One drop of midnight in the dawn of life’s pulsating stream
Marks her an alien from her kind, a shade amid its gleam.
Forevermore her step she bends, insular, strange, apart—
And none can read the riddle of her strangely warring heart.
The stormy current of her blood beats like a mighty sea
Against the man-wrought iron bars of her captivity.
For refuge, succor, peace, and rest, she seeks that humble fold
Whose every breath is kindliness, whose hearts are purest gold.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 18, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets.

“Lo, I am black but I am comely too, 
Black as the night, black as the deep dark caves. 
I am the scion of a race of slaves
Who helped to build a nation strong that you 
And I may stand within the world’s full view, 
Fearless and firm as dreadnoughts on rough waves; 
Holding a banner high whose floating braves
The opposition of the tried untrue. 

Casting an eye of love upon my face, 
Seeing a newer light within my eyes, 
A rarer beauty in your brother race
Will merge upon your visioning fullwise. 
Though I am black my heart through love is pure, 
And you through love my blackness shall endure!”

From Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927), edited by Countee Cullen. This poem is in the public domain.

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely, being dark;
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

From Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927), edited by Countee Cullen. This poem is in the public domain.

for Elizabeth Eckford
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

Thick at the schoolgate are the ones
Rage has twisted
Into minotaurs, harpies
Relentlessly swift;
So you must walk past the pincers,
The swaying horns,
Sister, sister,
Straight through the gusts
Of fear and fury,
Straight through;
Where are you going? 

I’m just going to school.

Here we go to meet
The hydra-headed day,
Here we go to meet
The maelstrom -

Can my voice be an angel-on-the-spot,
An Amen corner?
Can my voice take you there,
Gallant girl with a notebook,
Up, up from the shadows of gallows trees
To the other shore:
A globe bathed in light,
A chalkboard blooming with equations -

I have never seen the likes of you,
Pioneer in dark glasses:
You won’t show the mob your eyes,
But I know your gaze,
Steady-on-the-North-Star, burning -

With their jerry-rigged faith,
Their spear of the American flag,
How could they dare to believe
You’re someone sacred?:
Nigger, burr-headed girl,
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school.


From Soul Make a Path through Shouting (Copper Canyon Press, 1994) by Cyrus Cassells. Copyright © 1994 by Cyrus Cassells. Used with the permission of the author.

I come from the kidnapped,
                                    the assaulted––
my country’tis of reparations as in-store credit
                                    backordered to bankruptcy

It is me & my trophy wife
passing as a dream of some kind

All I want is 40 dead mules
& an acre of land w/ a lighthouse
              right above the porch of the great Atlantic Ocean
              just in case any of my ancestors tasted nasty & made it.

I come from a people who pay a penalty every sunrise
& divinate to paroled gods with rancid hog maws.

The stripes plowed into my grandfather’s back
will have to stand in for our family album.

Somebody threw some stars at my grand-momma’s head
& said ‘betcha won’t ask for no freedom no mo’!

Natives in prison-issue war bonnets say:
I come from a poisoned land that recycles children
           into artillery shells
                      & where dark skin is good as
                                 an invisibility cloak

            until the police arrive.


I am proud to be a _____________
where I can hold my head up and drown
in the downpour of state sanctioned cancer.

I am proud to hold my place
in back of the line.

I come from a land that’s open all night
like a shotgun wound.

& as for ya’ll tired,
                                   ya’ll poor
                                             ya’ll huddled masses
yearning to breathe free

Fuck ya’ll!

I come from a place promising
a burning cross in every yard

& two meth labs in every garage
          & when I say: meth lab

I mean golden
                        retrievers smoking crank.

The country I come from

I can flash all its gang signs
           & beatbox all their anthems.

I come from a place­­––
actually, I don’t know where I come from

I just know I woke up here.

My babies are gone.
My house was on fire.
& I couldn’t breathe.

From Martian: The Saint of Loneliness. Copyright © 2022 by James Cagney. Published by Nomadic Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun,—
My dream.

And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
The light of my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky,—
The wall.

I am black.

I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.

My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 5, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

Here on the edge of hell
Stands Harlem—
Remembering the old lies, 
The old kicks in the back,
The old "Be patient"
They told us before.

Sure, we remember.
Now when the man at the corner store
Says sugar's gone up another two cents,
And bread one,
And there's a new tax on cigarettes—
We remember the job we never had,
Never could get,
And can't have now
Because we're colored.

So we stand here
On the edge of hell
in Harlem
And look out on the world
And wonder
What we're gonna do
In the face of what
We remember.

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

in the backseat, my sons laugh & tussle,
far from Tamir’s age, adorned with his
complexion & cadence, & already warned

about toy pistols, though my rhetoric
ain’t about fear, but dislike—about
how guns have haunted me since I first gripped

a pistol; I think of Tamir, twice-blink
& confront my weeping’s inadequacy, how
some loss invents the geometry that baffles.

The Second Amendment—cold, cruel,
a constitutional violence, a ruthless
thing worrying me still, should be it predicts

the heft in my hand, arm sag, burdened by
what I bear: My bare arms collaged
with wings as if hope alone can bring

back a buried child. A child, a toy gun,
a blue shield’s rapid rapid rabid shit. This
is how misery sounds: my boys

playing in the backseat juxtaposed against
a twelve-year-old’s murder playing
in my head. My tongue cleaves to the roof

of my mouth, my right hand has forgotten.
This is the brick & mortar of the America
that murdered Tamir & may stalk the laughter

in my backseat. I am a father driving
his Black sons to school & the death
of a Black boy rides shotgun & this

could be a funeral procession, the death
a silent thing in the air, unmentioned—
because mentioning death invites taboo:

if you touch my sons the blood washed
away from the concrete must, at some
point, belong to you, & not just to you, to

the artifice of justice that is draped like a blue
g-d around your shoulders, the badge that
justifies the echo of the fired pistol; taboo:

the thing that says freedom is a murderer’s body
mangled & disrupted by my constitutional
rights come to burden, because the killer’s mind

refused the narrative of a brown child, his dignity,
his right to breathe, his actual fucking existence,
with all the crystalline brilliance I saw when

my boys first reached for me. This world best
invite more than story of the children bleeding
on crisp falls days, Tamir’s death must be more

than warning about recklessness & abandoned
justice & white terror’s ghost—& this is
why I hate it all, the protests & their counters,

the Civil Rights attorneys that stalk the bodies
of the murdered, this dance of ours that reduces
humanity to the dichotomy of the veil. We are

not permitted to articulate the reasons we might
yearn to see a man die. A mind may abandon
sanity. What if all I had stomach for was blood?

But history is no sieve & sanity is no elixir
& I am bound to be haunted by the strength
that lets Tamir’s father, mother, kinfolk resist

the temptation to turn everything they see
into a grave & make home the series of cells
that so many brothers already call their tomb.

From Felon. Copyright © 2019 by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.