

Pomp lowers his paper for a while, to watch
the beauties he’s begotten with his Ann:
these new truths they can hardly wait to teach.

The eldest sniffs, “A lady doesn’t scratch.”
The third snorts back, “Knock, knock: nobody home.”
The fourth concedes, “Well, maybe not in church . . . “
Five daughters in the slant light on the porch.

“Daughters 1900,” from The Homeplace, ©1990 by Marilyn Nelson –
Louisiana State University Press



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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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