Saturday, April 4, 2015

National Poetry Month—In Memory of Martin…

That moment in Memphis.....

It has been 47 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down on that Memphis motel balcony.  That place is a shrine and place of pilgrimage now.  There are other—that bride in Selma so recently commemorated, his church in Montgomery, the impressive Monument unveiled two years ago in Washington.  After all of these years Dr. King continues to inspire and challenge us all despite all of the attempts to tame his revolutionary spirit, transform the deep moral challenge of non-violence into passivity, and to declare his struggle—the struggle of us all—over and accomplished through the generous gifts of those in power.  But those who knew him will not let some sham imitation stand.
Today we commemorate the day with two poems by remarkable Black Women.

June Jordan,
June Jordon was born July 9, 1936 in Harlem, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.  Her childhood was dominated by her mercurial and demanding father who expected nothing less than perfection and high achievement from his daughter.  In her memoirs she would describe him as “My hero and my tyrant.”  Smothering love and physical abuse were different sides of a coin.  But inspired she was.   Jordon was sent to prep schools at which she was often the only black student and swept up in literature and poetry as taught by gifted teachers.  But she felt acutely the absence of Black voices.  Then it was on to prestigious Barnard College where she experienced the same mixture of a exhilaration and alienation causing her to drop out before graduation.

At the age of 19 Jordon married Jordan married a white Columbia University student, Michael Meyer in 1955.  Together they had a son but found the pressures of inter-racial marriage even in their liberal and cosmopolitan New York circles too much to bear.  The couple divorced after ten years leaving Jordon a single mother.

Meanwhile Jordon’s eclectic interests and talents were leading her to exciting experiences.  She found work in film and then collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on a project exploring the impact of environment and architecture on the lives of low-income Black families.  In 1966, without the advantage of a degree, she was hired as an instructor at the City College of the City University of New York.   While working there she was tapped to complete a project envisioned and begun by Langston Hughes—a book for young readers featuring poems to go with reproductions of paintings by noted Black artists.  The result was her first book, Who Look at Me, published in 1969 which featured poems in Black English.

She was soon a passionate advocate of Black English—often promoted and derided as Ebonics—as not only a legitimate expressive voice, but essential to engage young urban youth in reading.  She launched a series of writing workshops for Black and Puerto Rican youth encouraging them to express themselves in the language that they knew.  She edited a highly praised collection of her student’s work, The Voice of the Children. In 1970 edited the anthology Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry which introduced many young writers and became a staple of college Black literature and Black studies programs.

She also produced her own poetry, first collected in Some Changes in 1971.  Three more influential collections would follow.

In the ‘70’s she turned her attention juvenile fiction starting with the novel His Own Where in which she gave voice to a Sixteen-year-old boy and his younger girlfriend as they try to create a world of their own in an abandoned house near a cemetery.  Her other young adult novels include Dry Victories in1972, New Life: New Room 1975, and Kimako’s Story in 1981.

Writing for adult audiences, Jordan penned a searing coming-of-age-memoir, Soldier: A Poet's Childhood in 2000.

Jordon was also an essayist and journalist who was deeply engaged in all of the social justice struggles of her time, Civil Rights, Black Power, global solidarity, feminism, and sexual liberation.  On that last topic she wrote frankly about her bi-sexuality and the alienation she sometimes felt from lesbians.  She defended the frank sensual joy of sex in all of its expressions, which she found sometimes at odds with a latent puritanism in feminist circles.  She contributed a regular column to The Progressive and contributed to numerous other publications.

Throughout these productive years Jordon was invited to teach at top universities including Yale, State University of New York-Stony Brook, and the University of California-Berkley.  

After 2000 Jordon was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She faced her terminal illness in both poetry and prose.  She died on June 14, 2002, at Berkeley, California at the age of 65.  After her death new anthologies of both her late poetry and essays were released.

In this poem, Jordon make an unsentimental elegy to Dr. King in the Blank English she championed.  Here is King echoed in hip hop and rap.

In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.

honey people murder mercy U.S.A.   
the milkland turn to monsters teach   
to kill to violate pull down destroy   
the weakly freedom growing fruit   
from being born


tomorrow yesterday rip rape   
exacerbate despoil disfigure   
crazy running threat the   
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast   
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy   
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime

death by men by more
than you or I can



They sleep who know a regulated place
or pulse or tide or changing sky
according to some universal   
stage direction obvious   
like shorewashed shells

we share an afternoon of mourning   
in between no next predictable
except for wild reversal hearse rehearsal   
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
deplorable abortion
more and

—June Jordan
From Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by The June M. Jordan Literary Trust. 

Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou was one of the few poets of whom it could be said truthfully that she needs no introduction.  She was not only acclaimed—she was popular and widely read even among those allergic to poetry.  I recounted her story in depth before—her rise from a damaged and abused waif to a strong and independent woman who continually re-invented herself—dancer, calypso singer, actress, poet, memoirist, and public persona.  Her literary achievements were matched by life-long activism. She became drawn into the Civil Rights Movement by organizing Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was soon a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a National Director of the SCLC.  She would later collaborate with Malcom X in his post-Nation of Islam civil rights organization.  Angelou famously wrote and read the inaugural poem for Bill Clinton and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.  

When it came time to dedicate the Memorial to Dr. King in Washington she was asked to compose a poem to be included in a time capsule imbedded in the sculpture.  She was to have read it at a dedication ceremony that had been scheduled for August 28, 2011, the anniversary of the March on Washington and I Have a Dream speech.  That ceremony was scrubbed due to the undivided arrival of Hurricane Irene.  Angelou read the poem at the Women Who Dare to Dream luncheon, which paid tribute to the unsung women of the Civil Rights Movement which was held a day later.  She was unable to attend the re-scheduled event on October 11.

Angelou died on May 28, 2014 at Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the age of 86.

Abundant Hope

Reverend Martin Luther King

The great soul
Flew from the Creator
Bearing manna of hope
For his country
Starving severely from an absence of compass

Martin Luther King

The Great Spirit,
Came from the Creator
Proffering a sparkling fountain of fair play
To his country
Parched and deformed by hate.

The whole man came forth
With a brain of gentle wisdom
To persuade quiet
Upon the loud misery of the mob.

A whole man stood out
With a mellifluous voice
To bind the joints of cruelty.

A whole man came
In the midst of a murderous nightmare
Surrounded by demons of war
He dared to dream peace and serenity
With a heart of faith
He hoped
To resurrect his nation.

I open my mouth to the Lord,
And I won’t turn back.

Martin Luther King

Faced the racial
Mountain of segregation and
And bade it move.

The giant mound of human ignorance
Centuries old
And rigid in its determination
Did move, however slightly, however infinitesimally,
It did move.

I will go, I shall go
I’ll see what the end will be.

Martin Luther King
Brought winds of healing
To his country
Reeling unsteady
With the illness
Of racial prejudice,
Screams of vulgarity
Could not silence him.

Fire bombs and dogs
Could not take his voice away
Ona my knees,
I told God how you treated me
Ona my knees.
He knew himself
A child of God
On a mission from God, and
Standing in the hand of God.

He spoke to the hideous hearts
And to the bitter monstrosities
And asked them to transform
Their ways and thereby
Liberate his country.

Representing the grace of heaven
He spoke to the evils of Hell
Representing gentleness
He sang to brutes.

He brought the great songs of faith
Persuading men and women
To think beyond
Their baser nature.

Lord, don’t move your mountain,
Just give me strength to climb it.

He hummed the old gospels
Encouraging the folk to act
Beyond their puny selves.

You don’t have to move
That stumbling block,
Lord, just lead me around it.

Leader to those who would be led
And hero to millions. 

Martin Luther King

Was father to
Martin, III,
Dexter, and,

He was lover
Friend, and
Coretta Scott King.

He spoke respectfully
Of the Torah.

He spoke respectfully
Of the Koran.

In India, walked in the footprints
Of Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi.

Christianity made him patient
With all religions
And his tremendous heart
Made him believe
That all people
Were his people
All creeds and cultures
Were comfortable in
His giant embrace
And all just causes
Were his to support and extol
Through sermons and allocutions
With praise songs and orations.

He preached fair play and serenity
From hand cuffs and prison garb
From leg irons and prison bars
He taught triumph over loss
And love over despair
Hallelujah over the dirges and
Joy over moaning.
Fear not, we’ve come too far to turn back
We are not afraid, and

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
Deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome

—Maya Angelou

 © 2011 by Maya Angelou

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