Blackout Tuesday: Poems by Famous Black Poets

Today, in particular, it is imperative to amplify black voices. Read these poems from black poets for Blackout Tuesday!

Poetry & Drama

Hey Bookstr readers. If you’ve been following the news the past week, you know that protests have emerged around the U.S., after the death of George Floyd, to battle racial injustice and police brutality. Tensions are high, but people have a right to vocalize their grievances.

In response to the rising tensions, people are posting black squares on social media to offer their solidarity for peaceful protest. To acknowledge Blackout Tuesday, here are some poems, written by famous black poets, that talk about racial injustice and freedom.

Please note that some of these poems contain sensitive material, and those who may be negatively impacted by this should read with caution.

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons

image via wikimedia commons

1. “Harlem” by langston hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

 

2. “i, too” by langston hughes

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

 

Image via Flickr

image via flickr

3. “caged bird” by maya angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons

image via wikimedia commons

4. “Ghana calls” by w.e.b. dubois

Dedicated to Kwame Nkrumah

I was a little boy, at home with strangers.
I liked my playmates, and knew well,
Whence all their parents came;
From England, Scotland, royal France
From Germany and oft by chance
The humble Emerald Isle.
But my brown skin and close-curled hair
Was alien, and how it grew, none knew;
Few tried to say, some dropped a wonderful word or stray;
Some laughed and stared.
And then it came: I dreamed.
I placed together all I knew
All hints and slurs together drew.
I dreamed.
I made one picture of what nothing seemed
I shuddered in dumb terror
In silence screamed,
For now it seemed this I had dreamed;
How up from Hell, a land had leaped
A wretched land, all scorched and seamed
Covered with ashes, chained with pain
Streaming with blood, in horror lain
Its very air a shriek of death
And agony of hurt.
Anon I woke, but in one corner of my soul
I stayed asleep.
Forget I could not,
But never would I remember
That hell-hoist ghost
Of slavery and woe.
I lived and grew, I worked and hoped
I planned and wandered, gripped and coped
With every doubt but one that slept
Yet clamoured to awaken.
I became old; old, worn and gray;
Along my hard and weary way
Rolled war and pestilence, war again;
I looked on Poverty and foul Disease
I walked with Death and yet I knew
There stirred a doubt: Were all dreams true?
And what in truth was Africa?
One cloud-swept day a Seer appeared,
All closed and veiled as me he hailed
And bid me make three journeys to the world
Seeking all through their lengthened links
The endless Riddle of the Sphinx.
I went to Moscow; Ignorance grown wise taught me Wisdom;
I went to Peking: Poverty grown rich
Showed me the wealth of Work
I came to Accra.
Here at last, I looked back on my Dream;
I heard the Voice that loosed
The Long-looked dungeons of my soul
I sensed that Africa had come
Not up from Hell, but from the sum of Heaven’s glory.
I lifted up mine eyes to Ghana
And swept the hills with high Hosanna;
Above the sun my sight took flight
Till from that pinnacle of light
I saw dropped down this earth of crimson, green and gold
Roaring with color, drums and song.
Happy with dreams and deeds worth more than doing
Around me velvet faces loomed
Burnt by the kiss of everlasting suns
Under great stars of midnight glory
Trees danced, and foliage sang;
The lilies hallelujah rang
Where robed with rule on Golden Stool
The gold-crowned Priests with duty done
Pour high libations to the sun
And danced to gods.
Red blood flowed rare ’neath close-clung hair
While subtle perfume filled the air
And whirls and whirls of tiny curls
Crowned heads.
Yet Ghana shows its might and power
Not in its color nor its flower
But in its wondrous breadth of soul
Its Joy of Life
Its selfless role
Of giving.
School and clinic, home and hall
Road and garden bloom and call
Socialism blossoms bold
On Communism centuries old.
I lifted my last voice and cried
I cried to heaven as I died:
O turn me to the Golden Horde
Summon all western nations
Toward the Rising Sun.
From reeking West whose day is done,
Who stink and stagger in their dung
Toward Africa, China, India’s strand
Where Kenya and Himalaya stand
And Nile and Yang-tze roll:
Turn every yearning face of man.
Come with us, dark America:
The scum of Europe battened here
And drowned a dream
Made fetid swamp a refuge seem:
Enslaved the Black and killed the Red
And armed the Rich to loot the Dead;
Worshipped the whores of Hollywood
Where once the Virgin Mary stood
And lynched the Christ.
Awake, awake, O sleeping world
Honor the sun;
Worship the stars, those vaster suns
Who rule the night
Where black is bright
And all unselfish work is right
And Greed is Sin.
And Africa leads on:
Pan Africa!

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons

image via wikimedia commons

5. “afterimages” by audre lorde

   I
However the image enters
its force remains within
my eyes
rockstrewn caves where dragonfish evolve
wild for life, relentless and acquisitive
learning to survive
where there is no food
my eyes are always hungry
and remembering
however the image enters
its force remains.
A white woman stands bereft and empty
a black boy hacked into a murderous lesson
recalled in me forever
like a lurch of earth on the edge of sleep
etched into my visions
food for dragonfish that learn
to live upon whatever they must eat
fused images beneath my pain.
    II
The Pearl River floods through the streets of Jackson
A Mississippi summer televised.
Trapped houses kneel like sinners in the rain
a white woman climbs from her roof to a passing boat
her fingers tarry for a moment on the chimney
now awash
tearless and no longer young, she holds
a tattered baby’s blanket in her arms.
In a flickering afterimage of the nightmare rain
a microphone
thrust up against her flat bewildered words
          “we jest come from the bank yestiddy
                   borrowing money to pay the income tax
                   now everything’s gone. I never knew
                   it could be so hard.”
Despair weighs down her voice like Pearl River mud
caked around the edges
her pale eyes scanning the camera for help or explanation
unanswered
she shifts her search across the watered street, dry-eyed
                   “hard, but not this hard.”
Two tow-headed children hurl themselves against her
hanging upon her coat like mirrors
until a man with ham-like hands pulls her aside
snarling “She ain’t got nothing more to say!”
and that lie hangs in his mouth
like a shred of rotting meat.
    III
I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
as a white girl passed him in the street
and he was baptized my son forever
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.
His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner’s photographies
newspapers protest posters magazines
Police Story, Confidential, True
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy’s loins
his grieving mother’s lamentation
the severed lips, how many burns
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the screaming covers
louder than life
all over
the veiled warning, the secret relish
of a black child’s mutilated body
fingered by street-corner eyes
bruise upon livid bruise
and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children’s blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh
used, crumpled, and discarded
lying amid the sidewalk refuse
like a raped woman’s face.
A black boy from Chicago
whistled on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi
testing what he’d been taught was a manly thing to do
his teachers
ripped his eyes out his sex his tongue
and flung him to the Pearl weighted with stone
in the name of white womanhood
they took their aroused honor
back to Jackson
and celebrated in a whorehouse
the double ritual of white manhood
confirmed.
    IV
    “If earth and air and water do not judge them who are
      we to refuse a crust of bread?”
Emmett Till rides the crest of the Pearl, whistling
24 years his ghost lay like the shade of a raped woman
and a white girl has grown older in costly honor
(what did she pay to never know its price?)
now the Pearl River speaks its muddy judgment
and I can withhold my pity and my bread.
            “Hard, but not this hard.”
Her face is flat with resignation and despair
with ancient and familiar sorrows
a woman surveying her crumpled future
as the white girl besmirched by Emmett’s whistle
never allowed her own tongue
without power or conclusion
unvoiced
she stands adrift in the ruins of her honor
and a man with an executioner’s face
pulls her away.
Within my eyes
the flickering afterimages of a nightmare rain
a woman wrings her hands
beneath the weight of agonies remembered
I wade through summer ghosts
betrayed by vision
hers and my own
becoming dragonfish to survive
the horrors we are living
with tortured lungs
adapting to breathe blood.
A woman measures her life’s damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy
whistling
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father’s hands upon them
and soundlessly
a woman begins to weep.

 

Image via Wikipedia

image via wikipedia

6. “riot” by gwendolyn brooks

A riot is the language of the unheard.
—Martin Luther King

John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s,
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.
Because the Negroes were coming down the street.
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.
Gross. Gross. “Que tu es grossier!” John Cabot
itched instantly beneath the nourished white
that told his story of glory to the World.
“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he whispered
to any handy angel in the sky.
But, in a thrilling announcement, on It drove
and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath
the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili,
malign, mocked John. And, in terrific touch, old
averted doubt jerked forward decently,
cried, “Cabot! John! You are a desperate man,
and the desperate die expensively today.”
John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire
and broken glass and blood, and he cried “Lord!
Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.”

 

Image via Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

image via radcliffe institute for advanced study

7. “in memoriam: martin luther king, jr.” by june jordan

I
honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born
America
tomorrow yesterday rip rape
exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime
terrorizing
death by men by more
than you or I can
STOP
       II
They sleep who know a regulated place
or pulse or tide or changing sky
according to some universal
stage direction obvious
like shorewashed shells
we share an afternoon of mourning
in between no next predictable
except for wild reversal hearse rehearsal
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
deplorable abortion
more and
more

 

Image via Biography

image via biography

8. “short speech to my friends” by amiri baraka

A political art, let it be
tenderness, low strings the fingers
touch, or the width of autumn
climbing wider avenues, among the virtue
and dignity of knowing what city
you’re in, who to talk to, what clothes
—even what buttons—to wear. I address
     / the society
     the image, of
     common utopia.
     / The perversity
     of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms,
now they suffer in tears, these others, saxophones whining
through the wooden doors of their less than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly
ignorant.
Let the combination of morality
and inhumanity
begin.
    2.
Is power, the enemy? (Destroyer
of dawns, cool flesh of valentines, among
the radios, pauses, drunks
of the 19th century. I see it,
as any man’s single history. All the possible heroes
dead from heat exhaustion
at the beach
or hiding for years from cameras
only to die cheaply in the pages
of our daily lie.
One hero
has pretensions toward literature
one toward the cultivation of errors, arrogance,
and constantly changing disguises, as trucker, boxer,
valet, barkeep, in the aging taverns of memory. Making love
to those speedy heroines of masturbation or kicking literal evil
continually down filmy public stairs.
A compromise
would be silence. To shut up, even such risk
as the proper placement
of verbs and nouns. To freeze the spit
in mid-air, as it aims itself
at some valiant intellectual’s face.
There would be someone
who would understand, for whatever
fancy reason. Dead, lying, Roi, as your children
cane up, would also rise. As George Armstrong Custer
these 100 years, has never made
a mistake.

 

Image via Poetry Foundation

image via poetry foundation

9. “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.
featured image via jstor daily
Photos via Flickr/Gage Skidmore, Flickr/Burns Library, Boston College, Kevin Young, Tyehimba Jess, Wikimedia Commons. Illustration by ITHAKA Design/Shubham Pokharel