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.
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.
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.
When I was a child I would run
through the backyard while my father
yanked dandelions, daisies, thistles, crabgrass,
mowed, rearranged the stones around the porch—
the task of men, though I didn’t know.
Blushed with cartoons and chocolate milk
one Saturday, I found a bee working
a dandelion for its treasure the way
only God’s creatures can, giving
and giving until all that is left
is the act itself—and there’s faith, too,
my mother used to say in her magnolia lilt.
It comes as it comes—there’s a road to follow.
When I swat the bee, I plea in triumph.
My father, knee-drenched in manhood,
grins and his gold tooth glistens a likely tale.
And when the bee stings my ear,
I run to him screaming as my mother
runs outside hearing her only child’s voice
peel back the wallpaper. She charms my ear
with kisses. This afternoon, I notice a bee
trapped inside the window as my mother
on the phone tries to still her voice
to say her mother has died. I wonder if he can
taste the sadness, the man on TV tells the other.
The bee is so calm. The room enlists
a fresh haunting, and the doorframe bothers.
To believe her when she says—
as the bouquet of yellow roses on the dresser
bows its head and the angles of my clay bloom
with fire—it’ll be okay, is my duty as son.
My mother sits in the hospital in San Antonio,
motherless—my mother is now a mother
without the longest love she’s ever known.
My mother who used to wake up
before the slap of sunrise with my father
to build new rooftops. My mother who wrote
“I pray you have a great day”
on stupid notes tucked in my lunchbox.
My mother who told the white woman
in Ross to apologize for bumping into me
as I knocked over a rack of pantyhose.
My mother who cried in Sea-Tac airport
as I walked through customs, yes-ing
the woman who asks, Is it his first time
moving from home? My mother who looks
at me with glinted simper when the pastor spouts
“disobedient children.” My mother who was told
at a young age she’d never give birth,
barren as she were. My mother, my mother.
What rises inside me, I imagine inside her, although
I’ve never had a mother leave this earth.
I’ve never been without love.
Copyright © 2020 by Luther Hughes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 23, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Copyright © 2020 by Crystal Valentine. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 24, 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.
Bird dogs, they say—
the kind that chase something in flight.
try to capture with its teeth
a winged ceremony,
feathers dripping from each of their mouths.
The first dog was just plain old.
The second died of a heart worm pill —my father neglected to purchase.
What else has he let die?
My mother fixed his plate every night,
never bought a car, or shoes, or skirt
without his permission.
She birthed children and raised them.
She, my sister, and I—
winged things in the air.
I knew there was blood under the ground.
No surprise when I found the house was sinking.
Our dogs always stayed outside, not allowed
in the living room.
Only the basement,
where my father stayed, slept, fixed things.
My mother, a silent companion.
The dog barks and my father goes running.
The dog dies
and we bury my mother.
Graves for everyone
and feathers fall from my father’s teeth.
He barks and becomes the tree.
The bark remembers phantom noose
The screech becomes a bullet
without a window to land through,
just a body,
Copyright © 2020 by Barbara Fant. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 29, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
I am hovering over this rug
with a hair dryer on high in my hand
I have finally, inevitably, spilled
red wine on this impractically white
housewarming hand-me-down from my cousin, who
clearly, and incorrectly, thought this was a good idea
With the help of a little panic,
sparkling water and a washcloth,
I am stunned by how quickly the wine washes out,
how I was sure this mistake would find me
every day with its gaping mouth, reminding me
of my own propensity for failure
and yet, here I am
with this clean slate
The rug is made of fur,
which means it died
to be here
It reminds me of my own survival
and everyone who has taught me
to shake loose the shadow of death
I think of inheritance, how this rug
was passed on to me through blood,
how this animal gave its blood
so that I may receive the gift of its death
and be grateful for it
I think of our inability
to control stories of origin
how history does not wash away
with water and a good scrub
I think of evolution,
what it means to make it through
this world with your skin intact,
how flesh is fragile
but makes a needle and thread
of itself when necessary
I think of all that I have inherited,
all the bodies buried for me to be here
and stay here, how I was born with grief
and gratitude in my bones
And I think of legacy,
how I come from a long line of sorcerers
who make good work of building
joy from absolutely nothing
And what can I do with that
but pour another glass,
thank the stars
for this sorceress blood
and keep pressing forward
Copyright © 2020 by L. Ash Williams. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 30, 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.