TCS Black Poetry Day – “This Freedom … This Beautiful and Terrible Thing”

    Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.


“You’re allowed to miss the people who were bullets to you,
but you’re not allowed to let them shoot you again.”
Reyna Biddy, spoken word poet, author of We Find Our Way

“What does it mean to be a poet in a country where more money
per minute is spent on armaments, when we are supposed to be at
peace, than is spent to feed the starving children …When the price

of one stealth bomber, already outmoded, is more than the entire
federal appropriation for all the arts in this country? What does it

mean that a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother is named
the state poet of New York? It means that we live in a world full of

the most intense contradictions. And we must find ways to use the
best we have—ourselves, our work—to bridge those contradictions …”

– Audre Lorde, from her 1991 acceptance speech when Governor
Mario Cuomo appointed her as poet laureate of the state of New York


October 17 – Black Poetry Day

In 1985, Black Poetry Day was inaugurated. The birth date of Jupiter Hammon was chosen.

The three earliest known black American poets were slaves.

The oldest known poem by a black American is by Lucy Terry. “Bar’s Fight” is about the killing of two white families by Native Americans in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the year 1746. It is the only poem of hers which has come down to us, through black Americans who memorized it and passed it on, until it was finally published in 1855. Her freedom was bought by Abijah Prince, a well-off free black man who became her husband. She lived to be 91 years old.

August ’twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six;
The Indians did in ambush lay,
Some very valiant men to slay …

Jupiter Hammon was born October 17, 1711, as a slave. He spent his entire life on the estate of the Lloyd family of Long Island NY. In 1761, his poem “An Evening Thought” was the first by an African-American to be published in the U.S. He was a devout Christian, and his poetry is mainly religious. He was never emancipated.

Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,
The only Son of God;
Redemption now to every one,
That love his holy Word …

Phillis Wheatley wrote “On Messers Hussey and Coffin.” It was her first poem to be printed, in the Newport Mercury, on December 21, 1767. Her book of poems was published in England in 1773. At age seven or eight, she was sold into slavery in West Africa, transported to North America, and bought by John Wheatley, a merchant, tailor, and moneylender in Boston. After she learned to read and write, the Wheatley family encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent. In 1773, the Wheatley’s son arranged for publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. John Wheatley freed Phillis after her book was published, but she continued to live in his house while she nursed his wife Susanna through her final illness. After Mrs. Wheatley’s death, Phillis married John Peters, a poor grocer. They lost three children who died young. She died in poverty and obscurity at the age of 31.

Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow? …


Since then, there have been hundreds of Black poets writing about everything from Black History to today’s headlines. And for some, their personal experiences became political.


Frederick Douglass

by Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

“Frederick Douglass” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, © 1966 by Robert Hayden – Liveright Publishing

Robert Hayden (1913-1980) American poet, essayist, and educator, was born in Detroit, Michigan. He was raised by adoptive parents who changed his name from Asa Bundy Sheffy to Robert Hayden. His eyesight was so near-blind it prevented him from playing outside with other children. His adoptive mother had to fight for his right to attend classes for the partially sighted, but poverty limited the resources available. He learned to read holding books inches from his face. At age 23, he went to work (1936-1940) for the Federal Writers Project, researching black American history and folk life, which became recurring themes in his poetry. In 1940, he married Erma Morris, and converted to his wife’s religion — the Baha’i faith, another influence on his work. 1940 was also the year he published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust. Hayden was the first African-American appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1976-1978).


What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do

by Parneshia Jones

Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.

I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.

I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).

For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.

How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?

                     Hold On.

When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.

She won a Pulitzer in the dark.

She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on.
She held on to all of us.

                    Hold On, she whispers.

Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.

They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.

                     Hold On.

We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.

Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.

                   Hold On, she says, two million light years away.

She’s right.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.

And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.

We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.

Hold On.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
and keep

“What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do” © 2017 by Parneshia Jones, published in Poem-a-Day on February 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets

Parneshia Jones (1980 – ) was born in Evanston, Illinois; American Affrilachian poet, publisher, and editor; director of Northwestern University Press since 2020. As an undergraduate at Chicago State University, she had a one-on-one chance meeting with the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), who reviewed and red-marked Jones’ early poems and encouraged her to continue writing. In 2015, Jones published Vessel, a collection of poems tracing the connections of her Midwestern and Southern histories. Vessel won the Midwest Book Award for Poetry. Jones has also been honored with the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, a Margaret Walker Short Story Award, and an Aquarius Press Legacy Award. In 2019, Jones became a Visiting Writer in Residence at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a past President of the Board of Directors for the Cave Canem Foundation.


 by Countee Cullen

      (For Eric Walrond)

 Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

“Incident” from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, © 2012 by Amistad Research Center, Tulane University – Library of America

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was born in New York City; African-American poet, novelist, playwright, and children’s author. He was at the epicenter of social, cultural, and artistic explosion now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen worked as assistant editor for Opportunity magazine, where his column, “The Dark Tower”, increased his literary reputation. His poetry collections include Color, Harlem Wine, The Ballad of the Brown Girl, Copper Sun, The Black Christ and Other Poems, One Way to Heaven, and On These I Stand. He also taught English, French, and creative writing at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York. One of his students was James Baldwin. Cullen died at age 42, from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning, in January, 1946.

Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]

by Claudia Rankine

On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.

The man doesn’t acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do. For him, you imagine, it is more like breath than wonder; he has had to think about it so much you wouldn’t call it thought.

When another passenger leaves his seat and the standing woman sits, you glance over at the man. He is gazing out the window into what looks like darkness.

You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.

You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.

Where he goes the space follows him. If the man left his seat before Union Station you would simply be a person in a seat on the train. You would cease to struggle against the unoccupied seat when where why the space won’t lose its meaning.

You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it’s okay, I’m okay, you don’t need to sit here. You don’t need to sit and you sit and look past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel.

All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do?

The soft gray-green of your cotton coat touches the sleeve of him. You are shoulder to shoulder though standing you could feel shadowed. You sit to repair whom who? You erase that thought. And it might be too late for that.

It might forever be too late or too early. The train moves too fast for your eyes to adjust to anything beyond the man, the window, the tiled tunnel, its slick darkness. Occasionally, a white light flickers by like a displaced sound.

From across the aisle tracks room harbor world a woman asks a man in the rows ahead if he would mind switching seats. She wishes to sit with her daughter or son. You hear but you don’t hear. You can’t see.

It’s then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you’ll tell them we are traveling as a family.

“Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” from Citizen: An American Lyric, © 2014 by Claudia Rankine – Graywolf Press

Claudia Rankine (1963 – ) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and educated at Williams College and Columbia University; American poet, essayist, playwright, and the editor of several anthologies. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, and two plays. Her collection Citizen: An American Lyric won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the PEN Center USA Poetry Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, and the Forward Prize for Poetry. Her other poetry collections include Nothing in Nature is Private, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and The End of the Alphabet. In 2020, she published Just Us: An American Conversation, which contained an essay about her year of teaching a class called Constructions of Whiteness at Yale University in 2016, as well as poetry.


Some Black American Poets

This is far from a complete list, but so many Americans would be hard-pressed to name more than one or two African-American poets that it’s worth noting how many more Black poets there are with names well worth remembering.

Elizabeth Alexander

Maya Angelou

Afua Ansong

Russell Atkins

Amiri Baraka

Reyna Biddy

Arna Wendell Bontemps

  1. Dallas Bowser

William Stanley Braithwaite

Gwendolyn Brooks

Jericho Brown

Sterling Brown

Mahogany L. Browne

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Upile Chisala

Pearl Cleage

Lucille Clifton

Staceyann Chin

Taiyon J. Coleman

Wanda Coleman

Jayne Cortez

Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr.

Countee Cullen

Waring Cuney

Kwame Dawes

Clarissa Scott Delany

Toi Derricote

Melvin Dixon

Owen Dodson

Rita Dove

W.E.B. Du Bois

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cornelius Eady

James Emanuel

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Camonghne Felix

Nikky Finney

Vievee Francis

Marcus Garvey Jr

Nikki Giovannni

Amanda Gorman

Charlotte Forten Grimké

Monica Hand

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Michael  S. Harper

Yona Harvey

Robert Hayden

Terrance Hayes

Essex Hemphill

Valerie June Hockett

Elizabeth Curtis Holman

Langston Hughes

Ishion Hutchinson

Jordan Jace

Gary Jackson

Kara Jackson

Tyehimba Jess

Ted Joans

Fenton Johnson

Helene Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Parneshia Jones

Saeed Jones

Sarah Jones

June Jordan

Allison Joseph

Ruth Ellen Kocher

Yusef Komunyakaa

Audre Lorde

Monifa Love

Haki Madhubuti

Clarence Major

Jasmine Mans

Nate Marshall

Shane McCrae

Claude McKay

Aja Monet

Yesenia Montilla

Kamilah Aisha Moon

Harryette Mullen

Marilyn Nelson

Effie Lee Newsome

Richard Bruce Nugent

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Dudley Randall

Claudia Rankine

Ishmael Reed

Beah Richards

Ed Roberson

Metta Sáma

Sonia Sanchez

Tim Seibles

Evie Shockley

Danez Smith

Patricia Smith

Tracy K. Smith

J. B. Spellman

Sekou Sundiata

Melvin B. Tolson

Quincy Troupe

Alice Walker

Margaret Walker

Frank X Walker

Afaa Michael Weaver

Marcus Wicker

Renaada Williams

Sherley Anne Williams

Jay Wright

Kevin Young

Ahmos Zu-Bolton



Visuals: Sharecropper by Elizabeth Catlett and Freedom by Curtis Hamilton

About wordcloud9

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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