after Margaret Walker’s “For My People”

The Lord clings to my hands
             after a night of shouting.
                           The Lord stands on my roof
             & sleeps in my bed.
Sings the darkened, Egun tunnel—
             cooks my food in abundance,
                           though I was once foolish
             & wished for an emptied stomach.
The Lord drapes me with rolls of fat
             & plaits my hair with sanity.
                           Gives me air,
             music from unremembered fever.
This air

                                         oh that i may give air to my people
                                         oh interruption of murder
                                         the welcome Selah

The Lord is a green, Tubman escape.
             A street buzzing with concern,
                           minds discarding answers.
             Black feet on a centuries-long journey.
The Lord is the dead one scratching my face,
             pinching me in dreams.
                           The screaming of the little girl that I was,
             the rocking of the little girl that I was—
the sweet hush of her healing.
             Her syllables
                           skipping on homesick pink.
             I pray to my God of confused love,
a toe touching blood
             & swimming through Moses-water.
                           A cloth & wise rocking.
             An eventual Passover,
outlined skeletons will sing
             this day of air
                           for my people—

                                         oh the roar of God
                                         oh our prophesied walking

More by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Muse, a Lady Cautioning

for Billie Holiday

There's fairness in changing blood for septet's
guardian rhythm, the horn blossoming
into cadenza. No good pimp's scowl, his
baby's voice ruined sweet for the duration.

Yes, these predictable fifths. O, the blues
is all about slinging those low tales out
the back door (sing: child pried open on that
stained floor). O, Billie hollers way down dirt

roads (sing: woman on the verge of needled
logic). She's aware--yeah, I'm going to
kiss some man's sugared fist tonight. O, this
tableau's muse, a Lady cautioning me: 

Just tough this thing out, girl. Sweat through the jones.
Don't ask for nothing.  Spit your last damned note.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, Great-Niece of Lord Mansfield, and Her Cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, c. 1779 (by unknown artist)

A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies...Lord M...calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her...

        From The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson,
        August 1779

Dido moves quickly—
as from the Latin anime.

Breath or soul.
Beside her, the generations-free kin,

a biscuit figurine in pink.
Dido standing in irony—

the lowest are taller here—
Elizabeth should provide

an unkind contrast: pretty, blond,
pale in uncovered places—

but no.
The painter worships the quickened other.

Dido, his coquette of deep-dish
dimples, his careless, bright love.

Forget history.
She's a teenager.

We know what that means.
Cocky, stupid about reality.

No thought of babies—
feathers in her arms.

She might wave them, clearing
dead mothers from the air—

and surely, she's special—
her uncle dressed her with care,

hid her from triangles and seas
outside this walled garden.

Let her be.
Please.

No Dying Mythical Queen
weaving a vivid, troubled skin—

but Dido, full of girlhood,
and Elizabeth reaching

a hand. Behave, cousin,
she begs.

Don't run away from me.

Dido was the great-niece of William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield; as Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, he is responsible for the Somersett ruling (1772), which essentially outlawed slavery in England, though not in the colonies.

Chorus of the Mothers-Griot

for Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784)




                                [amnesiac wood]

[nostrils of girls]	        [who was bought]	        [uncle’s hand]
[guts on the air]	        [who was sold]		[defeated man]
[history’s charnel]	        [i say] 	                [trader’s silver]

                                [sailing knot to knot]

[naked in the corner]	[door of no return]	[sing the mutiny]
[in the slave house]	[sniff bougainvillea]	[who stands ashamed]
[i say]		 	[ready dawn’s kill]	        [naked in the corner]

                                [jealous sharks]

[i shall]			[who did]		        [i say]
[they did]		        [i’m here]		        [my name]
[who shall]		        [i say]		        [yes here]

                                [on the battlefield] 

[call woman]		[call america]		[call revolution]
[call the brother]	        [call myth]                  [i say] 
[call the auction]	        [call africa]		        [call revolution]

                                [in God’s name]

[is this called]		[is my mother]		[is my kin]
[i say]			[is this called]		[is some land]
[is my mother]		[and what] 		        [is this called]





	after Lucille Clifton

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.

[we are]

we are
prayer in the long boat

                                               a rhizomatic scream
                                               surrounded by the dark dagger
                                                                        of the ocean

                         scripture
                         in its entirety
                         is anticipation of the lilt
                                                   and yet

there is no word
for the rhythm
             we endure
             across this dirtless moment

                                                    antibird, we sing like birds
                                                    textured and untrained

             rugged the love
             that claps
in the chasm of our black palms

A Memory

When they finished burying me, what was left of me
sent up a demand like a hand blooming in the fresh dirt:

When I’m back, I want a body like a slash of lightning.
If they heard me, I couldn’t hear their answers.

But silence has never stopped me from praying.
Alive, how many nights did I spend knelt between

the knees of gods and men begging for rain, rent,
and reasons to remain? A body like the sky seeking

justice. A body like light reaching right down into the field
where you thought you could hide from me.

They’ve taken their bald rose stems and black umbrellas
home now. They’ve cooked for one another, sung hymns

as if they didn’t prefer jazz. I’m just a memory now.
But history has never stopped me from praying.