“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” She sat across the desk from me, squirming. It was stifling. My suite runs hot but most days it is bearable. This student has turned in nothing, rarely comes to class. When she does, her eyes bore into me with a disdain born long before either of us. She doesn’t trust anything I say. She can’t respect my station, the words coming out of these lips, this face. My breathing is an affront. It’s me, she says. I never was this student’s professor— her immediate reaction seeing me at the smart board. But I have a calling to complete & she has to finish college, return to a town where she doesn’t have to look at, listen to or respect anyone like me—forever tall, large & brown in her dagger eyes, though it’s clear she looks down on me. She can return— if not to her hometown, another enclave, so many others, where she can brush a dog’s golden coat, be vegan & call herself a good person. Are you having difficulty with your other classes? No. Go, I say, tenderly. Loaded as a cop’s gun, she blurts point-blank that she’s afraid of me. Twice. My soft syllables rattle something planted deep, so I tell her to go where she'd feel more comfortable as if she were my niece or godchild, even wish her a good day. If she stays, the ways this could backfire! Where is my Kevlar shield from her shame? There’s no way to tell when these breasts will evoke solace or terror. I hate that she surprises me, that I lull myself to think her ilk is gone despite knowing so much more, and better. I can’t proselytize my worth all semester, exhaust us for the greater good. I can’t let her make me a monster to myself— I’m running out of time & pity the extent of her impoverished heart. She’s from New England, I’m from the Mid-South. Far from elderly, someone just raised her like this with love. I have essays to grade but words warp on the white page, dart just out of reach. I blink two hours away, find it hard to lift my legs, my voice, my head precious to my parents now being held in my own hands. How did they survive so much worse, the millions with all of their scars! What would these rivers be without their weeping, these streets without their faith & sweat? Fannie Lou Hamer thundered what they felt, we feel, into DNC microphones on black and white TV years before I was a notion. She doesn’t know who Fannie Lou Hamer is, and never has to.
Copyright © 2018 by Kamilah Aisha Moon. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 4, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
There are gods
is offered praise
& still cannot
its colors are blue
& black, a cross-
hatch of bruise
like my son’s
like lungs, excised
or autopsied, splayed
open on a cold table
or left in the street
for hours to stew.
is a gun—
is a gun, skin
a shiny pistol,
a demon, a barrel
not to bear but bare. Don’t
into the wrong
is not dark
but a red siren
who will not blow
breath into your open
like a heart. Because
I can see
I believe in you, god
of police brutality—
of corn liquor
& late fertility, of birth
pain & blood
like the sun setting,
dispersing its giant
crowd of light.
Copyright © 2018 by Kevin Young. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 16, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
say it with your whole black mouth: i am innocent
& if you are not innocent, say this: i am worthy of forgiveness, of breath after breath
i tell you this: i let blue eyes dress me in guilt
walked around stores convinced the very skin of my palm was stolen
& what good has that brought me? days filled flinching
thinking the sirens were reaching for me
& when the sirens were for me
did i not make peace with god?
so many white people are alive because
we know how to control ourselves.
how many times have we died on a whim
wielded like gallows in their sun-shy hands?
here, standing in my own body, i say: the next time
they murder us for the crime of their imaginations
i don’t know what i’ll do.
i did not come to preach of peace
for that is not the hunted’s duty.
i came here to say what i can’t say
without my name being added to a list
what my mother fears i will say
what she wishes to say herself
i came here to say
i can’t bring myself to write it down
sometimes i dream of pulling a red apology
from a pig’s collared neck & wake up crackin up
if i dream of setting fire to cul-de-sacs
i wake chained to the bed
i don’t like thinking about doing to white folks
what white folks done to us
when i do
i don’t dance
o my people
how long will we
reach for god
instead of something sharper?
my lovely doe
with a taste for meat
by his hand
Copyright © 2018 by Danez Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 25, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.
I don’t call it sleep anymore.
I’ll risk losing something new instead—
like you lost your rosen moon, shook it loose.
But sometimes when I get my horns in a thing—
a wonder, a grief or a line of her—it is a sticky and ruined
fruit to unfasten from,
despite my trembling.
Let me call my anxiety, desire, then.
Let me call it, a garden.
Maybe this is what Lorca meant
when he said, verde que te quiero verde—
because when the shade of night comes,
I am a field of it, of any worry ready to flower in my chest.
My mind in the dark is una bestia, unfocused,
hot. And if not yoked to exhaustion
beneath the hip and plow of my lover,
then I am another night wandering the desire field—
bewildered in its low green glow,
belling the meadow between midnight and morning.
Insomnia is like Spring that way—surprising
and many petaled,
the kick and leap of gold grasshoppers at my brow.
I am struck in the witched hours of want—
I want her green life. Her inside me
in a green hour I can’t stop.
Green vein in her throat green wing in my mouth
green thorn in my eye. I want her like a river goes, bending.
Green moving green, moving.
Fast as that, this is how it happens—
soy una sonámbula.
And even though you said today you felt better,
and it is so late in this poem, is it okay to be clear,
to say, I don’t feel good,
to ask you to tell me a story
about the sweet grass you planted—and tell it again
until I can smell its sweet smoke,
leave this thrashed field, and be smooth.
Copyright © 2017 by Natalie Diaz. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 5, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
I use a trick to teach students
how to avoid passive voice.
Circle the verbs.
Imagine inserting “by zombies”
after each one.
Have the words been claimed
by the flesh-hungry undead?
If so, passive voice.
I wonder if these
sixth graders will recollect,
on summer vacation,
as they stretch their legs
on the way home
from Yellowstone or Yosemite
and the byway’s historical marker
beckons them to the
site of an Indian village—
Where trouble was brewing.
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter.
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred.
Where most were women and children.
Riveted bramble of passive verbs
etched in wood—
breaking up from the dry ground
to pinch the meat
of their young red tongues.
From Tributaries (University of Arizona Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Laura Da’. Used with the permission of the author.