The Children’s March, 1963

The water pressure from a fire hose
can stop a moving bullet, can ransack
a door wedged shut, and extinguish
any embers, including those we cannot
see. Bull saw us all as threat—the lot
of us, the endless stream that poured
out of our church and onto the street.
We sang and we held hands. We held
onto our purpose—to be true to our God,
true to our native land, to Birmingham,
like the thirsty sponges we were. We
sang a song we’d practiced and knew
by heart. We were not letting anyone turn
us around, turn us around, turn us around. 
I was six and needed something more
than what I thought I knew, a freedom
song, a choice of where to play,
of who could teach me lessons, the very
content of my dreams of what I wanted
to be when I grew up, if I grew up,
when I grew up and took my very next
breath. But let’s get back to that bullet,
stopped by an unequal force, confronted
by mere droplets corralled into sinister
duty. I heard those dogs before I saw them
—growls, snarls—trained to see nothing
of my size, my gentleness. I knew the water
in the air just before it launched me airborne,
ramming me into disbelief, then tree trunk,
then a crowded mass of children’s hips and legs.
I was six and my song ordained that I be seen
as change, or silenced, arrested and contained.
I had lost my shoes and my blue hair ribbons.
I was wearing a muddy crinoline and learned
the coolness of both iron bars and the beady
eyes of hatred, a jailor’s sputum gelling
on the side of my face that I refused to touch.

Related Poems

Unrest in Baton Rouge

after the photo by Jonathan Bachman

Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.

Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.

Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.

A People's Historian

For Howard Zinn

who will come to tell us what we know
that the king’s clothes are soiled with
the history of our blood and sweat

who memorializes us when we have been vanquished
who recounts our moments of resistance, explicates
our struggles, sings of our sacrifices to those
unable to hear our song

who speaks of our triumphs, of how we
altered the course of a raging river of oppression
how we turned our love for each other into a
garrison of righteous rebellion

who shows us even in failure, when we
have been less than large, when our own
prejudices have been turned against us like
stolen weapons

who walks among us, willing to tell the truth
about the monster of lies, an eclipse that casts
a shadow dark enough to cover centuries

what manner of man, of woman, of truth teller
roots around the muck of history, the word covered
in the mud of denial, the mythology of the conquerors

let them be Zinn, let them sing to the people of history
let their song come slowly, on the periphery of canon
of history departments owned by corporate prevaricators

let their song be sung in small circles, furtive meetings
lonely readers, underground and under siege
their song, the seed crushed to earth, and growing
now a tree, with fruit, multiplying truth.

Fracture

West Africa, c. 15th century to 19th century

The men arrive. Slave ships are anchored.
The men arrive. The traders gather.
The men arrive. The traders march.
The men arrive. The war is waged.
The men arrive. The fire comes.
The men arrive. The people run.
The men arrive. The chase begins.
The men arrive. The dead abandoned.
The men arrive. The iron sounds.
The men arrive. The people march.
The men arrive. The sea. The sea.
The men arrive. The traders haggle.
The men arrive. The silver laughs.
The men arrive. The castle groans.
The men arrive. The door opens.
The men arrive. The water welcomes.
The men arrive. The mourning longs.
The men arrive. Our names shall scatter.