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.
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
From The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks, published by Harpers. © 1960 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;
For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and Miss
Choomby and company;
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
people who and the places where and the days when, in
memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
were black and poor and small and different and nobody
cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs and
societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
From This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989). Copyright © 1989 by Margaret Walker. Used with permission of the University of Georgia Press.
The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
Copyright © by Naomi Shihab Nye. Used with the permission of the author.
Four tickets left, I let her go—
Firstborn into a hurricane.
I thought she escaped
The floodwaters. No—but her
Head is empty of the drowned
For now—though she took
Her first breath below sea level.
Ahhh awe & aw
Mama, let me go—she speaks
What every smart child knows—
To get grown you unlatch
Your hands from the grown
& up & up & up & up
She turns—latched in the seat
Of a hurricane. You let
Your girl what? You let
Your girl what?
I did so she do I did
so she do so—
Girl, you can ride
A hurricane & she do
& she do & she do & she do
She do make my river
An ocean. Memorial,
Baptist, Protestant birth—my girl
Walked away from a hurricane.
& she do & she do & she do & she do
She do take my hand a while longer.
The haunts in my pocket
I’ll keep to a hum: Katrina was
a woman I knew. When you were
an infant she rained on you & she
do & she do & she do & she do
From Hemming the Water. Copyright © 2013 by Yona Harvey. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.com.
'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.
Imagine them in black, the morning heat losing within this day that floats. And always there is the being, and the not-seeing on their way to—
The days they approach and their sharpest aches will wrap experience until knowledge is translucent, the frost on which they find themselves slipping. Never mind the loose mindless grip of their forms reflected in the eye-watering hues of the surface, these two will survive in their capacity to meet, to hold the other beneath the plummeting, in the depths below each step full of avoidance. What they create will be held up, will resume: the appetite is bigger than joy. indestructible. for never was it independent from who they are. who will be.
Were we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing compassion would break the most orthodox heart.
Excerpt from Plot, copyright © 2001 by Claudia Rankine. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited.
The river is famous to the fish. The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so. The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse. The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek. The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom. The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors. The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured. I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back. I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with permission of Far Corner Books, Portland, OR.
Make me laugh over coffee, make it a double, make it frothy so it seethes in our delight. Make my cup overflow with your small happiness. I want to hoot and snort and cackle and chuckle. Let your laughter fill me like a bell. Let me listen to your ringing and singing as Billie Holiday croons above our heads. Sorry, the blues are nowhere to be found. Not tonight. Not here. No makeup. No tears. Only contours. Only curves. Each sip takes back a pound, each dry-roasted swirl takes our soul. Can I have a refill, just one more? Let the bitterness sink to the bottom of our lives. Let us take this joy to go.
From Misery Islands (CavanKerry Press, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by January Gill O’Neil. Used with the permission of the author.
I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman
I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat's meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can't catch me
For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on
My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
except by my permission
I mean . . . I . . . can fly
like a bird in the sky . . .
Copyright © 1968 by Nikki Giovanni. Used with permission of the author.
Never mind the distances traveled, the companion
she made of herself. The threadbare twenties not
to be underestimated. A wild depression that ripped
from January into April. And still she sprouts an appetite.
Insisting on edges and cores, when there were none.
Relationships annealed through shared ambivalences.
Pages that steadied her. Books that prowled her
until the hard daybreak, and for months after.
Separating new vows from the old, like laundry whites.
Small losses jammed together so as to gather mass.
Stored generations of filtered quietude.
And some stubbornness. Tangles along the way
the comb-teeth of the mind had to bite through, but for what.
She had trained herself to look for answers at eye level,
but they were lower, they were changing all the time.
From Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Jenny Xie. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press.
Like, the last thing I said to you was let’s buy a duplex,
like, you live on your side & I’ll live on my side &
you’ll rise when you rise & I’ll rise when I rise &
I said something like, let’s divide these hurts & regrets
& you get a stack & I get a stack & you walk a block
& I walk a block & you get a poodle & I get a pug
& you stub a toe & I twist an ankle & you get
a wheelbarrow & I get chickens glazed with rain
& you interrupt & I intercept & you call
the Congressman & I call the Mayor & you blow
a trumpet & I smash a tuba or maybe seal off all sound
sheltering the shuddering of the heart compressed
the high-pitched operas of trolley wheels breaking
at the edge of midnight where magnolias
shelter the stoplights & left-footed lovers, drunk
on beignets & champagne-kisses & maybe struck
by the distant drift of a giant
sea turtle floating toward a green wave
in a tacky, overpriced painting
& somehow they’re safe, the couple is safe
& there’s no parade stilts that will break, no stars
that will bend, there’s just an orchid
tucked behind an ear & hours blurred together
& I said something
& you said—
& I said—
Copyright © 2020 by Yona Harvey. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.