Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I'll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
'Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

From Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well By Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1975 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc. For online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, visit the website at www.randomhouse.com.

The Dawn’s awake! 
   A flash of smoldering flame and fire
Ignites the East. Then, higher, higher, 
   O’er all the sky so gray, forlorn, 
The torch of gold is borne. 

The Dawn’s awake! 
  The dawn of a thousand dreams and thrills. 
And music singing in the hills 
   A pæen of eternal spring 
Voices the new awakening. 

The Dawn’s awake! 
     Whispers of pent-up harmonies, 
With the mingled fragrance of the trees; 
     Faint snaches of half-forgotten song—
Fathers! Torn and numb,—
   The boon of light we craved, awaited long, 
Has come, has come! 

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 2, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
               —Nina Simone

today i am a black woman in america
& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby
it sounds like:
              the gentrification of a brooklyn stoop
              the rent raised three times my wages
              the bodega and laundromat burned down on the corner
              the people on the corner
                          each lock & key their chromosomes
                          a note of ash & inquiry on their tongues
 
today i am a black woman in a hopeless state
i will apply for financial aid and food stamps
          with the same mouth i spit poems from
i will ask the angels of a creative god to lessen
          the blows
& i will beg for forgiveness when i curse
          the rising sun

today, i am a black woman in a body of coal
i am always burning and no one knows my name
i am a nameless fury, i am a blues scratched from
the throat of ms. nina—i am always angry
i am always a bumble hive of hello
i love like this too loudly, my neighbors
think i am an unforgiving bitter
            sometimes, i think my neighbors are right
            most times i think my neighbors are nosey

today, i am a cold country, a storm
brewing, a heat wave of a woman wearing
red pumps to the funeral of my ex-lover’s

today, i am a woman, a brown and black &
brew woman dreaming of freedom

today, i am a mother, & my country is burning
           and i forget how to flee
from such a flamboyant backdraft
                       —i’m too in awe of how beautiful i look
            on fire

Copyright © 2016 by Mahogany Browne. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 25, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Thirty seconds into the barbecue,
my Cleveland cousins
have everyone speaking
Southern—broadened vowels
and dropped consonants,
whoops and caws.
It's more osmosis than magic,
a sliding thrall back to a time
when working the tire factories
meant entire neighborhoods coming
up from Georgia or Tennessee,
accents helplessly intact—
while their children, inflections flattened

to match the field they thought
they were playing on, knew
without asking when it was safe
to roll out a drawl… just as

it's understood “potluck” means
resurrecting the food
we've abandoned along the way
for the sake of sleeker thighs.
I look over the yard to the porch
with its battalion of aunts,
the wavering ranks of uncles
at the grill; everywhere else
hordes of progeny are swirling

and my cousins yakking on
as if they were waist-deep in quicksand
but like the books recommend aren’t moving
until someone hauls them free—

Who are all these children?
Who had them, and with whom?
Through the general coffee tones
the shamed genetics cut a creamy swath.

Cherokee’s burnt umber transposed
onto generous lips, a glance flares gray
above the crushed nose we label
Anonymous African:  It's all here,
the beautiful geometry of Mendel's peas

and their grim logic—

and though we remain
clearly divided on the merits
of okra, there’s still time
to demolish the cheese grits
and tear into slow-cooked ribs
so tender, we agree they’re worth
the extra pound or two
our menfolk swear will always
bring them home. Pity
the poor soul who lives
a life without butter—
those pinched knees
and tennis shoulders
and hatchety smiles!

Copyright © 2007 by Rita Dove. Originally published in Callaloo. Used with the permission of the poet.

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking ’neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

This poem is in the public domain.

These poems
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
and
are you ready?
 
These words
they are stones in the water
running away
 
These skeletal lines
they are desperate arms for my longing and love.
 
I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
around me
 
whoever you are
whoever I may become.
 

Copyright © 2017 June Jordan from We’re On: A June Jordan Reader (Alice James Books, 2017). Used with permission of the publisher.

1

I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.
My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple
Fire red and humming.
I bit sweet power to the core.
How can I say what it was like?
The taste! The taste undid my eyes
And led me far from the gardens planted for a child
To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.

2

Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;
Lips forget what they have kissed.
My eyes now pool their light
Better the summit to see.

3

I would do it all over again:
Be the harbor and set the sail,
Loose the breeze and harness the gale,
Cherish the harvest of what I have been.
Better the summit to scale.
Better the summit to be.

From Five Poems (Rainmaker Editions, 2002) by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara Walker. Used with permission from The Believer Magazine

Crips, Bloods, and butterflies.
   A sunflower somehow planted
in the alley. Its broken neck.
   Maybe memory is all the home
you get. And rage, where you
   first learn how fragile the axis
upon which everything tilts.
   But to say you’ve come to terms
with a city that’s never loved you
   might be overstating things a bit.
All you know is there was once
   a walk-up where now sits a lot,
vacant, and rats in deep grass
   hide themselves from the day.
That one apartment fire
   set back in ’76—one the streets
called arson to collect a claim—
   could not do, ultimately, what
the city itself did, left to its own dank
   devices, some sixteen years later.
Rebellions, said some. Riots,
   said the rest. In any case, flames;
and the home you knew, ash.
   It’s not an actual memory, but
you remember it still: a rust-
   bottomed Datsun handed down,
then stolen. Stripped, recovered,
   and built back from bolts.
Driving away in May. 1992.
   What’s left of that life quivers
in the rearview—the world on fire,
   and half your head with it.

Copyright © 2018 by John Murillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 1, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

To a Brown Boy

Tis a noble gift to be brown, all brown,
     Like the strongest things that make up this earth,
Like the mountains grave and grand,
     Even like the very land,
     Even like the trunks of trees—
     Even oaks, to be like these!
God builds His strength in bronze.

To be brown like thrush and lark!
     Like the subtle wren so dark!
Nay, the king of beasts wears brown;
     Eagles are of this same hue.
I thank God, then, I am brown.
     Brown has mighty things to do.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on June 30, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Like a wide wake, rippling
Infinitely into the distance, everything

That ever was still is, somewhere,
Floating near the surface, nursing
Its hunger for you and me

And the now we’ve named
And made a place of.

Like groundswell sometimes
It surges up, claiming a little piece
Of where we stand.

Like the wind the rains ride in on,
It sweeps across the leaves,

Pushing in past the windows
We didn’t slam quickly enough.
Dark water it will take days to drain.

It surprised us last night in my sleep.
Brought food, a gift. Stood squarely

There between us, while your eyes
Danced toward mine, and my hands
Sat working a thread in my lap.

Up close, it was so thin. And when finally
You reached for me, it backed away,

Bereft, but not vanquished, Today,
Whatever it was seems slight, a trail
Of cloud rising up like smoke.

And the trees that watch as I write
Sway in the breeze, as if all that stirs

Under the soil is a little tickle of knowledge
The great blind roots will tease through
And push eventually past.

From Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

When summer time has come, and all
The world is in the magic thrall
Of perfumed airs that lull each sense
To fits of drowsy indolence;
When skies are deepest blue above,
And flow'rs aflush,—then most I love
To start, while early dews are damp,
And wend my way in woodland tramp
Where forests rustle, tree on tree,
And sing their silent songs to me;
Where pathways meet and pathways part,—
To walk with Nature heart by heart,
Till wearied out at last I lie
Where some sweet stream steals singing by
A mossy bank; where violets vie
In color with the summer sky,—
Or take my rod and line and hook,
And wander to some darkling brook,
Where all day long the willows dream,
And idly droop to kiss the stream,
And there to loll from morn till night—
Unheeding nibble, run, or bite—
Just for the joy of being there
And drinking in the summer air,
The summer sounds, and summer sights,
That set a restless mind to rights
When grief and pain and raging doubt
Of men and creeds have worn it out;
The birds' song and the water's drone,
The humming bee's low monotone,
The murmur of the passing breeze,
And all the sounds akin to these,
That make a man in summer time
Feel only fit for rest and rhyme.
Joy springs all radiant in my breast;
Though pauper poor, than king more blest,
The tide beats in my soul so strong
That happiness breaks forth in song,
And rings aloud the welkin blue
With all the songs I ever knew.
O time of rapture! time of song!
How swiftly glide thy days along
Adown the current of the years,
Above the rocks of grief and tears!
'Tis wealth enough of joy for me
In summer time to simply be.

This poem is in the public domain.

Sundown, the day nearly eaten away, 

the Boxcar Willies peep. Their
inside-eyes push black and plump

against walls of pumpkin skin. I step 
into dying backyard light. Both hands 

steal into the swollen summer air, 
a blind reach into a blaze of acid, 

ghost bloom of nacre & breast. 
One Atlantan Cherokee Purple, 

two piddling Radiator Charlies 
are Lena-Horne lured into the fingers

of my right hand. But I really do love you, 
enters my ear like a nest of yellow jackets, 

well wedged beneath a two-by-four. 

But I really didn't think I would (ever leave), 
stings before the ladder hits the ground. 

I swat the familiar buzz away. 
My good arm arcs and aims. 

My elbow cranks a high, hard cradle
and draws a fire. The end of the day's 

sweaty air stirs fast in a bowl, the coming
shadows, the very diamond match I need. 

One by one, each Blind Willie
takes his turn Pollocking the back

fence, heart pine explodes gold-leafed in 
red and brown-eyed ochre. There is practice

for everything in this life. This is how
you throw something perfectly good away.

From Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney. Copyright © 2011 by Nikky Finney. Reprinted with permission from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern. All rights reserved.

apricots & brown teeth in browner mouths nashing dates & a clementine’s underflesh under yellow nail & dates like auntie heads & the first time someone dried mango there was god & grandma’s Sunday only song & how the plums are better as plums dammit & i was wrong & a June’s worth of moons & the kiss stain of the berries & lord the prunes & the miracle of other people’s lives & none of my business & our hands sticky and a good empty & please please pass the bowl around again & the question of dried or ripe & the sex of grapes & too many dates & us us us us us & varied are the feast but so same the sound of love gorged & the women in the Y hijab a lily in the water & all of us who come from people who signed with x’s & yesterday made delicacy in the wrinkle of the fruit & at the end of my name begins the lot of us

Copyright © 2019 by Danez Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 29, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Twin Poets Al Mills and Nnamdi O. Chukwuocha perform “Dreams are Illegal”


 

I had a dream
I had a dream that I was in America
I mean I was actually in the land of the beautiful
And the home of the brave
My boss came into my office and said
‘Hi Bob, how’s it going?
Why don’t you take off early and here is that raise”
As I pulled my Suburban, up to my suburban home
I checked the mail in the box
And saw that I was approved for another home equity loan
Girl scouts were there ringing the bell with cookies to sell
Of course, I bought a box
As Hillary quieted down Marmaduke, who had begun to bark
And later on, me—the wife & kids took a bike ride to the park
When we returned got back we had apple pie with ice cream on top
Then we buckled up and headed on down to the Redbox
To get some videos to watch
When we got in, the kids put on their pjs
And we met in the den
Relaxed on the couch for some family time watching videos
Then all these strangers turned to me and said:
What are you doing here? Don’t you know...
Dreams are Illegal in the Ghetto

Gunshots ring in the heat of the night
Followed by screams, violently disrupting my dreams
In my neighborhood
I don’t have to read the paper or watch the news
To know that something bad happen around here tonight
But once the ambulance leaves, the police sirens stop,
And the crowd disperses
The silence soaks into my soul, sobering my senses
In this often over-intoxicating society
I try to relax but the Devil just won’t let go
He keeps pointing to the signs that are posted all around me
That read: Dreams are Illegal

My neighborhood is the bottom of the barrel
Where drugs get mixed
Here there are no brothers and sisters
Just confused brothers and sisters
Here people drown in the backwash
Of the latest political scandal
In the midst of ghetto chaos dreams are quickly lost
The Devil is in sweet control
As dreams are stole
There is no honor amongst thieves
So dreams are stolen with ease
A high school graduate barely seventeen
Gives up her college dreams, for a pair of tight jeans
And a chance to be the next inner city queen
In the inner city checks and basketballs bounce with regularity
Life and death intermix with no disparity
Some children live for nothing, some children die for nothing
Everyday blue skies are gray
All they know is, they wanna make $doe
The Devil has them chasing a colorless rainbow
At the end there is no pot of gold, just a pot of steam
Which He exchanges for their dreams
Bona fide slaves are made in the Devil’s dream trade
Without dreams you are equivalent to being non-existent
Our children need to be told they can achieve
And that God bless those that hold on to their dreams
We have to take down the signs so that our children won’t know
That the Devil is trying to make dreams illegal...
 

From Our Work, Our Words… Poems on the pavement (Meja Books, 2015) Copyright © 2015 by Twin Poets. Used with permission of the Twin Poets Al Mills and Nnamdi O. Chukwuocha.