Laughter in the Slums

- 1914-2000

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.

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?”

Booker T. And W.E.B.

“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.

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

children of the drum

“white folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” -ma rainey

a timeline of music

went from drum call to call for freedom
from plucking on banjos to bondage on a ship
from djembes to django

then crash
on the soil of tobacco cotton sharecroppin
fingers
coarse as their hair
coarse as the lashes on their back
coarse as their pain.

harmonized in the key of trauma
traumatized to the harm of being a minor
looking for the freedom notes
slave song rebellion anthem
mapping north like a union soldiers bugle

same fingers
plucking strings of blues
and folk guitars
same fingers
plucking the tear soaked rope from their necks

who but us could unhinge a noose
and turn into an instrument

go through hell, and make gospel
like fire shut up in the bones of a burning cross
baptize themselves in a colored fountain
who but negroes could fry a jim crow
and feed a nation revolution
to the symphony of the iron-hand-bigot called america
the pop of gunshots and police batons like snare
snared justice in the teeth of police dogs

who but colored folk could find the rhythm

in a riot
make jazz out of jail
make a motown out of a march
in formation til the
the soul need a breakbeat
we bass-boom and crack walls
crack glass ceilings
crack babies born in a concrete existence
projects built like mausoleums
forced fed products of experimental
drugs gone viral
viruses gone viral
fame at the expense of an epidemic
[we] pump up the volume and the veins
who but blacks could use needles
to spin back the hands of time
and scratch
the surface of broken history
the one america tries to skip
who but descendants of slave
now only slave to the rhythm
could take generations of suffering
and make genres full of joy
and rising sounds like
black notes are the only reason music exist
how did it get there?!
we took the off-key we were given
remixed it into a resilient medley.
while they try to silence the notes
hit the notes
dead the notes
it is said you can kill a revolutionary
but can’t kill the revolution
when you are children of the drum
people can stop the hearts
but they can never stop the beat

[Oye! This is an apartment building ode.]

Oye! This is an apartment building ode.
But not just any ode, an ode about breathing,
walking, jumping, running, skipping people.
An ode to a time where we’d remember what
odes felt like to read outside. An ode about
oding so hard it boxes itself into a sonnet.
Harder than bus stop benches and light rail
seats, taxes, and systemic poverty. The oding
of this poem is an apartment building sonnet
about people stacked up like bricks like words
in a sonnet. People that will tap your shoulder
to make sure you’re listening to the fact that this
poem is a token, a favor, a shirt off their back.
Oye! This is The Apartment Building Ode.
 

There’s Freestyle, Hip Hop, and Bachata on the steps
depending on the time of day we pick up groceries.
There are bikes by the curb and notebooks on those steps,
soda bottles, 2 quarter juices, and candy wrappers in bags.
There is a 10pm curfew for noise and the music plays
until 9:59, because the stoop DJ wakes up early too.
There are “No loitering on the stairs” signs in every hall-
way though it is understood that what we do isn’t aimless.
There is the smell of food, home-cooked or homemade,
plantains in C5, Hot Pockets in A3 and Chinese in the lobby.
There are lovers, soothsayers, tall-tale tellers, doers, hustlers,
potatoes, flowers, lighters, and so many hand gestures.
 
This is a concrete box that we call home.
There is a life we’ve learned to love and live.

Imagining My Neighbor

Now that night has fallen like a broken cart,
he cups his ear against the old red radio,  
attempting to tune out the stream
of unintelligible street verbiage  
leaking thru the window.  

Earlier, he opened all the blinds,
but left the front door closed.
Why do we seal off those places
flooding the greater light?

I imagine in the quiet cottage of his brain
the sepia of this desert city,
wind, dirt, grit that scuffs your skin.
Wish him gentleness in the shade of shadows.

We spoke once. “This heat. Too much,” he tells me.
His birth city is a place where the Pacific baptizes
each morning with softness, the smell of seaweed.
Each day predictable as a calendar.

Today he is a leopard lizard
stalking his oppressor for that which is too much.
I shut blinds. Retreat from voyeurism.  
I have no heat or words to offer him.
I am a wheel that does not move the cart.