As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Semaj Brown in response to a video of her reading her poem “Black Dandelion” aloud. Semaj Brown wrote letters back to six of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Semaj Brown also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Reading a poem is much like purchasing an airplane ticket without knowing the destination. One must have courage to rise and embark on such a blind journey. Trust is a key factor in boarding. You, readers of “Black Dandelion” took a chance and trusted a title and went on that excursion flying retro into the heart of a dandelion standing tall in the middle of the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. “Black Dandelion” is conveyed in memory snapshots through the recollections of a small child.
The magic of poetry is that all the passengers look through the window of the poem and see something different. Thank you for sharing your varied visions with me. Reading your letters was like looking into a kaleidoscope full of color, intrigue and overlapping patterns. I have been increased by your insights; my lens expanded exponentially. Now, I see through your eyes. My world is larger from Cali to D.C. to Wisconsin to Florida, the States United and beyond. Your writings are the greatest gift I could have ever imagined.
My heart broke repeatedly as I encountered the imprint of historical trauma. Your letters taught me that though “Black Dandelion” grew out of my experience as a Black girl in America, the script is global, only the generations and ethnicities change. There is something so basic yet noble about treating others with respect and rising above opposition. This narrative was exemplified in a letter which connected the Black Dandelion story to bullying.
I rejoiced in glee, meeting your families: ancestors, brothers, sisters, grandparents conveyed artfully through your well-written letters. The poetry bond is a universal bond. It is the best of us.
Thank you for lingering over the words of “Black Dandelion,” for sitting with time and questioning. Your thoughtful inquiries compelled me to board a private jet and search my sky for meaning. The answers uncovered drew me closer to my forgotten truths, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Make poetry your friend. Keep a verse in your pocket, purse, or phone. Bring it out in sadness. Bring it out in brightness.
Flint, Michigan's Inaugural Poet Laureate
Academy of American Poets Poets Laureate Fellow
Semaj Brown reads "Black Dandelion" for Dear Poet 2022
Dear Ms. Semaj Brown,
My name is Beckett, and I am currently a high school freshman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I am writing to you because I read your poem, “Black Dandelion,” and was really moved. I love the way you used events from throughout your life and weaved them into your beautiful poem. I also love how you use plants and subsequently use Dandelions and weeds as a metaphor.
Your poem was just beautiful and so powerful to me. I loved how you used Dandelions in your poem. I thought it was a great way of signifying something that is so beautiful and vibrant, yet is punished for simply existing. The line “Dandelions bare art of endurance and escape transforming into pearl puffs floating with ephemeral intention carrying the spirit of the weed,” resonated with me particularly because I’ve always found it very interesting that a “weed” can grow almost anywhere, even when there’s a huge concrete slab slapped on top of its natural habitat. It’s almost like even though there’s a huge attempt to block or sound out weeds, they always persevere and end up on top in the end. I think this is why I have always kind of admired them in the back of my head. This is much like society, throughout history many groups of people have attempted to silence and suppress them.
Your poem, though about the struggles African-Americans face, really reminded me of my maternal great-grandfather's story. He was born in Armenia in the early 1900s, and not even before reaching adolescence, was put through a genocide. His father was taken away by Turkish forces and killed, and he and the rest of his family were forced to flee. The Turkish forces tried to exterminate, in their eyes, the Armenians, who are the dandelions in this story. They were stripped of everything, their nationality, belongings, friends, family, and almost even their lives. He arrived in America dirt poor and had to start anew in the city of Boston. He worked hard enough to give his children and grandchildren a good life and was always a thoughtful and caring person, despite all that he had been put through in his life. It is still such a recent and ongoing set of events, with the United States only recognizing the Armenian Genocide last year. And, Turkey, the perpetrator of this evil still hasn’t even recognized it and there’s a movement saying that Armenians are lying about the genocide. This really angered me
because my own country made me feel like a “weed” and a “dandelion” and people don’t even believe it, which is infuriating.
Some questions that I have for you are how did you come up with the metaphor of the Dandelion? Was it a thought that came to you while writing? Or was it even a feeling in the very back of your head that you’ve had for a while? Also, do you still feel like a dandelion?
I have always liked poetry. I know that’s not a particularly popular statement from someone of my age, but it is true. I love the simplicity yet depth in thought and meaning that poetry can take on. Your poem made me see poetry in a new light. Your poem was a brilliant combination of metaphors, events, story, and meaning. This is what made your poem so powerful to me.
Thank you for reading my poem, “Black Dandelion,” and responding with a riveting, heartfelt letter. I was moved, compelled to wander through my thoughts.
When I read recent or ancient history or view a documentary, or If I am afforded the honor to engage with an elder such as your noble, great-grandfather, I realize from the narratives divulged, “inhumanity” is a marker of our species. Pain, the quiet secret appears to be not so quiet, but is rambunctious and ubiquitous. Though people may be separated by generations and ethnicities, humans are not alone in misery or the infliction thereof. In both suffering and joy we are one. I do not want to suggest such terrible acts are naturally occurring like a rainstorm or the sun that shines to a burn. Genocide is not arbitrary or inevitable. Such horror is generated by people, formed out of bias systems that prioritize greed while fostering ignorance. It pains me to know such tragedies befell your ancestral family, and that the legacy from abhorrent acts continue to reverberate.
The good news: There is plenty of good news. Violence is learned behavior. Some societies practice peace, cultural norms laud cooperation, not lethal competition. The good news is that decent ordinary people, together have power. We possess the capacity to formulate more just systems. We can govern and reorganize ourselves choosing equity and fairness. Populations can be educated obliterating ignorance which appears to be a manipulative factor behind many genocidal inclinations. The good news is that humans are dynamic; we can change. Humans have adapted to war; it is time we adapt to peace.
Beckett, you asked, “Do I yet feel like a Dandelion?” Your inquiry inspired further ambling down my “Thought Avenue:” Is a dandelion a flower, or a weed? I have pondered these questions for some time. Who or what declares a weed a weed? What industry or forces first determined a lawn should not have dandelions? What was happening in our society when all-green lawn uniformity was established? Who benefited financially from a “monochromatic landscape?” Do you think bees view dandelions as weeds? Why is bee behavior important to humans? Why is diversity in nature important? Are not humans a part of nature?
The metaphor of dandelion as a persecuted Black person was originally derived in a child’s mine. As a little girl, I adored those little yellow flowers, and I could not understand why we needed to rid our lawn of them. It was my job to help pull up the “weeds” from the root. My mother instructed the proper manner, “So they would not grow back.” Covertly, I would trim and snip leaving the root to ensure “my friends who grew just for me” would indeed survive and return the following year. At about age eight or nine, I formed a spy club with my cousin Linda and dear friend, Cindy. Saving the dandelions were part of our secret agent mission. My mother was continuously baffled as to why our lawn consistently displayed more dandelions than our neighbors. I danced in delight every Spring. ;))
Dear Semaj Brown,
My name is MJ, and I’m an African American ninth grader living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I don't read poetry too much unless in English class, but when I do, I take lots of time to think about the words and what they mean. I enjoy reading poetry because there is no right or wrong answer to what you perceive the poem to be. I also like poetry because you can have other points of view from other people.
One thing that stood out to me in this poem was the detailed imagery. Imagery is something I like to listen for in poems because they help to create a better understanding of it. An example of imagery in this poem is when you said, “jagged edge, lion’s tooth leaves pay tribute to my snaggle tooth smile.” I could clearly see a dandelion’s shape, and it allowed me to see further how dandelions were used metaphorically as people. I also like how the imagery was focused on how the dandelions were seen from different points of view and how it later connected to the civil rights movement.
Another thing I liked about this poem is how it connected to history. The way weeding of dandelions signified the assasination of people like Malcom X and MLK, how they were seen as “beautiful dandelions,” but others saw them as something to get rid of really added a new perspective of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a new creative way to think about other people's perspectives, whether you agree or disagree with them. And it was a very straightforward way of understanding what the poem was about.
Some questions I have are, what led you to writing this poem? How was it inspired or brought up? I am also wondering what the writing process was like for a poem of this topic? Could you have written this poem without the symbolism and metaphors that were used?
I really enjoyed listening to “Black Dandelion,” as it was a new way of looking at the Civil Rights Movement and how there is always a different way of looking at a situation.
Thank you for reading my poem, “Black Dandelion,” and responding with a most insightful letter. In summary, I gleaned from the first few lines of your letter, you consider poetry to be freeing. Your description touts that poetry allows a kind of democracy, lending to varying interpretations, while validating different points of view. Henceforth this day, I will inform my writing students, MJ from Milwaukee offered the following metaphor: poetry is freedom.
MJ, I agree with you, imagery is central to poetry, though all poetry does not contain vivid imagery. Using words to make pictures in the mind is a powerful tool when trying to convey a message or evoke a feeling. When a writer creates pictures in the mind of the reader, the writer or poet is making an internal connection between the writer’s words and the reader’s perceptions. Meaning is made more real.
To your question: The poem, “Black Dandelion” was conceived and written by request. I was asked by Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green of North Carolina to submit a one-page poem to the anthology, “The Power of Goodness.” Most of my poems exceed one page, and surround the heavy issues of social justice, women’s equity, and environmental justice. “Black Dandelion,” as you are aware, holds serious content, however heard through the narrator’s voice which is a small child lightens the hard blows of a grave reality.
The following line is quite hopeful and speaks to the resilience and determination of our ancestors and ALL people who fight for justice. “We are Black Dandelions. We will never be destroyed! We grow the power of goodness for generations into the future!”
Dear Semaj Brown:
My name is Brooke, and I am currently a senior living in Jacksonville, FL. Right away, I knew that I was interested in your poem, because of the beautiful use of imagery. Of course, there is a deeper meaning, but I liked the instant image that the reader is greeted with as we can picture
flowers “cut by a murderous lawn mower.” This line made me nostalgic as I remembered the rage that would enter my being when my dad would cut the grass when I was little. I loved long and tall grass, as it was not prickly and could be laid in all afternoon. I liked how you connected those who fought for what they believed, like Malcom X, to dandelions. The way you explained how “the Johnson boy” was killed because he grew up in an oppressive area, not surrounded by other dandelions, made me reflect on the brutality that occurs when people do not conform. I thought it was somewhat comical how you added “No Blooming Allowed; Blossoms Will be Prosecuted,” even though it symbolizes the sad reality of how people are silenced, that statement is funny.
I wanted to ask you how you overcame the adversity displayed in this poem, or is it still something you are battling? How have you chosen to stay true to yourself while following a “bumpy path” throughout life? I know it can be tough to continue to radiate positivity when faced with societal issues, such as racism or prejudice. Was the church story real, and if so, how did you react to the faces that stared back at you so shocked? Lastly, I have to ask, are dandelions your favorite flower?
Thank you for reading, “Black Dandelion” and feeling compelled to write. Sharing your early childhood memory evoked by “Black Dandelion” in turn, ignited my imagination. Smiling internally, I could see and feel that friendly, soft bed of long grass turning angry and prickly once cut. I am sure I would have been quite perturbed having my comfy place unnecessarily altered. The mind of a child is to be forever celebrated.
You are a senior, preparing for next steps, congratulations! Poetry can be a friend; it fits no matter the field or direction you choose. “Black Dandelion” boasts irony, bringing a bit of opaque humor which serves as a digestive aid to make bitter circumstances more palatable. That is the case with those hovering signs: “No Blooming Allowed” “Blossoms will be prosecuted!” I was joy struck to read you found the signs “funny.” It is important to laugh as laughter relieves tension and is a benefit to our emotional health. Including the signs magnified the absurdity of the situation. Within the context of the poem, society made it illegal for flowers to bloom. If the dandelions dare to blossom, petals are subject to prosecution. It is simply ludicrous! I often use absurdity in my social justice writing to illustrate the lunacy of ism practices such as racism, sexism, ageism, LGBTQAism, and on.
Your questions are most relevant. Regarding Battling: In the wake of the rise in Asian hate crimes, vicious attacks on synagogues, the recent grocery store massacre of mostly Black Americans in Buffalo, and the mass murdering of children in Uvalde, YES, I am committed to “battle” on, or rather, work incessantly to educate and organize, utilizing poetry as precious power tool to improve our social condition. Our ills, whether gun violence or structural racism or blind eyes to our mental health crisis are all interrelated. Every society has a collective consciousness which produces the fruits of everyday life. We need a healthier yield.
About the “hat framed faces of the pious, the amused and mortified” These were the adults, the women who were part of the village which informed my development. Ladies of the church presented equilibrium, a balance between adoringly admiring my “creative brilliance,” the earnest wit of a smiling little girl standing before them, and preparing me with necessary life lessons, ensuring I grew the discipline to respect rules, including those of the Sunday school.
On being Positive: I remain hopeful. Examining the triumphs and pitfalls of history, creates perspective, gives me a big picture lens that projects a bright future. I remember, I am not alone. There are people worldwide, millions striving to make our planet a sustainable, healthy, just environment.
Favorite Flower: My mother was an expert gardener. I emerged loving flowers. Each era of my life provided a preference. When the artist, Prince was the musical backdrop of my weekends, only purple hyacinths, irises, and lilacs inhabited vases around my apartment. As I matured, I selected gladiolas; I considered those flowers to be professional, tall in elegance. I went through an only roses phase. After marriage, I grew a wildflower garden. In this time, after the writing of the poem, “Black Dandelion,” and receiving and reading the letters that have forever changed me, the dandelion is hereby returned to favorite flower status!
Dear Semaj Brown,
In the poem what stood out to me is when you put what the kid felt like when you put that it reminded me of my little brother, because he isn't the same as everyone so he gets bullied for it but my little brother embraces it and he is confident, and he's only 5. Some of my questions are, how long did it take you to write this poem? When did you think to say assassinated like you were stuttering? How do you usually think of a poem to write? I also like how the poem was for people who aren't like others and how you said in a way that it means something. One of my favorite lines is “13 full moons faded into July I am a proud weed!” It makes me feel that everyone should be happy that they are who they are, and not care about what others think.
Yes, indeed Nevaeh, “Everyone should be happy that they are who they are and not care about what others think.” You wrote those words so pure and true in response to the line in the “Black Dandelion” poem, “I am a proud weed.” Reading your commentary makes me very happy. Our word exchange created a happiness circle, and that is the power of poetry!
Thank you, Nevaeh for sharing about your little brother who is “not the same as everyone” and his subsequent bullying. I was grateful to read he does not appear to be bothered. Unfortunately, most people are not as self-assured; sometimes people who look just fine are hurting inside. When I was in elementary school, a bully tormented me. I pretended I was not afraid, but inside, I was trembling. I did not tell adults for a long time. When I finally told, the adults became involved, and the bullying ceased. Sometimes with intervention, the bullies can be corrected. People who are not like us should be embraced and treated very well. Bullying is never acceptable. Please think if there are any adults who could help. As you were able to discern, the poem, “Black Dandelion” champions the underdog, those who are unfairly treated.
To answer your questions: “Black Dandelion” was written upon request. I was asked to write and submit a poem by Jaki Shelton Green, Poet Laureate of North Carolina to the anthology, “The Power of Goodness.” When initially writing “Black Dandelion,” something rare happened. Before the poem was a poem, I wrote it as a short, short story, and published it in my column, “Poetry Confessions: Tea Time with the Poet Laureate,” Flint Courier News. As I reviewed my miniature story, I recognized there was lyrical writing inside the story just waiting patiently to be edited into its new life as a poem. The process was much like sculpting, removing extra clay until a well-formed face is revealed, but in this case a poem. The writing and transformation took about five to six weeks. Often, I begin thinking about writing before I jot one note. It is interesting that you were curious about the delivery of the word assassinated. When reading the poem for recording, I broke up the word assassinated into syllables to reflect the manner in which a young child might sound out an unfamiliar word difficult to pronounce. This technique also slowed the poem down allowing space for people listening or reading to absorb meaning.
Dear Semaj Brown,
My name is Adithi, and I am currently a ninth grader in Troy, Michigan. I aspire to make contributions in the world of science, but another one of my developing interests lies within the great works of literature. I admire poetry specifically because it is unique to the poet, but it can also bring people together through the message of the poem. Your work, “Black Dandelion,” struck a chord with me because it reminded me of my culture and my family—two of the most important aspects of my life. I try my best every day to reconnect with my authentic Indian culture and with my family’s support and love I can make progress every day.
Your use of the dandelion as a symbol was an eye-catching and powerful one because the connection between the dandelion and the suffering of the oppressed holds a strong bond. One detail that helps form this connection was, “Dandelions bare art of/ endurance and escape/ transforming into pearl puffs/ floating with ephemeral intention/ carrying the spirit of the weed” (25-29). I admired how you created the idea of the spirit of the weed, and how it connects with the oppressed. My descendants were affected by the actions of people with greed and blind ambition. They were massacred in their own lands and put to death for fighting for their human rights. This line resonates with me, Indian people, African American people, and all people who are victims of oppression.
Another aspect of your poem that I found interesting was the subtle hint of the support from the people around you. As you know, no celebrated figure in history contributed to the cause that they believed in without the support of their families and their communities. A line that caught my eye was, “No Blooming Allowed; Blossoms Will be Persecuted/ These brave plants grew just for me” (11-12). This part of the text highlights the contributions that the people around us make for the same cause. It is easy to forget about the sacrifices that have been made in the past, the sacrifices being made currently, and the suffering that may come because of the fight against oppression. The love that my family gives me is a crucial aspect that helps me get up at 5:30 every morning to go to school. Their love shows me the importance of learning and making discoveries. They show me that because the world uses the chains of expectations to make us feel weak, we need to use the fire inside of our hearts to break free of that restraint.
“Black Dandelion” truly opened my perspective of the emotions and feelings of the oppressed through the comparison of everyday objects, such as lawnmowers. The end left me wondering what amused and mortified you about the “hat framed faces of the pious.” Is it that many people with good intentions are influenced by others with the intention to harm?
Thank you for writing such a delightful and compelling poem. You have truly shown me the power of passion and perseverance—the power of the weed!
It is good to make the acquaintance of a fellow Michigander! Thank you for your erudite response to my poem, “Black Dandelion.”
The poetry of the “Black Dandelion” affords people permission to discuss historical traumas. After reading “Black Dandelion,” many students recount genocides from cultures spanning the globe. It is Earth shifting and heart breaking to consume these responses. Something intangible, something within, provokes me to apologize, to say to you how sorry I am that this happened to your Indian ancestors. To affirm, unvarnished displays of barbarism should have never occurred, and such vile behaviors should never repeat ever again. Sorrow empathetically pours, though I know intellectually, I bear zero responsibility. However, I am human and members of my species committed and continue to level egregious acts, therefore, the onus for change does sit directly upon my feet. Extant is the connection, a radiant wire to my heart. The promise of poetry speaks hope to us: “…We will never be destroyed. We grow the power of goodness for generations into the future...”
Your question regarding the point at which the narrator recounts “the hat framed faces of the pious;” some were amused while others were mortified, I will explain. Those mortified church members were reacting to my deviation from church traditions with the interjection of my dandelion speech. I was supposed to follow church protocol and deliver the well-rehearsed Bible lesson on David and Goliath. Since I was a small girl some of the pious thought I was adorable while others felt I should be taught to follow the rules, and that church was certainly not the place for deviation.
I am excited about your future; the path of science fueled by poetry assures a well-rounded genius. Imagination is critical. My undergrad degree is in Biological Sciences. My husband is a Medical Doctor, a composer who makes musical instruments. Science and the literary arts are congruent, at times symbiotic. It is important to remain a student of the universe; a panoramic, topographical scope invites innovative clues to germinate. These inclinations will lead to answers allowing you to address humanity's most pressing questions.
Dear Semaj Brown,
I really like your poem “Black Dandelion.” It reminds me of when I was a kid and when I was growing up learning about the things Black people had to face and deal with and the passion it instilled in me to write poetry and songs and to sing songs of joy and pain that we face in the world. My favorite part of the poem is when you wrote “We are Black Dandelions who will NEVER be destroyed. We grow the power of goodness for generations into the future!” Because to me it symbolizes the strength we have as Black people and the strength we pass down to our children and future generations helping the strength grow with more power and beauty over time. I like how when you read your poem you read it with a great conveying of emotion, pride, and strength showing the true expression of power and the excellence held by Black people. If I may ask a question, what made you write this poem and why do you feel we are black dandelions? Thank you because you have given me a great opportunity to express my thoughts of Black lives and other lives in a poetic perspective and mindset. I see poetry as an extension of one’s self and heart showing how they feel about the world and how it works to themselves and how they view things. You have given me a new view on my poems and the ones to come.
I am delighted to receive this letter from a young aspiring literary artist. I hope my response finds you well and filled with the great spirit of the weed!
To address your question:
Why do you feel we are Black Dandelions?
In the poem, “Black Dandelion,” I establish an analogy, a comparison between two things, dandelions and Black people. I also create a metaphor, a comparison that suggests sameness as in “We are Black Dandelions.” And there is the making of the vivid image, the black dandelion.
Many parallels exist between dandelions and the history of African Americans. For the purpose and scope of this letter, I will only highlight a few. Long ago, people were conditioned into bias or prejudice against dandelions, so long ago, the people have forgotten the root or reason for their discontent. Where did the bias against the little yellow “weed” originate? Perhaps parents told their offspring the lawn must be monochromatic—all green. Then, the children told their children, and their children passed on flower discrimination to their children. Soon 400 years had passed. This is the method in which generational bias or prejudice is transmitted to sustain hatred of a group of people, Black people, since 1619.
To gain profits, these prejudices are upheld by institutions and big businesses. For example, powerful chemical companies developed herbicides to destroy the dandelion. Everything from extraction tools to dandelion resistant seed manufacturers generated revenues, growing the anti-dandelion industry. Similarly, anti-Black policies yielded tremendous fortunes erecting economies from forced free and exploited Black labor: chattel enslavement industry to the Jim Crow sharecropping era to present day School to Prison Pipeline, and more.
This year, 2022, I noticed more lawns were populated with dandelions, the bees first food of Spring. Responsible for over 70 percent of pollinated food, bees are being threatened. Lawns bedazzled with “sunburst noggins” play a critical role in addressing bee survival. Messaging from environmental agencies, ecological societies, and grass root community efforts are ringing alarm bells. In 2020, alarm bells sounded, expressed by months and months of protests against racial injustice. The Centers of Disease Control, CDC declared, “Racism as a Serious health Threat.” I recently recognized a significant increase in messaging on media platforms and programming in institutions regarding African American culture and contributions. There is an increase in corrective measures toward inclusion, equity, and diversity, however, not near fast enough. The sense of urgency is appropriately intense because in the realm of social justice, lives lost are of people, not plants or metaphors, but real people, not flowering images.
Keilah, for all the uprooting efforts and fertilizing support from allies, Black dandelions yet resolve to grow “the power of goodness for generations into the future!”