translated from the Spanish by Cola Franzen

A woman sleeps on an island
and from her hair is born the dwelling place
of memories and wild birds.
Her body is a figurehead,
and they say that since
she fell asleep on the island
she seems to have been touched by the rains
of madness, that her hair blossoms each evening
next to the music of the sea. Others say
her eyelids trace maps of strange geographies,
savage tattoos kept only in the tenuous
circle of her dreams.

A woman sleeps on an island
and stops being herself,
free now of the land.
She sails and drinks
the vastness of the sea.
Seeds fill her floating hair;
she is an island
surrounded by stars.


 

Una mujer duerme en una isla
y del cabello nacen las moradas
de memorias y pájaros salvajes.
Su cuerpo es un mascarón de proa
y dicen que desde
que durmió en la isla
pareciera haber sido tocada por las lluvias
de la demencia, que su pelo florece en los atardeceres
junto a la música del mar. Otros dicen
que sus párpados dibujan mapas de extrañas geografías,
tatuajes salvajes que ella guarda sólo
en la redondez tenue del sueño.

Una mujer duerme en una isla
y deja de ser ella misma
libre ahora de la tierra.
Navega y bebe
la inmensidad del mar.
Las semillas llenan su pelo que flota
y ella es una isla
rodeada de estrellas.

Marjorie Agosín, “Un mujer duerme en una isla / A Woman Sleeps on an Island,” translated by Cola Franzen, from Sargasso. Copyright © 1993 by Marjorie Agosin. Translation copyright © 1993 by Cola Franzen. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of White Pine Press, www.whitepine.org.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

We never know how high we are
  Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
  Our statures touch the skies—

The Heroism we recite
  Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
  For fear to be a King—

This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on April 20, 2013. This poem is in the public domain.

Moon that is linking our daughters’
Choices, and still more beginnings,
Threaded alive with our shadows,

These are our bodies’ own voices,
Powers of each of our bodies,
Threading, unbroken, begetting

Flowers from each of our bodies.
These are our spiraling borders
Carrying on your beginnings,

Chaining through shadows to daughters,
Moving beyond our beginnings,
Moon of our daughters, and mothers.

Copyright © 2016 by Annie Finch. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 9, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

The failure of love might account for most of the suffering in the world.

The girl was going over her global studies homework   

in the air where she drew the map with her finger 


touching the Gobi desert,

the Plateau of Tiber in front of her,


and looking through her transparent map backwards

I did suddenly see,

how her left is my right, and for a moment I understood.
 

Copyright © 2016 by Marie Howe. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 27, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Washing the floors to send you to college
Staying at home so you can feel safe
What do you think is the soul of her knowledge
What do you think that makes her feel safe

Biting her lips and lowering her eyes
To make sure there's food on the table
What do you think would be her surprise
If the world was as willing as she's able

Hugging herself in an old kitchen chair
She listens to your hurt and your rage
What do you think she knows of despair
What is the aching of age

The fathers, the children, the brothers
Turn to her and everybody white turns to her
What about her turning around
Alone in the everyday light

There oughta be a woman can break
Down, sit down, break down, sit down
Like everybody else call it quits on Mondays
Blues on Tuesdays, sleep until Sunday
Down, sit down, break down, sit down

A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Courage that cries out at night
A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Bravery kept outa sight
A way outa no way is too much to ask
Too much of a task for any one woman

Copyright © 2017 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Used with the permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate, www.junejordan.com.

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.

From Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Ada Limón. Used with permission from Milkweed Editions, milkweed.org.

In the autumn I moved to New York,
I recognized her face all over the subway
stations—pearls around her throat, she poses
for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only
Americans required to carry identity cards
were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,
red targets on the head of every man, woman,
child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,
they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face
view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,
in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese
exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name
her—though it does mention her ethnicity,
and the name of the New York Historical
Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.
Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face
would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,
heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore
a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face
aligned with hers, and we would rush past
the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone
the year my mother was born, and mine,
a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.
In the same aboveground train, in the same
city where slain umbrellas travel across
the Hudson River, we live and live.
I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me
at midnight with the hunger of hunters
anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.
It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting
hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.
It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,
and New York, the parties she went to, people
she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,
Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts
her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand
Central station, an echo chamber behind
her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize
her face under this tunnel of endless shadows
against the luminance of all that is extinct
and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.

Copyright © 2017 by Sally Wen Mao. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried;
Now granite in a granite hill.

The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear;
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!—
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, "The courage that my mother had" from Collected Poems. Copyright 1954, © 1982 by Norma Millay Ellis. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Holly Peppe, Literary Executor, The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, www.millay.org.

Blue and White Orlon Snowflake Sweater, Blue Snowpants, Red Galoshes
          —Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas, 1955


Somebody took a picture of a class
standing in line to get polio shots,
and published it in the Weekly Reader.
We stood like that today. And it did hurt.
Mrs. Liebel said we were Making History,
but all I did was sqwunch up my eyes and wince.
Making History takes more than standing in line
believing little white lies about pain.
Mama says First Negroes are History:
First Negro Telephone Operator,
First Negro Opera Singer At The Met,
First Negro Pilots, First Supreme Court Judge.
That lady in Montgomery just became a First
by sqwunching up her eyes and sitting there.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Marilyn Nelson. From Beloit Poetry Journal, Split This Rock Edition. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.

Once, when there was no light, the wind danced with the sea, whose glassy surface became untame funnels and silver crested waves as she leapt and spun. How the wind also spun and let out a mighty roar. You have heard this one before, no? How earth convulsed as if laughing. How seafloor forced her fingertips skyward. How she freed her body from the silent, murky depths.

She who was born of the rocks fell in love with the one who was born of sea spume. There upon the rocks, they spread seeds and soil, and from these the bamboo sprouted. It rooted itself in those rocks, and some say kidlat split this bamboo open.

Others say a great serpent ruled the sea, and set upon his crown, a gleaming stone upon which the skyfolk spilled dark earth. I do not know why they tried to bury the serpent, but because of this, he hissed and lashed at them. The sea was once sweet and cool as rainwater. In the north, a medicine woman told us of her people’s prayers for salt. Hot winds brought to them fragrances of the dead. After the waters receded, how the shores became the color of clear crystals and blood.

Hija, I bring the sea tobacco leaves and fruit, but still no stories come to me. I plead with her, O diwata, pakitanggap po ninyo ang aking handog. O diwata, ang inyong mga salita lamang ang hinihingin ko. Today as ever, she gives me but silence.

Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Jane Reyes. Reprinted from Diwata with the permission of BOA Editions.

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother.

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?) 
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Jo Salter. Used with permission of the author.

I’m a rock woman
I’m a horse woman
I’m a monkey woman
I’m a chipmunk woman
I’m a mountain woman
I’m a blue mountain woman
I’m a marsh woman
I’m a jungle woman
I’m a tundra woman
I’m the lady in the lake
I’m the lady in the sand
 

            water that cleans
            flowers that clean
            water that cleans as I go
 

I’m a bird woman
I’m a book woman
I’m a devilish clown woman
I’m a holy-clown woman
I’m a whirling-dervish woman
I’m a whirling-foam woman
I’m a playful-light woman
I’m a tidal-pool woman
I’m a fast speaking woman

Copyright © 1996 by Anne Waldman. Used with permission of the author.

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees, unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.

Copyright © 1982 by the Estate of Hilda Doolittle. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this poem may be reproduced in any form without the written consent of the publisher.

In the pull-out bed with my brother
            in my grandfather’s Riverton apartment
my knees and ankles throbbed from growing,
            pulsing so hard they kept me awake—
or was it the Metro North train cars
            flying past the apartment, rocking the walls,
or was it the sound of apartment front doors
            as heavy as prison doors clanging shut?
Was the Black Nation whispering to me
            from the Jet magazines stacked on the floor, or
was it my brother’s unfamiliar ions
            vibrating, humming in his easeful sleep?
Tomorrow, as always, Grandfather will rise
            to the Spanish-Town cock’s crow deep in his head
and perform his usual ablutions,
            and prepare the apartment for the day,
and peel fruit for us, and prepare a hot meal
            that can take us anywhere, and onward.
Did sleep elude me because I could feel
            the heft of unuttered love in his tending
our small bodies, love a silent, mammoth thing
            that overwhelmed me, that kept me awake
as my growing bones did, growing larger
            than anything else I would know?

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press.

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. 
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath. 
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

Copyright © 2015 by Jericho Brown. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 7, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me” from Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.
—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.

From Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2013 by Kwame Dawes. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

We like the houses here.
We circle the lake turning
into dark cleavages, dense-packed gleamings.
We could live here, we say.
We’re smiling, but thinking
of the houses at the last resort:
The real estate agent looked surprised
when she saw Bruce’s face; then flipped 
quickly through the glossy pictures—
I’m sure you won’t like this one;
I can tell it’s not your kind.
Our house in Essex Fells
took a year to sell and sold
to a black family. A friend explained,
once a house is owned
by black people, they’re the only ones
they’ll show it to. Do we want to live
some place with a view
overlooking the politics? 
When we pass
an exit named “Negro Mountain,” 
Bruce smiles and jerks the wheel
as if we almost missed our turn. 
Why must everything we want
come by stealth? Why is every road
in this bright country furnished
with its history of hatred? Yet
we keep smiling, driven
by a desire beyond the logic
of if we can afford it,
and whether we would love
or hate it if we did buy.

Copyright © 2017 by Toi Derricotte. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 4, 2017, 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.

It was light and lusterless and somehow luckless,
The hair I cut from the head of my father-in-law,

It was pepper-blanched and wind-scuffed, thin
As a blown bulb’s filament, it stuck to the teeth

Of my clippers like a dark language, the static
Covering his mind stuck to my fingers, it mingled

In halfhearted tufts with the dust. Because
Every barber’s got a gift for mind reading in his touch,

I could hear what he would not say. He’d sworn
To never let his hair be cut again after his daughter

Passed away. I told him how my own boy,
His grandchild, weeps when my clippers bite

Behind his ear, but I could not say how
The blood there tastes. I almost showed him

How I bow my own head to the razor in my hands,
How a mirror is used to taper the nape.

Science and religion come to the same conclusion:
Someday all the hair on the body will fall away.

I’m certain he will only call on me for a few more years,
The crown of his head is already smoother

Than any part of his face. It shines like the light
In tiny bulbs of sweat before the sweat evaporates.

From How to Be Drawn (Penguin Books, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Terrance Hayes. Used with the permission of the author.

The instructor said,

    Go home and write
    a page tonight.
    And let that page come out of you—
    Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

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.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

From Saint Peter Relates an Incident by James Weldon Johnson. Copyright © 1917, 1921, 1935 James Weldon Johnson, renewed 1963 by Grace Nail Johnson. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved.

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.

We draw breath from brick
          step on stones, weather-worn,
                    cobbled and carved  

with the story of this church,
          this meeting house,
                    where Ben Franklin was baptized

and Phillis Wheatley prayed—a mouth-house
          where colonists gathered
                    to plot against the crown.

This structure, with elegant curves
          and round-topped windows, was the heart
                    of Boston, the body of the people,

survived occupation for preservation,
          foregoing decoration
                    for conversation.

Let us gather in the box pews
          once numbered and rented
                    by generations of families

held together like ribs
          in the body politic. Let us gaze upon
                    the upper galleries to the free seats

where the poor and the town slaves
          listened and waited and pondered
                    and prayed

for revolution. 
          Let us testify to the plight
                    of the well-meaning at the pulpit

with its sounding board high above,
          congregations raising heads and hands to the sky.
                    We, the people—the tourists        

and townies—one nation under
          this vaulted roof, exalted voices
                    speaking poetry out loud,

in praise and dissent.
          We draw breath from brick. Ignite the fire in us.
                    Speak to us:     

the language is hope.

Copyright © 2016 by January Gill O’Neil. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

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.

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

This poem is in the public domain.

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring,
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
   Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with every virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
   Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers soothe each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labors of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
   Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 2, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes published by Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
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.

we once was warriors
bone sharp and tangling up
wit whatever wild was in the world
before some ships rolled in
wit folk we ain’t never seen
brandin iron and bullet men
claimin everythin
leavin misery

maybe
they know we ain’t always
been so lowly
so feverish wit brokenness
so in   fil   trated
maybe they can look past

the bruises
to see when we
were bigger underneath
and forgive us our frailty
we was overcome
wit the kind of
meanness that don’t care
about nothin but
feedin itself

we had hands once
and a river to bathe in

and names
full names
that called us home.

the chil’ren might know that
if they lookin at us right

we lost our mouths
‘cross a mighty mighty ocean.
coulda died but we don’t know how…

From Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems. Copyright © 2018 by Dominique Christina. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

No one believes in you
like I do. I sit you down on the table
& they overlook you for
fried chicken & grits,
crab cakes & hush puppies,
black-eyed peas & succotash
& sweet potatoes & watermelon.

Your stringy, slippery texture
reminds them of the creature
from the movie Aliens.

But I tell my friends if they don’t like you
they are cheating themselves;
you were brought from Africa
as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair
of slaves.

Nothing was wasted in our kitchens.
We took the unused & the throwaways
& made feasts;
we taught our children
how to survive,
adapt.

So I write this poem
in praise of okra
& the cooks who understood
how to make something out of nothing.
Your fibrous skin
melts in my mouth—
green flecks of flavor,
still tough, unbruised,
part of the fabric of earth.
Soul food.

From Underlife (CavanKerry Press, 2009). Copyright © 2009 by January Gill O’Neil. Used with the permission of the author.

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
      I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
       And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
       And I can sing.

This poem is in the public domain.

In the pull-out bed with my brother
            in my grandfather’s Riverton apartment
my knees and ankles throbbed from growing,
            pulsing so hard they kept me awake—
or was it the Metro North train cars
            flying past the apartment, rocking the walls,
or was it the sound of apartment front doors
            as heavy as prison doors clanging shut?
Was the Black Nation whispering to me
            from the Jet magazines stacked on the floor, or
was it my brother’s unfamiliar ions
            vibrating, humming in his easeful sleep?
Tomorrow, as always, Grandfather will rise
            to the Spanish-Town cock’s crow deep in his head
and perform his usual ablutions,
            and prepare the apartment for the day,
and peel fruit for us, and prepare a hot meal
            that can take us anywhere, and onward.
Did sleep elude me because I could feel
            the heft of unuttered love in his tending
our small bodies, love a silent, mammoth thing
            that overwhelmed me, that kept me awake
as my growing bones did, growing larger
            than anything else I would know?

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press.

I always like summer
best
you can eat fresh corn
from daddy's garden
and okra
and greens
and cabbage
and lots of
barbecue
and buttermilk
and homemade ice-cream
at the church picnic
and listen to
gospel music
outside
at the church
homecoming
and go to the mountains with
your grandmother
and go barefooted
and be warm
all the time
not only when you go to bed
and sleep

"Knoxville, Tennessee" from Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright © 1968, 1970 by Nikki Giovanni. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

In the pull-out bed with my brother
            in my grandfather’s Riverton apartment
my knees and ankles throbbed from growing,
            pulsing so hard they kept me awake—
or was it the Metro North train cars
            flying past the apartment, rocking the walls,
or was it the sound of apartment front doors
            as heavy as prison doors clanging shut?
Was the Black Nation whispering to me
            from the Jet magazines stacked on the floor, or
was it my brother’s unfamiliar ions
            vibrating, humming in his easeful sleep?
Tomorrow, as always, Grandfather will rise
            to the Spanish-Town cock’s crow deep in his head
and perform his usual ablutions,
            and prepare the apartment for the day,
and peel fruit for us, and prepare a hot meal
            that can take us anywhere, and onward.
Did sleep elude me because I could feel
            the heft of unuttered love in his tending
our small bodies, love a silent, mammoth thing
            that overwhelmed me, that kept me awake
as my growing bones did, growing larger
            than anything else I would know?

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press.

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. 
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath. 
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

Copyright © 2015 by Jericho Brown. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 7, 2015, 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.

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.

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.
Darryl. Shaquille.
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
you hear.

From Wounded in the House of a Friend. Copyright © 1995 by Sonia Sanchez. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.