Translated from Portuguese by Dan Hanrahan
I am whatever you think a black man is. You almost never think about black men. I will always be what you want a black man to be. I am your black man. I’ll never be only your black man. I am my black man before I am yours. Your black man. A black man is always somebody’s black man. Or they are not a black man at all, but a man. Just a man. When they say that a man is black, what they mean is that he is more black than he is man. But all the same, I’m a black man to you. I’m what you imagine black men to be. I can spill onto your whiteness the blackness that defines a black man in the eyes of someone who is not black. The black man is the invention of the white man. It is believed that to the white man falls the burden of creating all that is good in the world, and that I am good, and that I was created by whites. That they fear me more than they fear other white people. That they fear me, but at the same time desire my forbidden body. That they would scalp me for the doomed love they bear for my blackness. I was not born black. I’m not black every moment of the day. I am black only when they want me to be black. Those times that I am not just black, I am as adrift as the most lost white person. I am not just what you think I am.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Words Without Borders. © Ricardo Aleixo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Dan Hanrahan. All rights reserved.
Four lanes over, a plump helium heart— slipped, maybe, from some kid’s wrist or a rushed lover’s empty passenger seat through a half-cracked car window— rises like a shiny purple cloudlet toward today’s gray mess of clouds, trailing its gold ribbon like lightning that will never strike anything or anyone here on the forsaken ground, its bold LOVE increasingly illegible as it ascends over the frozen oaks, riding swift currents toward the horizon, a swollen word wobbling out of sight.
Copyright © 2006 Michael McFee. From Shinemaster (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006) by Michael McFee. Used with permission of the author.
Guilty Guilty Guilty for actions that took my sympathy Shackles around my wrist shackles at my feet Prom and high school graduation these eyes will never see My heart said, Oh well At least you will no longer have to endure your daily home abuse I grew into a woman unbalanced behind those wire fences Recall (3xs) that’s all I knew Always committing some illegal offenses straight to the SHU These eyes have seen the bottom of boots, Mace in the face, The heavy blue dress while people watch you 24hrs a day, A lock in a sock, Shall I go on? My heart was always heavy when I constantly placed myself back in the same abuse I thought I would escape I knew I had something in me worth showing the world, but what? Fighting my demons was real tuff A peaceful life didn’t feel so ruff I opened my mouth and people was shocked That I could read, count, think, understand, listen, play chess, learn a trade They started to see my worth My eyes have seen a life the majority would have failed surviving Rape, abuse, homelessness, parent-less, drugs, prison, mental health, failure My heart became strong enough to finally love myself And I finally looked up to the woman in the mirror
Copyright © 2019 by Cheleta T. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 22, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
You walked in like the light From every sun that rose This year had exploded Symmetrically from your eyes I was uncertain—no I was certain I wanted your eyes to shoot Laser beams straight through me It was certain we were soon to be Bound by something mythological It was certain that when you moved The hair away from my mouth A locust in your eyes Moved farther afield It was uncertain if one day We would be saying I will not love you The way I love you presently It was certain we spoke The danger language of deer Moving only when moving Our velvet bodies in fear
Like a fawn from the arrow, startled and wild,
A woman swept by us, bearing a child;
In her eye was the night of a settled despair,
And her brow was o'ershaded with anguish and care.
She was nearing the river—in reaching the brink,
She heeded no danger, she paused not to think;
For she is a mother—her child is a slave—
And she'll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!
It was a vision to haunt us, that innocent face—
So pale in its aspect, so fair in its grace;
As the tramp of the horse and the bay of the hound,
With the fetters that gall, were trailing the ground!
She was nerv'd by despair, and strengthened by woe,
As she leap'd o'er the chasms that yawn'd from below;
Death howl'd in the tempest, and rav'd in the blast,
But she heard not the sound till the danger was past.
Oh! how shall I speak of my proud country's shame?
Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name?
How say that her banner in mockery waves—
Her "star-spangled banner"—o'er millions of slaves?
How say that the lawless may torture and chase
A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?
How the depths of the forest my echo around
With the shrieks of despair, and they bay of the hound?
With her step on the ice, and her arm on her child,
The danger was fearful, the pathway was wild;
But, aided by Heaven, she gained a free shore,
Where the friends of humanity open'd their door.
So fragile and lovely, so fearfully pale,
Like a lily that bends to the breath of the gale,
Save the heave of her breast, and the sway of her hair,
You'd have thought her a statue of fear and despair.
In agony close to her bosom she press'd
The life of her heart, the child of her breast:—
Oh! love from its tenderness gathering might,
Had strengthen'd her soul for the dangers of flight.
But she's free!—yes, free from the land where the slave
From the hand of oppression must rest in the grave;
Where bondage and torture, where scourges and chains
Have place'd on our banner indelible stains.
The bloodhounds have miss'd the scent of her way;
The hunter is rifled and foil'd of his prey;
Fierce jargon and cursing, with clanking of chains,
Make sounds of strange discord on Liberty's plains.
With the rapture of love and fulness of bliss,
She plac'd on his brown a mother's fond kiss:—
Oh! poverty, danger and death she can brave,
For the child of her love is no longer a slave!
From Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (Merrihew & Thompson, 1857) by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. This poem is in the public domain.
“...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.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
From The Poetry of Robert Frost by Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1923, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1947, 1949, © 1969 by Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1951, 1953, 1954, © 1956, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962 by Robert Frost. Copyright © 1962, 1967, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine.