Booker T. And W.E.B.

- 1914-2000

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land,
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?”

“I don’t agree,” said W. E. B.,
“If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook.
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.”

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house.”

“I don’t agree,” said W. E. B.,
“For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws,
They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you’ve got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I’ll be a man.”

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.—

“I don’t agree,”
Said W. E. B.

Ballad of Birmingham

         (On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

Laughter in the Slums

In crippled streets where happiness seems buried
under the sooty snow of northern winter,
sudden as bells at twilight,
bright as the moon, full as the sun, there blossoms
in southern throats rich flower of flush fields
hot with the furnace sun of Georgia Junes,
laughter that cold and blizzards could not kill.

Memorial Wreath

(It is a little-known fact that 200,000 Negroes fought
for freedom in the Union Army during the Civil War.)

In this green month when resurrected flowers,
Like laughing children ignorant of death,
Brighten the couch of those who wake no more,
Love and remembrance blossom in our hearts
For you who bore the extreme sharp pang for us,
And bought our freedom with your lives.

                                                           And now,
Honoring your memory, with love we bring
These fiery roses, white-hot cotton flowers
And violets bluer than cool northern skies
You dreamed of stooped in burning prison fields
When liberty was only a faint north star,
Not a bright flower planted by your hands
Reaching up hardy nourished with your blood.

Fit gravefellows you are for Douglass, Brown,
Turner and Truth and Tubman . . . whose rapt eyes
Fashioned a new world in this wilderness.

American earth is richer for your bones:
Our hearts beat prouder for the blood we inherit.

Related Poems

Watch Us Elocute

June 18, 2015

So I’m at this party, right. Low lights, champagne, Michael
Bublé & a gang of loafers I’m forever dancing around

in unduly charged conversations, your favorite
accompanist—Bill Evans behind Miles, ever present

in few strokes—when, into the room walks
this potentially well-meaning Waspy woman obviously

from Connecticut-money, boasting an extensive background
in nonprofit arts management. & without much coaxing

from me, really, none at all, she whoops, Gosh, you’re just
so well spoken! & I’m like, Duh, Son. So then we both

clink glasses, drink to whatever that was. Naturally,
not till the next morning & from under a scalding

shower do I shout: Yes, ma’am. Some of us does talk good!
to no one in particular but the drain holes. No one

but the off-white tile grout, the loofah’s yellow pores.
Because I come from a long braid of dangerous men

who learned to talk their way out of small compartments.
My own Spartan walls lined with their faces—Ellison

& Ellington. Langston, Robeson. Frederick Douglass
above the bench press in the gym, but to no avail—

Without fail, when I’m at the Cross Eyed Cricket
(That’s a real diner. It’s in Indiana.) & some pimple-

face ginger waiter lingers nervous & doth protest
too much, it’s always Sir, you ever been told you sound like

Bryant Gumbel? Which is cute. Because he’s probably
ten. But then sometimes I sit in his twin’s section, & he

once predicted I could do a really wicked impression
of Wayne Brady. I know for a fact his name is Jim.

I’ve got Jim’s eighteenth birthday blazed on my bedside
calendar. It reads: Ass whippin’. Twelve a.m.—& like

actually, that woman from the bimonthly
CV-building gala can kick rocks. Because she’s old

enough to be my mother, & educated, if only
by her own appraisal, but boy. Dear boys. Sweet

freckled What’s-His-Face & Dipshit Jim,
we can still be play friends. Your folks didn’t explain

I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade—
a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath

my skin. Little buddies, that sore’s on me.
I know what you mean. That I must seem, “safe.”

But let’s get this straight. Let’s call a spade a—
Poor choice of words. Ali, I might not

be. Though, at the very least, a heavyweight
throwback: Nat King Cole singing silky

& subliminal about the unforgettable model
minority. NBC believed N at & his eloquence

could single-handedly defeat Jim Crow.
Fact: They were wrong. Of this I know

& not because they canceled his show
in ’57 after one season, citing insufficient

sponsorship. Or because, in 1948,
the KKK flamed a cross on his LA lawn.

But because yesterday, literally yesterday,
some simple American citizen—throwback

supremacist Straight Outta Birmingham, 1963—
aimed his .45 & emptied the life from nine

black believers at an AME church in Charleston.
Among them a pastor-senator, an elderly tenor,

beloved librarian, a barber with a business degree
who adored his mom & wrote poems about

the same age as me. I’m sorry. No, friends.
None of us is safe.

The Song of the Smoke

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am swinging in the sky,
      I am ringing worlds on high;
      I am the thought of the throbbing mills,
      I am the soul of the Soul toil kills,
      I am the ripple of trading rills.
Up I’m curling from the sod,
I am whirling home to God.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am wreathing broken hearts,
      I am sheathing devils’ darts;
      Dark inspiration of iron times,
      Wedding the toil of toiling climes,
      Shedding the blood of bloodless crimes,
Down I lower in the blue,
Up I tower toward the true.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am darkening with song,
      I am hearkening to wrong;
      I will be black as blackness can,
      The blacker the mantle the mightier the man,
      My purpl’ing midnights no day dawn may ban.
I am carving God in night,
I am painting Hell in white.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am cursing ruddy morn,
      I am hearsing hearts unborn;
      Souls unto me are as mists in the night,
      I whiten my black men, I blacken my white,
      What’s the hue of a hide to a man in his might!
Hail, then, gritty, grimy hands,
Sweet Christ, pity toiling lands!
Hail to the smoke king
Hail to the black!

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.