After a Reading of “Darkwater”

I did not think... I did not know... 
    What pale excuse is this I make
In answer to my brother’s woe, 
Age-long, for deep injustice sake!

Across his mute and patient soul, 
   While I have gone my heedless way,
The shadows of a fate might roll
   That deepened night and darkened day.

But I have read a burning page,
  That glowed with white and soul-wrung fire,
And now no more I may engage
    My conscience with a feeble hire. 

For all the wrong I did not heed, 
   Chance-born in happier paths to live,
I cry unto my brother’s need
  One word of love and shame... forgive!

Related Poems

For My People

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 
     unseen power;

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
    generations;

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.

The Idea of Ancestry

1

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He's discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father's mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody's birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for "whereabouts unknown."

 

2

Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother's backyard/I smelled the old
land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/
I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost
contented/I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker's crib for a fix.)

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.

Harlem Shadows

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
        In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
        To bend and barter at desire's call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
        Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
        Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
        Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
        The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.