“A poem is a gesture toward home./It makes dark demands I call my own.”—Jericho Brown (1)
American arts and culture are almost unimaginable without the contributions of Black artists. American music uninfluenced by blues, gospel, and jazz; American painting without the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, or Oliver Lee Jackson; American literature absent Ralph Ellison, Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright, or Toni Morrison; these very few examples are sufficient to indicate how impoverished American culture would be in their absence.
Black writers and specifically poets continue to enrich, enlighten, and deepen American life. Jericho Brown, recipient of numerous awards, depicts Black experiences (as well as those of LGBTQ individuals). In “Foreday in the Morning,” he writes of Black mothers’ love of planting as well as their sons:
“My mother grew morning glories that spilled onto the walkway toward her porch
because she was a woman with land who showed as much by giving it color.
She told me I could have whatever I worked for. That means she was an American.
But she’d say it was because she believed
He goes on the refute the notion that Blacks are lazy and deftly returns to the gardening image he began with:
“I’ll never know who started the lie that we are lazy,
But I’d love to wake that bastard up
At foreday in the morning, toss him in a truck, and drive him under God
Past every bus stop in America to see all those black folk
Waiting to go work for whatever they want. A house? A boy
To keep the lawn cut? Some color in the yard? My God, we leave things green.” (2)
In “A Small Needful Fact,” his elegy for Eric Garner, Ross Gay informs us that Garner once “worked for some time for the Parks and Rec./Horticultural Department” planting things that
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.” (3)
Aracelis Girmay draws on African-American religious traditions of preaching and praise in “You Are What I Love,” a poem that also contains echoes of Walt Whitman:
“You, selling roses out of a silver grocery cart
You, in the park, feeding the pigeons
You cheering for the bees
You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats
You protecting the river You are who I love
delivering babies, nursing the sick
You with henna on your feet and a gold star in your nose
You taking your medicine, reading the magazines….
You at the edges and shores, in the rooms of quiet, in the rooms of shouting, in the airport terminal, at the bus depot saying “No!” and each of us looking out from the gorgeous unlikelihood of our lives at all, finding ourselves here, witnesses to each other’s tenderness, which, this moment, is fury, is rage, which, this moment, is another way of saying: You are who I love You are who I love You and you and you are who”(4)
In her remarkable book-length poem, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, Erica Dawson draws on those spiritual traditions and even more from contemporary styles like hip-hop. This work needs to be read in full for full appreciation, so I’ll just quote the opening and closing lines and urge my readers to seek the book out:
“When U-God from Wu-Tang said, You ain’t heard/us in a minute, rap spoke straight to God….//I said to God, Just watch
the demonstration every night. You’ll see/blackness kept in its station….”//
“In my kitchen. Those flowers. They’re called/Blue My Mind. Sometimes I wear the petals.//Outside, a dark and empty heaven.//A wind gone on about its blackness.” (5)
The haunting (literally) history of Blackness in the United States is explored in Haint, by Teri Ellen Cross Davis:
“Only now can pixels completely capture/the mulatto ancestors born in Virginia,/the freedmen of Georgia, the sharecroppers/in Lafayette County, Arkansas, the winters/yellowing successive generations in Cleveland.//Finally,/the close-up—a mirror, and I am discovering/how slow love is, even slower acceptance,/but traveling down the road I was born to know.” (from “Fade to Black”) (6)
Le Hinton, in A Chorus for Cotton, also engages history, albeit by implication, as he considers uses for cotton, the cultivation of which, of course, was dependant upon slavery. In “Uses of Cotton (Visibility,)” following an uncomfortable racially tinged encounter in a 7-11, Hinton advises:
“Open a bag of cotton balls (or use the ones
you’ve saved from previous bottles of aspirin)
then apply Elmer’s Glue to attach
them to your exposed black arms and black
legs. Don’t forget the back of your black
hands and your obviously black face. Read Mr.
Ellison while the glue dries.” (7)
With her very powerful voice, Morgan Parker, in “If You Are Over Staying Woke,” confronts the fatigue and sense of hopelessness even those most committed to justice and equality inevitably experience at times. This incredible list poem is long, so again I’ll share a few lines from the beginning and end:
the plants. Drink
plenty of water.
the news. Get
about the weather….
Drink the white
Keep a song mind
Black poets also celebrate the simple, universal pleasures of such things as family and food, In his charming and funny poem, “I wanted bananas—,” Alan King relates a tale of a car rife during which he pretends to be listening to his wife while secretly hungering for the delicious yellow fruit:
“You complain about the weak radio signal.
I could nod and punctuate your frustrations
with hums, as if I’m listening,
as if my head weren’t full of Hunger’s S.O.S.”
The poet, rather than attending to his partner’s complaints about the radio, instead craves “plates and plates
of large bananas, edible boomerangs,
nature’s golden sugar-filled tusks,
the moon’s waning frown
or waxing smile.” (9)
And finally, beloved D.C. poet Reuben Jackson writes gently biting, wry observations on everything from music to city life to race relations, recalling the Black history of Washington and celebrating the lives of the Ancestors. In “sunday brunch,” Jackson relates a dryly humorous encounter:
do your parents
the front porch,
A whole history of well-meaning White folks’ conversation, gentrification, and Black forbearance is encapsulated in these seven short lines. Scattered Clouds contains Jackson’s collected poems to date and will repay many readings therein. (10)
All these fine poets, in various forms, kinds of language, a variety of keys, in Langston Hughes’ words, “sing America.”
There are many others worth discovering and reading, to say nothing of numerous other Poets of Color: Latinx poets such as Ada Límon, Martín Espada, Natalie Diaz; Native American voices like Joy Harjo and Layli Long Soldier; Asian-American poets such as Chen Chen, Arthur Sze, Victoria Chang. Perhaps in the future I’ll introduce some of them. In the present moment the voices I celebrate here and so many others should be amplified, heard, and read carefully and deeply.