This is not a small voice
you hear this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths.
This is not a small love
you hear this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history where they
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the alphabet
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron and lace.
This is a love initialed Black Genius.
This is not a small voice
From Wounded in the House of a Friend. Copyright © 1995 by Sonia Sanchez. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.
Long ago I met a beautiful boy Together we slept in my mother's womb Now the street of our fathers rises to eat him :: Everything black is forbidden in Eden In my arms my brother sleeps, teeth pearls I give away the night so he can have this slumber :: I give away the man who made me white I give away the man who freed my mother I pry apart my skull my scalp unfurls :: I nestle him gray inside my brain, my brother sleeps and dreams of genes mauve lips fast against spine he breathes. The sky :: bends into my eyes as they search for his skin Helicopter blades invade our peace::: Where is that Black Where is it Where :: Blades slice, whine pound the cupolas I slide him down and out the small of my vertebrae He scurries down the bone and to the ocean :: navigates home in a boat carved of gommier When he reaches our island everyone is relieved though they have not forgotten me, belsé :: Where is your sister, eh? Whey? Koté belsé yé? Whey? Koté li yé Koté li yé To the sand To the stars on the sea Koté li yé Koté li yé To the one-celled egun To the torpid moon Koté li yé Koté li yé :: There::: Koté li yé drapes across a baton; glows electric in shine of taser; pumped dry with glass bottle; :: There::: Koté li yé vagina gape into the night; neck dangle taut with plastic bags and poorly knotted ropes; :: There::: Koté li yé belsé Koté? ::: I burn my skin shines blacker, lacquer ::: non-mwen sé flambó ashes tremble in the moonlight ::: sans humanité my smoking bones fume the future ::: pa bwè afwéchi pou lafiyèv dòt moun
Copyright © 2018 by r. erica doyle. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 25, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
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.
Copyright © 2015 by Ross Gay. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
let ruin end here
let him find honey
where there was once a slaughter
let him enter the lion’s cage
& find a field of lilacs
let this be the healing
& if not let it be
From Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Danez Smith. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.
Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill
The people you touch, and I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.
From The Tradition. Copyright © 2019 by Jericho Brown. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.
Copyright © 2014 by Danez Smith. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
Copyright © 2017 Terrance Hayes. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Fall 2017.
after Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades,
hiding inside black smoke.
I knew they'd use it,
dammit: tear gas.
I'm grown. I'm fresh.
Their clouded assumption eyes me
like a runaway, guilty as night,
chasing morning. I run
this way—the street lets me go.
I turn that way—I'm inside
the back of a police van
again, depending on my attitude
to be the difference.
I run down the signs
half-expecting to find
my name protesting in ink.
I touch the name Freddie Gray;
I see the beat cop's worn eyes.
Names stretch across the people’s banner
but when they walk away
the names fall from our lips.
Paparazzi flash. Call it riot.
The ground. A body on the ground.
A white cop’s image hovers
over us, then his blank gaze
looks through mine. I’m a broken window.
He’s raised his right arm
a gun in his hand. In the black smoke
a drone tracking targets:
No, a crow gasping for air.
Copyright © 2018 by Amanda Johnston. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
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 looking into the faces of young people as they pass, smiling and saying, Alright! which, they know it, means I see you, Family. I love you. Keep on.
You dancing in the kitchen, on the sidewalk, in the subway waiting for the train because Stevie Wonder, Héctor Lavoe, La Lupe
You stirring the pot of beans, you, washing your father’s feet
You are who I love, you
reciting Darwish, then June
Feeding your heart, teaching your parents how to do The Dougie, counting to 10, reading your patients’ charts
You are who I love, changing policies, standing in line for water, stocking the food pantries, making a meal
You are who I love, writing letters, calling the senators, you who, with the seconds of your body (with your time here), arrive on buses, on trains, in cars, by foot to stand in the January streets against the cool and brutal offices, saying: YOUR CRUELTY DOES NOT SPEAK FOR ME
You are who I love, you struggling to see
You struggling to love or find a question
You better than me, you kinder and so blistering with anger, you are who I love, standing in the wind, salvaging the umbrellas, graduating from school, wearing holes in your shoes
You are who I love
weeping or touching the faces of the weeping
You, Violeta Parra, grateful for the alphabet, for sound, singing toward us in the dream
You carrying your brother home
You noticing the butterflies
Sharing your water, sharing your potatoes and greens
You who did and did not survive
You who cleaned the kitchens
You who built the railroad tracks and roads
You who replanted the trees, listening to the work of squirrels and birds, you are who I love
You whose blood was taken, whose hands and lives were taken, with or without your saying
Yes, I mean to give. You are who I love.
You who the borders crossed
You whose fires
You decent with rage, so in love with the earth
You writing poems alongside children
You cactus, water, sparrow, crow You, my elder
You are who I love,
summoning the courage, making the cobbler,
getting the blood drawn, sharing the difficult news, you always planting the marigolds, learning to walk wherever you are, learning to read wherever you are, you baking the bread, you come to me in dreams, you kissing the faces of your dead wherever you are, speaking to your children in your mother’s languages, tootsing the birds
You are who I love, behind the library desk, leaving who might kill you, crying with the love songs, polishing your shoes, lighting the candles, getting through the first day despite the whisperers sniping fail fail fail
You are who I love, you who beat and did not beat the odds, you who knows that any good thing you have is the result of someone else’s sacrifice, work, you who fights for reparations
You are who I love, you who stands at the courthouse with the sign that reads NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE
You are who I love, singing Leonard Cohen to the snow, you with glitter on your face, wearing a kilt and violet lipstick
You are who I love, sighing in your sleep
You, playing drums in the procession, you feeding the chickens and humming as you hem the skirt, you sharpening the pencil, you writing the poem about the loneliness of the astronaut
You wanting to listen, you trying to be so still
You are who I love, mothering the dogs, standing with horses
You in brightness and in darkness, throwing your head back as you laugh, kissing your hand
You carrying the berbere from the mill, and the jug of oil pressed from the olives of the trees you belong to
You studying stars, you are who I love
braiding your child’s hair
You are who I love, crossing the desert and trying to cross the desert
You are who I love, working the shifts to buy books, rice, tomatoes,
bathing your children as you listen to the lecture, heating the kitchen with the oven, up early, up late
You are who I love, learning English, learning Spanish, drawing flowers on your hand with a ballpoint pen, taking the bus home
You are who I love, speaking plainly about your pain, sucking your teeth at the airport terminal television every time the politicians say something that offends your sense of decency, of thought, which is often
You are who I love, throwing your hands up in agony or disbelief, shaking your head, arguing back, out loud or inside of yourself, holding close your incredulity which, yes, too, I love I love
your working heart, how each of its gestures, tiny or big, stand beside my own agony, building a forest there
How “Fuck you” becomes a love song
You are who I love, carrying the signs, packing the lunches, with the rain on your face
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
Copyright © 2017 by Aracelis Girmay. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets of sun people
Of the sort found in black college dormitories, some vintage
Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken, some paper,
A writing utensil, and a bottomless Saturday. We should explore
The origins of a derogatory word like spade as well as the word
For feeling alone in polite company. And also the implications
Of calling someone who is not your brother or sister,
Brother or Sister. So little is known of our past, we can imagine
Damn near anything. When I say maybe slaves held Spades
Tournaments on the anti-cruise ships bound for the Colonies,
You say when our ancestors were cooped on those ships
They were not yet slaves. Our groundbreaking film should begin
With a low-lit den in the Deep South and the deep fried voice
Of somebody’s grandmother holding smoke in her mouth
As she says, “The two of Diamonds trumps the two of Spades
In my house.” And at some point someone should tell the story
Where Jesus and the devil are Spades partners traveling
The juke joints of the 1930s. We could interview my uncle Junior
And definitely your skinny cousin Mary and any black man
Sitting at a card table wearing shades. Who do you suppose
Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois
And Malcolm X in a game of Spades? You say don’t talk
Across the table. Pay attention to the suits being played.
The object of the game is to communicate invisibly
With your teammate. I should concentrate. Do you suppose
We are here because we are lonely in some acute diasporafied
Way? This should be explored in our film about Spades.
Because it is one of the ways I am still learning what it is
To be black, tonight I am ready to master Spades. Four players
Bid a number of books. Each team adds the bids
Of the two partners, and the total is the number of books
That team must try to win. Is that not right? This is a game
That tests the boundary between mathematics and magic,
If you ask me. A bid must be intuitive like the itchiness
Of the your upper lip before you sip strange whiskey.
My mother did not drink, which is how I knew something
Was wrong with her, but she held a dry spot at the table
When couples came to play. It’s a scene from my history,
But this probably should not be mentioned in our documentary
About Spades. Renege is akin to the word for the shame
You feel watching someone else’s humiliation. Slapping
A card down must be as dramatic as hitting the face of a drum
With your palm, not hitting the face of a drum with a drumstick.
You say there may be the sort of outrage induced
By liquor, trash talk, and poor strategy, but it will fade
The way a watermark left on a table by a cold glass fades.
I suspect winning this sort of game makes you feel godly.
I’m good and ready for who ever we’re playing
Against tonight. I am trying to imagine our enemy.
I know you are not my enemy. You say there are no enemies
In Spades. Spades is a game our enemies do not play.
From How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes, published on March 31, 2015, by Penguin Poets, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Terrance Hayes.
in the backseat, my sons laugh & tussle,
far from Tamir’s age, adorned with his
complexion & cadence, & already warned
about toy pistols, though my rhetoric
ain’t about fear, but dislike—about
how guns have haunted me since I first gripped
a pistol; I think of Tamir, twice-blink
& confront my weeping’s inadequacy, how
some loss invents the geometry that baffles.
The Second Amendment—cold, cruel,
a constitutional violence, a ruthless
thing worrying me still, should be it predicts
the heft in my hand, arm sag, burdened by
what I bear: My bare arms collaged
with wings as if hope alone can bring
back a buried child. A child, a toy gun,
a blue shield’s rapid rapid rabid shit. This
is how misery sounds: my boys
playing in the backseat juxtaposed against
a twelve-year-old’s murder playing
in my head. My tongue cleaves to the roof
of my mouth, my right hand has forgotten.
This is the brick & mortar of the America
that murdered Tamir & may stalk the laughter
in my backseat. I am a father driving
his Black sons to school & the death
of a Black boy rides shotgun & this
could be a funeral procession, the death
a silent thing in the air, unmentioned—
because mentioning death invites taboo:
if you touch my sons the blood washed
away from the concrete must, at some
point, belong to you, & not just to you, to
the artifice of justice that is draped like a blue
g-d around your shoulders, the badge that
justifies the echo of the fired pistol; taboo:
the thing that says freedom is a murderer’s body
mangled & disrupted by my constitutional
rights come to burden, because the killer’s mind
refused the narrative of a brown child, his dignity,
his right to breathe, his actual fucking existence,
with all the crystalline brilliance I saw when
my boys first reached for me. This world best
invite more than story of the children bleeding
on crisp falls days, Tamir’s death must be more
than warning about recklessness & abandoned
justice & white terror’s ghost—& this is
why I hate it all, the protests & their counters,
the Civil Rights attorneys that stalk the bodies
of the murdered, this dance of ours that reduces
humanity to the dichotomy of the veil. We are
not permitted to articulate the reasons we might
yearn to see a man die. A mind may abandon
sanity. What if all I had stomach for was blood?
But history is no sieve & sanity is no elixir
& I am bound to be haunted by the strength
that lets Tamir’s father, mother, kinfolk resist
the temptation to turn everything they see
into a grave & make home the series of cells
that so many brothers already call their tomb.
From Felon. Copyright © 2019 by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
so I count my hopes: the bumblebees
are making a comeback, one snug tight
in a purple flower I passed to get to you;
your favorite color is purple but Prince’s
was orange & we both find this hard to believe;
today the park is green, we take grass for granted
the leaves chuckle around us; behind
your head a butterfly rests on a tree; it’s been
there our whole conversation; by my old apartment
was a butterfly sanctuary where I would read
& two little girls would sit next to me; you caught
a butterfly once but didn’t know what to feed it
so you trapped it in a jar & gave it to a girl
you liked. I asked if it died. you say you like
to think it lived a long life. yes, it lived a long life.
Copyright © 2019 by Fatimah Asghar. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 8, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
Nobody wants to die on the way
caught between ghosts of whiteness
and the real water
none of us wanted to leave
on the way to salvation
three planets to the left
a century of light years ago
our spices are separate and particular
but our skins sing in complimentary keys
at a quarter to eight mean time
we were telling the same stories
over and over and over.
Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
and there will be no body left
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence
Our labor has become
than our silence.
Copyright © 1978 by Audre Lorde, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF AUDRE LORDE by Audre Lorde. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
When the pickup truck, with its side mirror,
almost took out my arm, the driver’s grin
reflected back; it was just a horror
show that was never going to happen,
don’t protest, don’t bother with the police
for my benefit, he gave me a smile—
he too was startled, redness in his face—
when I thought I was going, a short while,
to get myself killed: it wasn’t anger
when he bared his teeth, as if to caution
calm down, all good, no one died, ni[ght, neighbor]—
no sense getting all pissed, the commotion
of the past is the past; I was so dim,
he never saw me—of course, I saw him.
Copyright © 2020 by Tommye Blount. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 19, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
eenie meenie minie moe
catch a voter by her toe
if she hollers then you know
got yourself a real jane crow
* * *
one vote is an opinion
with a quiet legal force ::
a barely audible beep
in the local traffic, & just
a plashless drop of mercury
in the national thermometer.
but a collectivity of votes
/a flock of votes, a pride of votes,
a murder of votes/ can really
make some noise.
* * *
one vote begets another
if you make a habit of it.
my mother started taking me
to the polls with her when i
was seven :: small, thrilled
to step in the booth, pull
the drab curtain hush-shut
behind us, & flip the levers
beside each name she pointed
to, the Xs clicking into view.
there, she called the shots.
* * *
rich gal, poor gal
hired girl, thief
vote your grief
* * *
one vote’s as good as another
:: still, in 1913, illinois’s gentle
suffragists, hearing southern
women would resent spotting
mrs. ida b. wells-barnett amidst
whites marchers, gently kicked
their sister to the curb. but when
the march kicked off, ida got
right into formation, as planned.
the tribune’s photo showed
her present & accounted for.
* * *
one vote can be hard to keep
an eye on :: but several /a
colony of votes/ can’t scuttle
away unnoticed so easily. my
mother, veteran registrar for
our majority black election
district, once found—after
much searching—two bags
of ballots /a litter of votes/
stuffed in a janitorial closet.
* * *
* * *
one vote was all fannie lou
hamer wanted. in 1962, when
her constitutional right was
over forty years old, she tried
to register. all she got for her
trouble was literacy tested, poll
taxed, fired, evicted, & shot
at. a year of grassroots activism
nearly planted her mississippi
freedom democratic party
in the national convention.
* * *
one vote per eligible voter
was all stacey abrams needed.
she nearly won the georgia
governor’s race in 2018 :: lost by
50,000 /an unkindness of votes/
to the man whose job was
maintaining the voter rolls.
days later, she rolled out plans
for getting voters a fair fight.
it’s been two years—& counting.
. As in what if
the shadow is gold
en? Breathe. As in
that. As in first
person singular. Homonym
:. As in subject. As
in centeroftheworld as in
mundane. The opposite of spectacle
spectacular. This is just us
gold in shadows
. You have the
right to breathe and remain
Copyright © 2019 by Rosamond S. King. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 5, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
But there never was a black male hysteria
Breaking & entering wearing glee & sadness
And the light grazing my teeth with my lighter
To the night with the flame like a blade cutting
Me slack along the corridors with doors of offices
Orifices vomiting tears & fire with my two tongues
Loose & shooing under a high-top of language
In a layer of mischief so traumatized trauma
Delighted me beneath the tremendous
Stupendous horrendous undiscovered stars
Burning where I didn’t know how to live
My friends were all the wounded people
The black girls who held their own hands
Even the white boys who grew into assassins
Copyright © 2017 by Terrance Hayes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 15, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
“The light range was so narrow if you exposed film
for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would
be rendered invisible except for the whites of his
eyes and teeth. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest
clients—the confectionary and furniture industries—
complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture
were losing out that it came up with a solution.”
—Broomberg and Chanarin
“When a contradiction is impossible to resolve
except by a lie, then we know it is really a door.”
I keep referring to the cold, as if that were the point.
Fact. Not point.
Forty-below was a good day. “In short, fine weather,” you wrote once, before cutting out blocks of ice and fashioning another igloo for the whole crew each night.
But it isn’t the point, that it was cold, is it?
How many days before arriving did you sit on the deck in that chair, staring out to sea, wearing a coarse blue shirt, the lost, well-mannered rhetoric of your day spiraling beneath a blue hat—concertina (at your ankle) outside the placid frame?
Thank you, whoever you are, for standing behind the camera and thinking “Matthew Henson” and “photograph” at the same time.
The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue. Endless blueness. White is blue. An ocean wave freezes in place. Blue. Whole glaciers, large as Ohio, floating masses of static water. All of them pale frosted azuls. It makes me wonder—yet again—was there ever such a thing as whiteness? I am beginning to grow suspicious. An open window.
I am blue.
I am a frozen blue ocean.
I am a wave struck cold in midair.
The wave is nude beneath her blue dress.
Her skin is blue.
To arrive in a place.
And this place in which you have arrived finally: a place you have always dreamt of arriving. Perhaps you have tried—for eighteen years—to get there, dreaming of landscapes, people, food. Always repulsed by your effort, unable to attain the trophy.
And then finally somehow you arrive one day and are immediately stunned because you realize more than anything, it isn’t the landscape, food, the people. That thing which most astonishes you is the light, the way the air appears, how the sunlight hovers just before your eyes.
And you—then—wanting nothing more than to spend the day indoors watching the room. The vast ocean always nothing more than an open window. So you stay inside and choose to watch the same wall turn fifty reds, then later: slow, countless variations of blue. Blues you have never seen. There is a black beam overhead on the ceiling. Without it, the ability to see such light would disappear. The light is toying with you, and you like it. All of this because the darkness is now always overhead. That. That is what arriving means.
I want to say the same thing in a variety of different ways. Or I want to say many different things, but merely one way.
Perhaps there is only one word after all. Beneath all languages, beneath all other words: only one. Perhaps whenever we speak we are repeating it. All day long, the same single word over and over again.
Choose something dark. Choose a dark line to hang above you. If you want to see what light can do, always choose the dark.
Out on the ice, the light can blind you. The annals laced with men who set out without the protection of darkness. All finished blind.
Blackbirds, black bowhead whales, the raven, the night sky, the body inside, blue ink, pencil lead, chocolate, marzipan. Like us.
All water is color. But what does that have to do with you and me, Matthew?
Maybe life is just this: walking with each other from one dark room to another. And looking.
Sometimes the paintings come to life. Sometimes you just love the word pewter. Sometimes the ocean waves at you. Sometimes there are goldfish in a jar. A bowl of oranges. Sometimes a woman steps down out of a frame and walks toward you. Sometimes she discards the white scarf, which covers her, and reveals her real body. Sometimes she leaves, moments later, covered in a striped jacket and leather hat.
Our lady of the dressing table.
Our lady of the rainy day.
Our lady of palm leaves, periwinkle, calla lilies.
Our lady of acanthus.
A garden redone three times.
Sometimes someone you love just falls through. Gone. The blue massive ridges of pressure shift, float away, move. Sometimes the ice breaks open. That’s it. Sledge, dogs and all.
I fell through once. I’d grown cold, so I stood up and walked to get my coat. I was told it was hanging on the far wall of a very dark room. Because it was dark, I could see, really see—for the first time—how a particular gold thread sparkled on the collar. I reached out my hand. But before the wall, there was a large hole where stairs were being built, which I could not see. I walked into air and landed on my head. Underground.
Everything then turned a vivid black.
I wonder, Matthew, when you were out on the ice for years, trying very hard not to fall through, I wonder whether—like me—you ever thought of the same woman over and over again, whether you ever imagined her draped in a loose-fitting emerald robe, seated in a pink velvet chair, engulfed by a black so bright it was luminous?
Sometimes I lie here in bed before the fire, unable to move—this cane, this hideous cane, this glorious cane, cutting cane—and imagine that one particular curl falling forward toward her forehead. I imagine the same curl at this angle, then that. A recurring dream. When my bed becomes a vast field of frozen ice the color of indigo, and I cannot move, I begin to see her face. Each strand of her hair becomes a radiant small flame, twisting and burning so quietly. Then I look at your picture, you out on the ice, and I wonder if you ever feel like that, Matthew?
Like a woman, faceless and flung over
a desk, at rest or in tears, exquisite
quickly drawn ruffles about your shoulder,
halos of wide banana leaves
hovering just above your head?
Were there images you could not fling
from your mind? Events that clung
to you, coated you, repeating
themselves in a series: movements
or instruments in a symphony?
Objects that would not let you go:
an avocado tree; a certain street
at night where someone exceptionally kind
once took your arm as the two of you walked
along a wet sidewalk; trying
to remember the light on that certain gait:
your mother twirling a parasol, also walking
through a grove of olive trees?
Did you begin to find comfort
in the serial, the inexplicable and constant
reappearance of things, people, sensations,
every moment symphonically realized
and reentered. The way the days begin
to rhyme. Every moment
walking into the room again.
Sledge after sledge.
I fell through, into a hole in the floor. I landed far below, on my head. Sometimes I still forget my name. Sometimes I forget yours. Sometimes I forget how to spell the. Regularly I am unable to remember Adam Clayton Powell. Or how to conjugate exist. Sometimes I lie in bed and cannot feel my legs. It’s like something quietly gnawed them off while I was in the kitchen making tea. From the knees down: this odd sensation, not nothing, but something, just not legs. If ice were not cold perhaps. Or the memory of a leg. I cannot feel my legs, but I can feel their memory.
In conversation, my face goes numb. It starts at my mouth and spreads out. When I am quiet it recedes. Why is numbness ascribed the color blue? It’s not. It’s red.
By the end of the day, my left hand has disappeared from the end of my arm. I ignore it. Hold my pen. Smile at you. What year is it, darling? I once lived where? With whom? Where is she now? What was her name?
I remember nurses. Their faces. Someone very, very kind—a woman—began to tape a pen inside my hand. I remember being suspended in a harness. Being lowered down into a warm blue pool. All the other patients there were very old. Here is how we all learned to walk properly again. Underwater. Blue.
Once I fell through—into the dark.
Braces and casts.
Being told not to write.
Being told not to read.
Forgetting someone I once promised I would never forget.
Remembering her finally, one year, then forgetting her again, the next day.
Remembering not remembering I’d forgotten.
Forgetting them completely.
When I look at photographs of Matisse, unable to walk, drawing on the wall from the bed, his charcoal tied to the end of a very long pole, I stop breathing.
Him, I think. Yes. I could marry him.
I could slip into his bed.
We could talk about real things.
I could be his dark line hovering above.
We could watch the light turning the room every color.
From Gulf Coast 29, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2017). Copyright © 2017 Robin Coste Lewis. Used with the permission of the poet.
for my grandfather We don’t have heirlooms. Haven’t owned things long enough. We’re hoarding us in our stories. Like October 26—the Oklahoma Quick Stop gas at 90¢ and, in 158 more days, Passion of the Christ in a wildlife refuge with Rabbits foot and Black Capped birds—when Edgar Whetstone shoots himself. Like August 4, 1919. Like Ada Willis births the boy conceived with Boy gone somewhere. Like her prayers and circa 10 years past and Mr. Charlie saying, Edgar reads (you call that clean?) but please, girl, coloreds don’t become doctors. Like Edgar trashed his books. Like served, discharged. Like funeral director close to doctor as it got. Formaldehyde wrecked him like Time to get up out the South Detroit inspect dynamics burn a house down torch the county jail. Like now, October. Like I found, searching the internet, one shot of the asylum’s blurry hall empty but for an organ’s pipes. I saw Edgar deluding hymns rousing the two of us in Rock of Ages followed by Philippians 1:21—to die is gain. No way to prove the claim, you die in dream, you die for real. Our family still hanged from trees. Like if they ever fall, no one will hear it someday for a while.
Copyright © 2019 by Erica Dawson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 29, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
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.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Knopf and Vintage Books. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.
On balconies, sunlight. On poplars, sunlight on our lips.
Today no one is shooting.
A girl cuts her hair with imaginary scissors—
the scissors in sunlight, her hair in sunlight.
Another girl steals a pair of shoes from a sleeping soldier, skewered with light.
As soldier wakes and looks at us looking at them
what do they see?
Tonight they shot fifty women at Lerna St.,
I sit down to write and tell you what I know:
a child learns the world by putting it in her mouth,
a girl becomes a woman and a woman, earth.
Body, they blame you for all things and they
seek in the body what does not live in the body.
Copyright © 2018 by Ilya Kaminsky. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 26, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
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.
Originally published in Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014). Copyright © by Claudia Rankine. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto,
President of The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976
I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
then turn around
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:
fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or
I must become the action of my fate.
How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
Shall we pick a number?
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH ME?
I must become a menace to my enemies.
And if I
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries
And if I
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me
I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.
Copyright © 2017 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Used with the permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate, www.junejordan.com.
Childless, I am in a house on the ocean-edge
of a national park. Nights, I consider broadcast horrors. This is not
my house. I am a stranger, a newcomer. So often, too,
is the horror. Passes time. Passes time. Past time lights
up my liturgical tendencies, illumines past time, my lovelies.
Here, in this room, in this house, the light is sometimey as always.
Clouds. Wind and all. Pronounced through windows onto woods, onto lawns.
Say “Light casts its tender hieroglyphs on the mundane
and cataclysmic equally,” and fancify a nothing, go straight
for an inaccuracy that distracts and passes time.
And light comes before the hieroglyph, and (as marker)
these hieroglyphs give meager insight into the “nature” of light beyond
some minor perceptions. And what? Shall I ride the alliterative waves
of articulation and silence that fog my mouth and mind? Or just let
the words like particles roll? See where and what this accrual of syllables gets us?
It’s midday, and you are both years before the you to whom this poem
whispers, before the women with whom these syllables conspire. Lullaby, loves,
this ain’t. I have become a woman who screams softly. Maybe an over-abundance
of caution? Of caustic care? Well, I’ve seen the clips and memes, heard the murmurs
and corporate decisions meant to mark-up and mock the nature of you that’s well beyond
easy perception. In past times,
I’ve been medicated out of my self, locked under
an atmospheric feeling, the condition of which would not relent, which could will “will not”
to relent. Wheels of wheeling won’t re-
lent. Absolve your self sunken between
Breath breath breathe and the toxic dirt.
Copyright © 2019 by Tonya M. Foster. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 3, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
“I would have gone back,” the voice
full of shells, gravel, liquid washing
stones, back meaning lost island
or calendar, a thing rigged
with bones unbending, unfolding past
the hard symmetry of clocks,
vertebrae of thought moving now
in real time, home a word hollow
as the bone of birds—tody, cling cling,
gaulin, euphonia—“That dream was over.”
Such oneiric geometry, “The Blue Room”
built by Miles, his horn a grail from which
you sup the saudade of marine might-have-been
never-will-be, embouchure unthought,
no better than Vidia for leaving.
So we leave, skein of shadows,
silent psalms for how our scourge
was beauty, home; brightboys fleeing
the estate for another on that other
island, jolted by the freight of shame.
Mas Hall, thanks for the company
on the volte-face voyage, stingy-brim
on which we sailed, migration of monarch butterflies.
Landfall at Port of Avonmouth in a scene
from Hardy, landfall at Tilbury Dock
to step off the caravel in white gloves,
stout ties, leave to remain vagrant.
Lonely Oxonians together,
oak hatch of the Bod we’d shade,
then off to All Souls to cram
for mods, toiling in Codrington
we leaf through Thistlewood.
And so we are marked. Is it Marx
or Douglass with that beard? Bound
to become Judas-Brutus, blood
diamonds paid us in arrears to try
the line of Hopkins, Auden, Eliot, Donne.
Evensong at New Chapel to ease
the medieval weight of failure in the refrain
of white robes, one brown seraph alone:
“O hear us when we cry to Thee
for those in peril on the sea.”
’Gainst the towers most colored I feel,
dear Stuart, in these duds, our hide,
sub fusc aeternum. You grasp browning leaflets
on the stump; O betraying beauty of brown:
bankra, Barbancourt, Venetian ducats, dhalpuri,
khaki, Gauguin. Remember the strange fog a night
on Broad St. as if below Friedrich’s Wanderer?
But, as you taught, who more Wanderer than we,
the evicted on the victor’s turf, playing the past,
loss a force centripetal? All praise
to your mind a sextant, darklit as Diwali.
You bless our kin severance. How I wish
to forget your sister strapped to the sugar mill,
charged with spoiling the color scheme:
sedition. Ah, compay, even leaves of the croton
sprout from our eyes. There is no going back.
Thinking translucence you say, “Bend the stick,”
different than Lenin or United Fruit. The rank of Bombay
mangoes exceeds all migrations. The lignum vitae
insists on itself. Navel string toughens to twine
with the rhizome, portal in the ground.
—with Kara Springer’s “Repositioned Objects, I,” primer on wood.
Copyright © 2018 by Christian Campbell. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 3, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
We are marching, truly marching
Can’t you hear the sound of feet?
We are fearing no impediment
We have never known defeat.
Like Job of old we have had patience,
Like Joshua, dangerous roads we’ve trod
Like Solomon we have built out temples.
Like Abraham we’ve had faith in God.
Up the streets of wealth and commerce,
We are marching one by one
We are marching, making history,
For ourselves and those to come.
We have planted schools and churches,
We have answered duty’s call.
We have marched from slavery’s cabin
To the legislative hall.
Brethren can’t you catch the spirit?
You who are out just get in line
Because we are marching, yes we are marching
To the music of the time.
We are marching, steady marching
Bridging chasms, crossing streams
Marching up the hill of progress
Realizing our fondest dreams.
We are marching, truly marching
Can’t you hear the sound of feet?
We are fearing no impediment
We shall never know defeat.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 1, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
When I get to where I’m going
I want the death of my children explained to me.
They meet over tea and potato chips.
Brown and buttermilk women,
hipped and hardened,
legs uncrossed but proper
still in their smiles;
smiles that carry a sadness in faint creases.
A sadness they will never be without.
One asks the other,
“What do they call a woman who has lost a child?”
The other sighs between sips of lukewarm tea.
There is no name for us.
“No name? But there has to be a name for us.
We must have something to call ourselves.”
Surely, history by now and all the women
who carry their babies’ ghosts on their backs,
mothers who wake up screaming,
women wide awake in their nightmares,
mothers still expected to be mothers and human,
women who stand under hot showers weeping,
mothers who wish they could drown standing up,
women who can still smell them—hear them,
the scent and symphony of their children,
deep down in the good earth.
“Surely, history has not forgotten to name us?”
No woman wants to bear
whatever could be the name for this grief.
Even if she must bear the grief for all her days,
it would be far too painful to be called by that name.
“I’ve lost two, you know.”
“I was angry at God, you know.”
“I stopped praying but only for a little while,
and then I had no choice. I had to pray again.
I had to call out to something that was no longer there.
I had to believe God knew where it was.”
“I fear death no longer. It has taken everything.
But should I be? Should I be afraid of what death has taken?
That it took and left no name?”
The other who sighs between sips of lukewarm tea
leans over and kisses the cheek of the one still with questions.
No, you don’t have to be afraid.
Death is no more scary than the lives we have lived
without our babies, bound to this grief
with no name.
Copyright © 2019 by Parneshia Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 22, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
looking over the plums, one by one
lifting each to his eyes and
turning it slowly, a little earth,
checking the smooth skin for pockmarks
and rot, or signs of unkind days or people,
then sliding them gently into the plastic.
whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woolen arm
into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire
before realizing the danger of bruising
and lifting them back out, cradling them
in the crook of his elbow until
something harder could take that bottom space.
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
upright and strong, he was already to the checkout
by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name
and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady
hello, so chilly today
should have worn my warm coat like you
yes so cool for August in Chicago
how are things going for you
oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes.
Copyright © 2018 Eve L. Ewing. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Spring 2018.
for Alison Saar
Please approach with care these figures in black.
Regard with care the weight they bear,
the scars that mark their hearts.
Do you think you can handle these bodies of graphite & coal dust?
This color might rub off. A drop of this red liquid
could stain your skin.
This black powder could blow you sky high.
No ordinary pigments blacken our blues.
Would you mop the floor with this bucket of blood?
Would you rinse your soiled laundry in this basin of tears?
Would you suckle hot milk from this cracked vessel?
Would you be baptized in this fountain of funky sweat?
Please approach with care
these bodies still waiting to be touched.
We invite you to come closer.
We permit you to touch & be touched.
We hope you will engage with care.
Copyright © 2019 by Harryette Mullen. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 2, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
I write to you from the predicament of Blackness.
You see, I’ve been here all my life and found,
on the atomic level, it’s impossible to walk through
most doorways. I can, however, move through
walls. I write to you from the empty seat that isn’t
empty. I write to you when a feel is copped.
I write myself out of bed. I write to you as the spook
who sat by the door. I write to you from Olivia
Pope’s apolitical mouth. I am here because I could
never get the hang of body death, though it has been
presented to me like one would offer a roofied cocktail
or high-interest loan. I am only here because I started
eating again. I am only here because I am ineligible
to exist otherwise. I’m only here because I left and
returned through an Atlantic wormhole. I write to you as
the American version of me. In the American version,
Orpheus’ lyre is a gun. Eurydice thinks of doctors,
or, rather a cold hand. It feels like one is sliding its sterile
nails over the curtains of her womb. Once, a healer’s hands
passed through my flesh, and I went on trial for stealing
ten fingers. When my spoon scrapes the bottom of a bowl
it sounds like a choir of siblings naming stars after their favorite
meals. Physicists are classifying new matters and energies
every day. Dark matter, Black flesh are in high demand,
and we never see a penny. I urge you. If you see a sister
walk through walls or survive the un-survivable, sip your
drink and learn to forget or love the taxed apparition before you.
From Hull (Nightboat Books, 2019). Copyright © 2019 Xan Phillips. Used with permission of Nightboat Books, nightboat.org.
For Uncle Paul N’nem
hell nah over my dead—i paid mine. I checked
Black & subtraction knows what it did. made Black
a box to check. subtraction doesn’t know how even
a sigh seasons the roux & the second breath my mother
was always trying to catch. american. emergency.
subtraction doesn’t know Black’s many bodies & body’s
of water. though subtraction does. sunken. gifting the sea’s
new strange stones. subtraction reopened the barbershops &
bowling alleys. insists church. sent us home with inhalers &
half-assed sentences: in god - we - the people - vs - degradation
vs - a new packaged deliverance. homicide. hallelujah.
i’ll be damned. i’ll be back before i’ll be buried. i been Black
& ain’t slept since. subtraction needs my blood to water
their weapons to subtract my blood. do you see the necessity
for dreaming? or else the need to stay awake. to watch. worried.
the hand. invisible. make a peace sign. then a pistol.
Copyright © 2020 by Donte Collins. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 10, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
You are in the black car burning beneath the highway
And rising above it—not as smoke
But what causes it to rise. Hey, Black Child,
You are the fire at the end of your elders’
Weeping, fire against the blur of horse, hoof,
Stick, stone, several plagues including time.
Chrysalis hanging on the bough of this night
And the burning world: Burn, Baby, burn.
Anvil and iron be thy name, yea though ye may
Walk among the harnessed heat and huntsmen
Who bear their masters’ hunger for paradise
In your rabbit-death, in the beheading of your ghost.
You are the healing snake in the heather
Bursting forth from your humps of sleep.
In the morning, your tongue moves along the earth
Naming hawk sky; rabbit run; your tongue,
Poison to the filthy democracy, to the gold-
Domed capitols where the ‘Guard in their grub-
Worm-colored uniforms cling to the blades of grass—
Worm on the leaf, worm in the dust, worm,
Worm made of rust: sing it with me,
Dragon of Insurmountable Beauty.
Black Child, laugh at the men with their hoofs
and borrowed muscle, their long and short guns,
The worm of their faces, their casket ass-
Embling of the afternoon, leftover leaves
From last year’s autumn scraping across their boots;
Laugh, laugh at their assassins on the roofs
(For the time of the assassin is also the time of hysterical laughter).
Black Child, you are the walking-on-of-water
Without the need of an approving master.
You are in a beautiful language.
You are what lies beyond this kingdom
And the next and the next and fire. Fire, Black Child.
Copyright © 2020 by Roger Reeves. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 16, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Motivated forgetting is a psychological defense mechanism whereby people cope with threatening and unwanted memories by suppressing them from consciousness.
—Amy N. Dalton and Li Huang
in Badagry there is a hung-
ry well of water and memory
loss. in Badagry there was a well
of people lost across a haven
of water. in Badagry there was
a port overwhelmed in un-return.
to omit within the mind is to ebb
heavenward. memory is a wealth
choking the brain in un-respons-
ibility. violence in the mind and
the mind forgets in order to remember
the self before the violence begot.
in Badagry trauma washes ungod-
ly memory heavenward. in Bad-
agry there is an attenuation well
meant to wish away a passage,
meant to unhaven a people.
violence is underwhelming
in return. what the body eats,
the mind waters. responsible
is the memory for un-remittal.
royal is the body for return. god is
the mind for wafting. forgetting
is a port homeward. in Bad-
agry hungry memory grows angry.
in Badagry the memories un-
choke. trauma un-eats the royal.
in Badagry there is a heaven
of people responsible for the birth-
right of remembering, for the well
of us across a haven of water
overwhelmed in un-return.
Copyright © 2020 by Porsha Olayiwola. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 17, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Today I will praise.
I will praise the sun
For showering its light
On this darkened vessel.
I will praise its shine.
Praise the way it wraps
My skin in ultraviolet ultimatums
Demanding to be seen.
I will lift my hands in adoration
Of how something so bright
Could be so heavy.
I will praise the ground
That did not make feast of these bones.
Praise the casket
That did not become a shelter for flesh.
Praise the bullets
That called in sick to work.
Praise the trigger
That went on vacation.
Praise the chalk
That did not outline a body today.
Praise the body
For still being a body
And not a headstone.
Praise the body,
For being a body and not a police report
Praise the body
For being a body and not a memory
No one wants to forget.
Praise the memories.
Praise the laughs and smiles
You thought had been evicted from your jawline
Praise the eyes
For seeing and still believing.
For being blinded from faith
But never losing their vision
Praise the visions.
Praise the prophets
Who don’t profit off of those visions.
Praise the heart
For housing this living room of emotions
Praise the trophy that is my name
Praise the gift that is my name.
Praise the name that is my name
Which no one can plagiarize or gentrify
Praise the praise.
How the throat sounds like a choir.
The harmony in your tongue lifts
Into a song of adoration.
For being able to praise.
For waking up,
When you had every reason not to.
Copyright © 2020 by Angelo Geter. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 15, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
I suppose I should place them under separate files
Both died from different circumstances kind of, one from HIV AIDS and possibly not having
taken his medicines
the other from COVID-19 coupled with
complications from an underlying HIV status
In each case their deaths may have been preventable if one had taken his meds and the
hospital thought to treat the other
instead of sending him home saying, He wasn’t sick enough
he died a few days later
They were both mountains of men
dark black beautiful gay men
both more than six feet tall fierce and way ahead of their time
One’s drag persona was Wonder Woman and the other started a black fashion magazine
He also liked poetry
They both knew each other from the same club scene we all grew up in
When I was working the door at a club one frequented
He would always say to me haven’t they figured out you’re a star yet
And years ago bartending with the other when I complained about certain people and
treatment he said sounds like it’s time for you to clean house
Both I know were proud of me the poet star stayed true to my roots
I guess what stands out to me is that they both were
gay black mountains of men
Felled too early
And it makes me think the biggest and blackest are almost always more vulnerable
My white friend speculates why the doctors sent one home
If he had enough antibodies
Did they not know his HIV status
She approaches it rationally
removed from race as if there were any rationale for sending him home
Still she credits the doctors for thinking it through
But I speculate they saw a big black man before them
Maybe they couldn’t imagine him weak
Maybe because of his size color class they imagined him strong
said he’s okay
Which happened to me so many times
Once when I’d been hospitalized at the same time as a white girl
she had pig-tails
we had the same thing but I saw how tenderly they treated her
Or knowing so many times in the medical system I would never have been treated so terribly if I
had had a man with me
Or if I were white and entitled enough to sue
Both deaths could have been prevented both were almost first to fall in this season of death
But it reminds me of what I said after Eric Garner a large black man was strangled to death over
Six cops took him down
His famous lines were I can’t breathe
so if we are always the threat
To whom or where do we turn for protection?
Copyright © 2020 by Pamela Sneed. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 18, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses—
God! What dancers!
God! What singers!
Singers and dancers,
Dancers and laughers.
Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on June 20, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
the slight angling up of the forehead
neck extension quick jut of chin
meeting the strangers’ eyes
a gilded curtsy to the sunfill in another
in yourself tithe of respect
in an early version the copy editor deleted
the word “head” from the title
the copy editor says it’s implied
the copy editor means well
the copy editor means
she is only fluent in one language of gestures
i do not explain i feel sad for her
limited understanding of greetings & maybe
this is why my acknowledgements are so long;
didn’t we learn this early?
to look at white spaces
& find the color
thank god o thank god for
Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Acevedo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 22, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
for Malcolm Latiff Shabazz
yellow roses in my mother’s room mean
I’m sorry sadness comes in generations
inheritance split flayed displayed
better than all the others
the undue burden of the truly exceptional
most special of your kind, a kind of fire
persisting unafraid saffron bloom
to remind us of fragility or beauty or revolution
to ponder darkly in the bright
the fate of young kings
the crimes for which there are no apologies.
Copyright © 2020 by Kristina Kay Robinson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 23, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
If space makes the pattern, her absence is filling a quota.
The president says,
“we’re a nation of laws” :—
under her dreaming :—that lilting.
a Seuss-rhyme’s still funny.
And who’s to say wouldn’t have been, still, at 30?
The Sneetches or What Was I Scared Of?
She’s seven, asleep on the living room sofa.
] in amphibrachs—:
who hears her
If space makes the pattern, her absence is filling a quota.
This absence—: Aiyana.
But what was the officer scared of?
What reaches for him in the recesses of
What formal suggestion of
darkness needs stagger
If space makes the pattern—:
This grief in the rhythm of—: uplift too
a measure of struggle.
Which struggle with law
holds the dark in it? Keeps
the dark of
Quinletta, LaToya, Kimkesia, Oneka, Natasha, Breonna…
my still-breathing cousins
] your still-breathing cousins [
alive in it. Aiyana. Her breath in perfection—:
at seven—: This measure for measure on measure on measure
Law is dead, Aiyana. It never was
Copyright © 2020 by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 2, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Because there is too much to say
Because I have nothing to say
Because I don’t know what to say
Because everything has been said
Because it hurts too much to say
What can I say what can I say
Something is stuck in my throat
Something is stuck like an apple
Something is stuck like a knife
Something is stuffed like a foot
Something is stuffed like a body
Copyright © 2020 by Toi Derricotte. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 3, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Is there a place where black men can go
to be beautiful? Is there light there? Touch?
Is there comfort or room to raise their black
sons as anything other than a future asterisk,
at risk to be asteroid or rogue planet but not
comet—to be studded with awe and clamor
and admired for radial trajectories across
a dark sky made of asphalt and moonshine
to be celebs and deemed a magnificent sight?
Copyright © 2020 by Enzo Silon Surin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 10, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
I ask a student how I can help her. Nothing is on her paper.
It’s been that way for thirty-five minutes. She has a headache.
She asks to leave early. Maybe I asked the wrong question.
I’ve always been dumb with questions. When I hurt,
I too have a hard time accepting advice or gentleness.
I owe for an education that hurt, and collectors call my mama’s house.
I do nothing about my unpaid bills as if that will help.
I do nothing about the mold on my ceiling, and it spreads.
I do nothing about the cat’s litter box, and she pisses on my new bath mat.
Nothing isn’t an absence. Silence isn’t nothing. I told a woman I loved her,
and she never talked to me again. I told my mama a man hurt me,
and her hard silence told me to keep my story to myself.
Nothing is full of something, a mass that grows where you cut at it.
I’ve lost three aunts when white doctors told them the thing they felt
was nothing. My aunt said nothing when it clawed at her breathing.
I sat in a room while it killed her. I am afraid when nothing keeps me
in bed for days. I imagine what my beautiful aunts are becoming
underground, and I cry for them in my sleep where no one can see.
Nothing is in my bedroom, but I smell my aunt’s perfume
and wake to my name called from nowhere. I never looked
into a sky and said it was empty. Maybe that’s why I imagine a god
up there to fill what seems unimaginable. Some days, I want to live
inside the words more than my own black body.
When the white man shoves me so that he can get on the bus first,
when he says I am nothing but fits it inside a word, and no one stops him,
I wear a bruise in the morning where he touched me before I was born.
My mama’s shame spreads inside me. I’ve heard her say
there was nothing in a grocery store she could afford. I’ve heard her tell
the landlord she had nothing to her name. There was nothing I could do
for the young black woman that disappeared on her way to campus.
They found her purse and her phone, but nothing led them to her.
Nobody was there to hold Renisha McBride’s hand
when she was scared of dying. I worry poems are nothing against it.
My mama said that if I became a poet or a teacher, I’d make nothing, but
I’ve thrown words like rocks and hit something in a room when I aimed
for a window. One student says when he writes, it feels
like nothing can stop him, and his laughter unlocks a door. He invites me
into his living.
Copyright © 2020 by Krysten Hill. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 7, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
for Ermias Asghedom (Nipsey Hussle)
the streetlights still weep / a
marathon of clouds hold firm / the agony
continues / we’re all an assembly of
sad / I’ve been writing dismal testimony
since before the last person I love
was gunned down / been trying
to write something about happy
since before my great-aunt’s knees
decided to hang themselves / there are more
funerals to be had / I tell the sky this
and hope the sun shows because all this
bleakness might move me to throw
it into a well / do you know
what it is to make a wish knowing
it’s a waste since before you even made it /
there was a guy back home who sold roses
out his trunk / he’d wait outside clubs
and ask if anyone wanted to buy a pretty lady
a keepsake / something to ensure
she remembers you / something sweet
to accompany the drinks you’d gifted
all night / I remember watching gangsters
buy roses like lottery tickets / chase women
all the way to their cars / remind them
which drink came from which pocket /
plead to be remembered /
do you know badgers make their homes
underground / while we celebrate the day
they wait around for dark / all the men I love
are nocturnal / stumbling vampires
in search of midnight roses / one night I stumbled
out a juke and couldn’t find my car /
haunted neighborhood blocks for what seemed
like leap years / I grew gray
that night / started tracking my own footprints
in snow / do you know what it is to track
oneself / it requires divine patience / just when
you think you’ve found your target
it moves / the way a sober shadow might /
the way an almost granted wish does / the way
a badger moves once the last person on earth
places her head to the pillow / it peeks
above ground to let the bobcats know
it isn’t dead
Copyright © 2020 by Derrick Harriell. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 14, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
What they say they are
And what they actually do
Is what Phillis overhears.
It’s like she isn’t there.
It’s like she’s a ghost, at arm’s length, hearing
The living curse out the dead—
Which, she’s been led to believe
No decent person does in a church.
How they say they love her
And how they look at her
Is what Phillis observes;
Like she’s the hole in the pocket
After the money rolls out.
God loves everybody—even the sinner,
Even a mangy hound can rely
On a scrap of meat, scraped off the plate
What they testify
And what they whisper in earshot
Is as dark as her skin, whistled from opposite sides
Of a mouth.
Is she the bible’s fine print?
Copyright © 2020 by Cornelius Eady. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 15, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
after Margaret Walker’s “For My People”
The Lord clings to my hands
after a night of shouting.
The Lord stands on my roof
& sleeps in my bed.
Sings the darkened, Egun tunnel—
cooks my food in abundance,
though I was once foolish
& wished for an emptied stomach.
The Lord drapes me with rolls of fat
& plaits my hair with sanity.
Gives me air,
music from unremembered fever.
oh that i may give air to my people
oh interruption of murder
the welcome Selah
The Lord is a green, Tubman escape.
A street buzzing with concern,
minds discarding answers.
Black feet on a centuries-long journey.
The Lord is the dead one scratching my face,
pinching me in dreams.
The screaming of the little girl that I was,
the rocking of the little girl that I was—
the sweet hush of her healing.
skipping on homesick pink.
I pray to my God of confused love,
a toe touching blood
& swimming through Moses-water.
A cloth & wise rocking.
An eventual Passover,
outlined skeletons will sing
this day of air
for my people—
oh the roar of God
oh our prophesied walking
Copyright © 2020 by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 17, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
i have diver’s lungs from holding my
breath for so long. i promise you
i am not trying to break a record
sometimes i just forget to
exhale. my shoulders held tightly
near my neck, i am a ball of tense
living, a tumbleweed with steel-toed
boots. i can’t remember the last time
i felt light as dandelion. i can’t remember
the last time i took the sweetness in
& my diaphragm expanded into song.
they tell me breathing is everything,
meaning if i breathe right i can live to be
ancient. i’ll grow a soft furry tail or be
telekinetic something powerful enough
to heal the world. i swear i thought
the last time i’d think of death with breath
was that balmy day in july when the cops
became a raging fire & sucked the breath
out of Garner; but yesterday i walked
38 blocks to my father’s house with a mask
over my nose & mouth, the sweat dripping
off my chin only to get caught in fabric & pool up
like rain. & i inhaled small spurts of me, little
particles of my dna. i took into body my own self
& thought i’d die from so much exposure
to my own bereavement—they’re saying
this virus takes your breath away, not
like a mother’s love or like a good kiss
from your lover’s soft mouth but like the police
it can kill you fast or slow; dealer’s choice.
a pallbearer carrying your body without a casket.
they say it’s so contagious it could be quite
breathtaking. so persistent it might as well
be breathing down your neck—
Copyright © 2020 by Yesenia Montilla. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 21, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
The train came with a police officer
on his gun. He shifts his weight
against the door. A flash back loads
the first time a service weapon was pulled in my face;
the second time it made me lay on the ground;
the third time it put my hands in the air; the fourth time
it pushed me against a wall; the fifth time
it told me it was just doing its job; the sixth time
it kicked my feet apart; the seventh time
it followed me home; the eighth time it grabbed my shirt collar.
Read the signs: it’s illegal to move
Read the signs; my body knows
how Klan-rally a cop’s gun feels at eye level.
The ninth time the barrel cocked its head;
the tenth time, it told me it missed me
the last time; it said, burning black bodies is a tradition
it was raised on; the eleventh time the safety and trigger argued
through a range of black fiction. I could’ve been
any made-up one of us: Ricky or Wee-Bey
Mad Max or Tray; we all look the same under the right racism
anyway; the twelfth time it dared me to swing; the thirteenth time
I thought about it; the fourteenth time, I almost did it;
the fifteenth time, there were no cellphones; the sixteenth time
just covered badges; the seventeenth time
it searched me for the broken laws it thought I was;
the eighteenth time I assumed the position without anything
Copyright © 2020 by Jive Poetic. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 20, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
your body is still a miracle thirst
quenched with water across dry tongue and lips
or cocoa butter ashy legs immersed
till shine seen sheen the mind too cups and dips
from its favorite rivers figures and facts
slant stories of orbiting protests or
protons around daughters or suns :: it backs
up or opens wide to joy’s gush downpour
the floods the heart pumps hip hop doo wop dub
veins mining the mud for poetry’s o
cell after cell drinks ringgold colors mulled
cool cascades of calla lilies :: swallow
and bathe breathe believe through drought you survive
like the passage schooled you till rains arrive
—after alexis pauline gumbs
Copyright © 2020 by Evie Shockley. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 16, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
I think of a good night’s sleep
an exhale taking its precious time
to leave my lungs unworried
about the breathing to come If only
I did not hail from the sweet state
of panic the town’s river,
my adrenaline raging without cease
I’d love peace but the moon is pulling me by my water
I know this is no way to live but I was born here
a mobile of vultures orbiting above my crib
the noise you speak bragging
about the luxury of your stillness
reminds me that some children are told to pick flowers
while others are told to pick a tree switch
that’ll best write a lesson across their hide
and my skin is a master course written in welts
I touch myself and read about the years
I cannot escape I hold my kids
and pray our embrace is not a history
Copyright © 2020 by Rasheed Copeland. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 22, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Will the new aunt Jemima have dreads?
Why did Susan Smith kill her children and blame a black man?
Would a black man hang himself from a tree with his backpack still on?
Is it justice or revenge we are seeking?
What does justice look like?
What else can I do to feel safe?
Several times a day I stab my fingertips to threads
Looking for something more than blood as a reminder of life
An angry rain whips the window
We lay quiet in bed
Invite Kimiko Hahn to serenade us with her new poems
When she's done my lover says
Give me something something to munch on
I offer her my wrist.
Copyright © 2020 by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 27, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
on the days the dark is vanta vicious
enough to swallow whole every holy
thing like my mother and the stigmata
she bleeds from a totem of raising black
on the days the cold is cold as all get out but
there’s no place to get in when even breath is
blade and hurts to think of thinking of breathing
let alone laughing
on the days I feel frayed and ‘fraid ripped
and torn from the lot plucked from family
and ‘nem and even myself sometimes my
name is the name of a stranger
my face still the face in the hole of a
hoodie just snatched out my own world
never mine and dragged and scraped
across the rough textured parts of this
being alive thing
i’m reminded of what it feels
like to have my head alight to
have it catch fire and blaze-lick
high above me and all this
i’m reminded to return to the truth that oh
yeah me my little self a match my little
self a cardboard cutout might could burn
this whole so-called kingdom down
Copyright © 2020 by Jason Reynolds. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 28, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
I go to the railroad tracks
And follow them to the station of my enemies
A cobalt-toothed man pitches pennies
at my mugshot negative
All over the united states, there are
Toddlers in the rock
I see why everyone out here
got in the big cosmic basket
And why blood agreements mean a lot
And why I get shot back at
I understand the psycho-spiritual refusal
to write white history or take the glass freeway
White skin tattooed on my right forearm
Ricochet sewage near where I collapsed
into a rat-infested manhood
My new existence as living graffiti
In the kitchen with
a lot of gun cylinders to hack up
House of God in part
No cops in part
My body brings down the Christmas
The new bullets pray over blankets made from old bullets
Pray over the 28th hour’s next beauty mark
Extrajudicial confederate statue restoration
the waist band before the next protest poster
By the way,
Time is not an illusion, your honor
I will save your desk for last
You are witty, your honor
You’re moving money again, your honor
It is only raining one thing: non-white cops
And prison guard shadows
Reminding me of
Spoiled milk floating on an oil spill
A neighborhood making a lot of fuss over its demise
A new lake for a Black Panther Party
Malcom X’s ballroom jacket slung over my son’s shoulders
The figment of village
a noon noose to a new white preacher
-All in an abstract painting of a president
Bought slavers some time, didn’t it?
The tantric screeches of military bolts and Election-Tuesday cars
A cold-blooded study in leg irons
Proof that some white people have actually fondled nooses
That sundown couples
made their vows of love over
opaque peach plastic
and bolt action audiences
Man, the Medgar Evers-second is definitely my favorite law of science
Fondled news clippings and primitive Methodists
My arm changes imperialisms
Simple policing vs. Structural frenzies
Elementary school script vs. Even whiter white spectrums
Artless bleeding and
the challenge of watching civilians think
“terrible rituals they have around the corner.
They let their elders beg for public mercy”
“I am going to go ahead and sharpen these kids’ heads
into arrows myself and see
how much gravy spills out of family crests.”
Modern fans of war
What with their t-shirt poems
And t-shirt guilt
And me, having on the cheapest pair of shoes on the bus,
I have no choice but to read the city walls for signs of my life
Copyright © 2020 by Tongo Eisen-Martin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 31, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
everything i do comes down to the fact that i’ve been here before.
in some arrangement of my atoms i was allowed to be free
so don’t ask me when freedom is coming
when a certain eye of mine has seen it,
a cornea in a convoluted future recalls my freedom.
when asked about the absence of freedom, the lack of it
i laugh at the word absence, which always suggests
a presence that has left. but absence is the arena
of death, and we call the dead free (went on to glory), what
is the absence of freedom but an assumption of it?
i have never longed for something
which was not once mine. even fiction is my possession,
and flight is an act of fleeing as much as an act of flying.
Copyright © 2020 by Kara Jackson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 3, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
She said, I wish I prayed, I would pray for you. And,
we all wanted a shape of prayer in our brains, taking over
instead of it chomping on itself. Stupid little elf. God has
never come to me. We surrender in the teeming utterance
of materials soaked with sentences already made in air
and by machines. The country says Freedom, crushed under
its own dream weight. I did not make up this song. Design
Within Reach is having a “Work from home sale.” The coming
apart, the giant laceration across the sky, we all feel it. Look
at the fire, look at it, like all the rage of all the smallest beings.
Copyright © 2020 by Dawn Lundy Martin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 6, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Here, poem meets prayer.
We are exceedingly comfortable
with posturing and self-defense
that masquerade as apology.
But what’s needed in this moment
is unmixed confession
of our nation’s sin,
deep and indefensible.
“Now I lay me down to sleep”
must make way for
something more muscular:
sack cloth and ashes,
prayer and fasting,
radical repentance begins
with this unvarnished profession:
You are righteous,
and we are not.
Please heal our nation.
Cleanse our stubborn hearts.
Show each of us what part to play.
Broken as Judah and Jerusalem,
we cry and come bending our will
toward the good
you dream for us still,
no matter our sin,
no matter what skin
Copyright © 2020 by Nikki Grimes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
All hail! This honest dusky maid,
Let all others prostrate fall;
Bring forth the international diadem,
And crown her queen of all.
In all pure womanly qualities,
She stands serene and tall,
Way up above the average,
This makes her queen of all.
She’s not a sluggard at any place,
She answers duty’s call
Come all ye people, small and great,
And crown her queen of all.
She stands bolt upright by her men,
She will not let them fall,
Now for her valor, tip your hat,
And crown her queen of all.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on August 9, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
MEET KIRSTEN. Wears milkmaid braids to conserve her swedish past. Relinquished herself to assimilation at 8 after saying bye to her bff Singing Bird, whose tribe was forced off their land. “1854 was a wild year for me, guys. Cancel culture is real, but how could I disown my family for the racist things they say? How could I even point out that the things they say are racist? Like, how could I even say ‘Can you consider the words coming out of your mouth & never say them again?’”
MEET MOLLY. Buys baguettes on mondays and wears a beret literally everywhere. Obsessed with hollywood films and harsh realities. Surprisingly patriotic despite her love of all things british, especially plaid. An expert on taking up space. When the trainer asks if anyone can define discrimination, she pulls out a legal pad “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been discriminated against because I’m a woman. I write literally every instance down as proof. Exactly how many hours do we have?”
MEET SAMANTHA. 25-year-old well-meaning rule lover who enjoys progress and satin. Would like to be a painter or possibly the president of the united states of america. Out of the two AMA questions received before the training, both came from her. One for each black person she’s ever talked to in her life. “1) This is more of a comment than anything, but I don’t understand why I can’t be curious about Addy’s hair 2) Remind me again, what’s the difference between equality and equity?”
MEET FELICITY. Wears wide brim hats for horse races and can stitch the shit out of anything. Makes a mean southern sweet tea just like her mommy used to in the old virginia colony. When the diversity trainer asks if anyone can recall a time in their lives when they’ve been racist, she has a hard time pinning down just one time. “Sure I could, but I’d rather focus on rescuing horses from alopecia than spend a few hours at this dumb-ass training. Honestly, who has the time for any of this?”
MEET ADDY. Just look at all these dolls crying, complaining and getting paid for it all. Meanwhile hot girl summer came and left and I’m still stuck here performing history. Imma just slap the next bitch who tries to buy me. The scholars who brought me to life built the best american story but forgot two key facts. 1) I’m tired of being sold 2) less than half the people who buy me actually listen. But if I raised my hand right now & asked “Do I really need to be here?” you think my boss would just let me leave?
Copyright © 2020 by Kortney Morrow. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 10, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Black Mamas stay on their knees praying. Cursing
the lies folks tell ‘bout how the world don’t need you—
“The world don’t need you” is a lie folks tell themselves
when they step over blood gelled black and slick.
Folks step over black blood gelled and slick to get
on with things—don’t bring bones to the cemetery.
Bones in the cemetery, hear the prophecy:
—together, bone to bone—tendons and flesh—skin—
bone to bone—tendons and flesh—skin—together,
four winds breathe into these slain, that they may live—
—breathe, four winds, into these slain. That they may live—
Calling forth prophecy is no light work, No—
but, for Joshua, the sun stood still—the moon stopped.
Black Mamas stay on your knees praying—praying—
Copyright © 2020 by Antoinette Brim-Bell. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 11, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
The summer I was ten a teenager
named Kim butterflied my hair. Cornrows
curling into braids
behind each ear.
Everybody’s wearing this style now, Kim said.
Who could try to tell me
I wasn’t beautiful. The magic
in something as once ordinary
as hair that for too long
had not been good enough
now winged and amazing
to a long line of crowns.
to a long line of girls
moving through Brooklyn with our heads
held so high, our necks ached. You must
know this too – that feeling
of being so much more than
you once believed yourself to be
so much more than your
and too-big feet and
too-long fingers and
too-thick and stubborn hair
All of us now
the trick mirror that had us believe
we weren’t truly beautiful
and there we are
and there we are
and there we are again
and Oh! How could we not have seen
ourselves before? So much more
We are so much more.
Copyright © 2020 by Jacqueline Woodson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 12, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
I find an upscale bistro with a big screen at the bar.
The Williams Sisters will step out on to this Center Court,
for the very first time as a team. I celebrate the event
with my very first Cosmopolitan. I feel like a kid
watching TV in the Before Times: miraculously, Nat King Cole or
Pearl Bailey would appear on the Dinah Shore Show or Ed Sullivan.
Amazed, we’d run to the phone, call up the aunts and cousins.
Quick! Turn on Channel 10!... Three minutes of pride...
Smiling at no one in particular, I settle in to enjoy the match.
What is the commentator saying? He thinks it’s important
to describe their opponents to us: one is “dark,”
the other “blonde.” He just can’t bring himself to say:
Venus & Serena. Look at these two Classy Sisters:
Serious. Strategic. Black. Pounding History.
Copyright © 2020 by Kate Rushin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 13, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
My brother was a dark-skinned boy
with a sweet tooth, a smart mouth,
and a wicked thirst. At seventeen,
when I left him for America, his voice
was staticked with approaching adulthood,
he ate everything in the house, grew
what felt like an inch a day, and wore
his favorite shirt until mom disappeared it.
Tonight I’m grateful he slaked his thirst
in another country, far from this place
where a black boy’s being calls like crosshairs
to conscienceless men with guns and conviction.
I remember my brother’s ashy knees
and legs, how many errands he ran on them
up and down roads belonging to no one
and every one. And I’m grateful
he was a boy in a country of black boys,
in the time of walks to the store
on Aunty Marge’s corner to buy contraband
sweeties and sweetdrinks with change
snuck from mom’s handbag or dad’s wallet—
how that was a black boy’s biggest transgression,
and so far from fatal it feels an un-American dream.
Tonight, I think of my brother
as a black boy’s lifeless body spins me
into something like prayer—a keening
for the boy who went down the road, then
went down fighting, then went down dead.
My brother was a boy in the time of fistfights
he couldn’t win and that couldn’t stop
him slinging his weapon tongue anyway,
was a boy who went down fighting,
and got back up wearing his black eye
like a trophy. My brother who got up,
who grew up, who got to keep growing.
Tonight I am mourning the black boys
who are not my brother and who are
my brothers. I am mourning the boys
who walk the wrong roads, which is any road
in America. Tonight I am mourning
the death warrant hate has made of their skin—
black and bursting with such ordinary
hungers and thirsts, such abundant frailty,
such constellations of possibility, our boys
who might become men if this world spared them,
if it could see them whole—boys, men, brothers—human.
Copyright © 2020 by Lauren K. Alleyne. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 14, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
“...The straitjackets of race prejudice and discrimination do not wear only southern labels. The subtle, psychological technique of the North has approached in its ugliness and victimization of the Negro the outright terror and open brutality of the South.”
― Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can't Wait (Beacon Press, 2011)
this here the cradle of this here
nation—everywhere you look, roots run right
back south. every vein filled with red dirt, blood,
cotton. we the dirty word you spit out your
mouth. mason dixon is an imagined line—you
can theorize it, or wish it real, but it’s the same
old ghost—see-through, benign. all y’all from
alabama; we the wheel turning cotton to make
the nation move. we the scapegoat in a land built
from death. no longitude or latitude disproves
the truth of founding fathers’ sacred oath:
we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw,
Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law.
Copyright © 2020 by Ashley M. Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 17, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
after June Jordan
Nightly my enemies feast on my comrades
like maggots on money. Money being my enemy
as plastic is my enemy. My enemy everywhere
and in my home as wifi is
a money for me to reach my comrades
and kills my house plants. My enemy
is distance growing dark, distance growing
politely in my pocket as connection.
I must become something my enemies can’t eat, don’t have
a word for yet, my enemies being literate as a drone is
well-read and precise and quiet, as when I buy something
such as a new computer with which to sing against my enemies,
there is my enemy, silent and personal.
Copyright © 2020 by Taylor Johnson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 18, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Your good daughter I have been
my whole life.
I’ve kept your house
clean as sucked bone,
starved myself of everything
your other children have told me is sin.
I’ve sharpened my teeth on the slate
of your Word for your work’s sake.
Bridled the glint of my tongue
so men will feel strong
and not be seen trembling
under the soft of it.
and for what
do I hunger, myself growing slight
on tomorrow’s meat:
words, words, your words
as valued here as Black credit
at an all-American bank.
They say, Lord, piety is speaking to you,
but madness is hearing you
speak back. And under this,
like all good jokes lies
the truth: no one
in this equation seems to be listening
anyway. To you, to our own damned selves.
how many Black girls
does it take to change a mind,
or a home or a block
or a scale or a heart
or a course or a country?
You, Lord, as you have
with your other minor prophets,
have dragged—or is it called us
up the mountain, where in the thin air
there are those who got here
long before I ever dreamed of it,
still waiting on you
to finally cash this check.
Copyright © 2020 by Natasha Oladokun. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 20, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Maggot & Mosquito mother infectious
encounters. Call home to the fen. Flooding
makes a marsh and unhouses the land.
I picture skin, inch by inch conversion
to new flesh. Without medicine i’ve seen the body
be made a speedy disposal. Dejected ground.
Profitable & prosper both contain pro.
Prospero Prospero Prospero.
I too have made incantation
of the man’s name
who gave me a borrowed tongue.
He planted a flag & dispensed
what made up his brain. Start
small & end larger. Expansion
is a uniform my lineage can’t shirk.
The water is enclosing, body
thinning in a baptism of English.
I could say that colonialism was a disease,
but that would suggest a cure.
Copyright © 2020 by Nabila Lovelace. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 21, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
I want to believe Don West
when he writes: none of mine
ever made their living by driving slaves.
But in my grandfather’s mouth that utterance
would’ve taken on another meaning:
In the memory my mother shares,
he is flitting across Louisville
in his taxi, passing back-and-forth
like a cardinal, red-faced, proud-breasted,
delivering Black folks their dry cleaning—
had to, she tells me, as part of his route—
but once he started his second shift and turned
on the cab light, he wouldn’t accept
Black fare. I recall him reciting
the early presidents’
at its liver—to rationalize his hatred
of my father, his denial
of my Blackness. That denial a peril
I survived, a cliff he could have driven me over
at any moment of my childhood. Maybe,
I want to think, because they were poor men
who labored, farmed tobacco and dug for oil,
my grandfather’s people resisted
slavery, felt a kinship with my father’s people.
Or that because my grandfather
was one of eleven mouths to feed
on their homestead—reduced to dirt
across the Great Depression—
he had a white identity to be proud of, a legacy
that didn’t join our names
in a bill of sale, but in struggle.
I search his surname and it travels
back to Germany, appears
on the deed to the house he inherited,
retired and died in, poor-white resentment
inflaming his stomach and liver.
But when I search the name I share with my father,
my only inheritance disappears
into the 19th century, sixth generation:
my ancestor bred
to produce 248 offspring
for his owner, from whence comes
our family name. Mr. West, here
we are different. Here, is where
my grandfather found his love for me discordant
as the voice of the dead whispering
history. Here is where we are connected,
not by class, but blood & slavery.
Copyright © 2020 by Joy Priest. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 28, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
They call. They message.
Then the occasional tag on social media.
I am wanting to check in on you… We
are thinking of you… I am so so sorry…
Then there I go
again pounding my head
sifting through thick
scattering names on a dusty floor
It is morning. It is the afternoon, maybe
the middle of some God-awful hour. I was
calm. I was hunkered low, shades drawn
maybe sipping a tea
should see me pacing kitchen
grabbing at lint or shaking my wrist
in the mirror
don’t remind me there are soldiers
tramping on my lawn with gas
and pepper spray.
I’ve just laid the sheets tight in my bed.
I’ve just trimmed the plants.
And you are so white
and fragile with your checking. You are so late
so late so late.
Copyright © 2020 by Nandi Comer. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 4, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
notice now pictures of awful things on top our head
the freight that barricades this view, how enough
how the law batter down the dogged tide we make
the world shoring its dark scars between seasons
as though to hold it together only by a flame
is here a voice to please enough the blunt
borderlessness of this grief turning our heads to rubble
the lunacy of nothing so limning as death in the streets
in these vibrating hours where the corners talk back
need I simply run my tongue along the granite sky and live
to know how lost the millionth life somewhere today
the swift shape of roads new names combust, the sum
of anthems flooding the world with the eye’s sudden and narrow
saltwater and streets ziplined with screams at the pitch of cooking pots
then tear gas, then pepper spray, then militarized lies unzipping
body bags, oh, our many many there, our alive and just born,
and that is how to say let’s fuck it up, we the beat and we the loud
tuning forks and the help arriving empty-handed
propping the hot news of new times on our head
days like these pleat whatever the hollow year must offer
between the not-yet-dead and those just waking up
it will not be the vanished thing that we remember
it will be what we exchanged close to midnight
like smugglers high-wiring the city, hoarding the thoughts
of ours we interrupted midway to discovering the velocity
of the burning world below
of our language in the lateness of our stuck and reckless love
where the forces who claim they love us
level our lives to crust—the centuries-wide dance
of swapped shackles for knees
their batons and miscellany
thrown at our whole lives demanding our mothers
raise from their separate rooms, separate graves, today
to save who and me? I open the book to a naked page
where nothing clatter my heart, what head
what teeth cling to broadside, roll alias after
alias with a pen at their dull tribunes and shrines
imagine our heirlooms of shot nerves make a life
given to placards and synergies and elegies, but more
last things: where letters here where snow in May
where the millennium unstitches the quartered earth
in June, how many today to the viral fire
the frosted rich and their forts, but not
the fulsome rage of my people unpeaced
mute boots with somber looks appear
a fearsome autumn ending spring, though we still hear
I dare not sing
another song to dig a hole this time for the lineages
of magnolias where the offspring bring a hand to cover
our mouth, our heaping lives, who sit who burn who drop
three feet to the tar, who eat and demolish the thing
that takes our head, the thing that is no more
the place that never was except a burning learned
just once and not again when the darker working’s race
Copyright © 2020 by Canisia Lubrin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 3, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
I am liberated and focused today
on what it means to govern myself.
I am not watching the news
or wearing a bra.
I will not question America
or ask where it was last night.
I went to bed with a cold fact
With no cuddling, after.
Today, God I want nothing
not even the love I have been praying for.
On the train, I won’t offer
anyone my seat.
No one ever moves for me
Some days, not even the wind.
Today, I will be like the flag
that never waves.
At work, I will be black
and I will act like it.
They will mispronounce my name
And this time I won’t answer.
I will sit at my desk with my legs open
and my mind crossed.
Copyright © 2020 by Starr Davis. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 31, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
what it sounds like is a bird breaking small bones against glass. the least of them, a sparrow, of course. you’re about to serve dinner and this is the scene. blame the bird, the impertinent windows, try not to think of the inconvenience of blood splattering violet in the dusk. how can you eat after this? do not think of whom to blame when the least of us hurdles into the next moment. a pane opening into another. the least of us spoiling your meal.
the smell of it will be smoke and rank. you will mutter about this for days, the injustice of splatter on your window. foolish bird. civilization. house with the view. fucking bird feeder. it will take you a week, while the flesh starts to rot under thinning feathers, while the blood has congealed and stuck, for you to realize that no one is coming to take the body. it is your dead bird. it is your glass. you have options you think. hire out. move out. leave it for the bigger blacker birds.
you will taste rotting just above the top of your tongue. so much, that you check yourself to make sure that it is not you. the bird deserves something. you go to the closet, pick out a shoe box. discount? designer? you start to think of how it has come to this: pondering your mortality through a bird. a dead bird. never-mind. you don’t find it a problem not running into windows.
it is an eyesore and we start to gather as large billows in your yard. you marvel at us, beautiful, collecting and loosening our dark bodies from white sky to your grass. and then it comes. more bones and blood. one by one crashing into the closed pane. mindless birds. brown and gray feathers. filthy pests. another. fucking feeder. we look like billions lifting into flight and then—shatter.
you might find a delicate humility in the art of cleaning glass. while you work, you sustain tiny slivers of opened flesh. tips of your fingers sing. shards, carnage, it has become too much. you are careful to pick up all that you can see. you call a repairman. you are careful to pick up all that you can see. you throw everything into big shiny trash bags. you are careful to pick up all that you can see. you consider french doors. you are careful to pick up all that you can see and find more with each barefoot trip through your bloodbath house.
Copyright © 2020 by Bettina Judd. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
For Laquan McDonald
I think it’s quails lining the road but it's fallen Birchwood.
What look like white clouds in a grassy basin, sprinklers.
I mistake the woman walking her retriever as a pair of fawns.
Could-be animals. Unexplained weather. Maybe they see us
that way. Knowing better, the closer they get. Not quite ready to let it go.
Copyright © 2020 by Rio Cortez. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 8, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.