Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Gone Today—Poetry for Martin Luther King

From the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center.

1968 was fifty years ago.  Let that sink in.  For me, personally and for much of my generation it was the pivot in time when everything changed utterly.  Things happened last year that shaped me from amorphous clay into what I became.  Anniversaries from that year come fast and furious—this record album dropped, that movie opened, a giant anti-war march or two or three, a snowy primary and a President demurs, assassinations, riots-o-rama, a convention, an election, a man on the moon.  It can make your head swim.  But no single moment is etched so firmly in my memory that the moment I heard the Martin Luther King was shot down.

That moment at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jessie Jackson were there and so, quite fittingly was the maid with her cart ready to clean up.  She is often edited out of the photo and of history.
This week even if you are so young that the only things you know about Dr. King are the sanitized pap and drivel  they teach in school these days, you will find the airways and social media awash in commemorative programing,  some of it actually cogent, much of the rest just a Band-Aid applied deep gaping wound that is race relations and class warfare in the Age of Trump.
I have written a lot about Dr. King and his real revolutionary legacy.  I won’t plow that ground again today.  Instead we will listen to poets.

Harmony Holiday
Harmony Holiday is the author of Negro League Baseball and Hollywood Forever.  She curates the Afrosonics archive of Jazz Poetics and audio culture and teaches at Otis College in Los Angeles.   In 2015 Dr. King was on her mind as was the murder of Treyvon Martin.
Microwave Popcorn
I think a lot of y’all have just been watching Dr. King get beat
    up and, ah
                      vacillating opportunists straining for a note of
    militancy     and ah   
Hold your great buildings on my tiny wing      or     in my tiny
    palm      same thing different sling   
and then they shot him   and     uh               left him on the front
    lawn  of everyone’s    vulgar  delirium
for          having been chosen       walking home that night
     that’ll show you like    candy     and   love
god     openly          reverse   order         
A bird gets along beautifully in the air, but once she is on the
    ground that special equipment hampers her a great deal.   

         And               Thereby home never gets to be a jaded
             resting place.
—Harmony Holiday

June Jordon.

June Jordon was of another generation, born in New York City in 1936 to Jamaican immigrant parents.  Educated at elite Barnard College she wrote of the experience:
No one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force. Nothing that I learned, here, lessened my feeling of pain or confusion and bitterness as related to my origins: my street, my family, my friends. Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America.
In defiant response she went on to be a widely read and admired poet, essayist, memoirist, teacher, and activist.  While teaching at Berkley in the early 1990’s she founded the Poetry for the People to inspire and empower students to use poetry as a means of artistic expression.  Jordan also believed in the power of Black English and encouraged its use in poetry as an authentic voice.  She died of breast cancer in 1992 at the age of 65.
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

Defiant of critisism Gwendolyn Brooks released Riot as a stand-alone pamphlet in 1969.

The most famous—and controversial of these three poems by Black women is Gwendolyn Brooks’ Riot—an utterly frank vision of the devastating riots that broke out in Chicago and in cities across the U.S. as news of Dr. King’s assassination spread.  Brooks, the Bard of Bronzeville, after Langston Hughes, the most celebrated African-American poet, and among the most honored as a  Pulitzer Prize winner,  recipient of the National Medal for the Arts, and Poet Laureate of Illinois and of the United States.  But when this poem was published she was publicly reviled in the establishment press for celebrating and encouraging violence.  Even reporting on Black rage was too much for tender White feelings.

A Poem in Three Parts

              A riot is the language of the unheard. 
              —Martin Luther King, Jr

John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe, 
all whitebluerose below his golden hair, 
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool, 
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff; 
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The 
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost 
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray 
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s, 
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri. 

Because the “Negroes” were coming down the street. 

Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty 
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka) 
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks. 
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud. 
And not detainable. And not discreet. 

Gross. Gross. “Que tu es grossier!” John Cabot 
itched instantly beneath the nourished white 
that told his story of glory to the World. 
“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he
whispered to any handy angel in the sky. 

But, in a thrilling announcement, on It drove 
and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath 
the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili, 
malign, mocked John. And, in terrific touch, old 
averted doubt jerked forward decently, 
cried, “Cabot! John! You are a desperate man, 
and the desperate die expensively today.” 

John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire 
and broken glass and blood, and he cried “Lord! 
Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.”


                “In Egyptian mythology, a bird 
                which lived for five hundred 
                years and then consumed itself 
                in fire, rising renewed from the ashes.” 

The earth is a beautiful place. 
Watermirrors and things to be reflected. 
Goldenrod across the little lagoon. 

The Black Philosopher says 
“Our chains are in the keep of the Keeper 
in a labeled cabinet 
on the second shelf by the cookies, 
sonatas, the arabesques. . . . 
There’s a rattle, sometimes. 
You do not hear it who mind only 
cookies and crunch them. 
You do not hear the remarkable music—‘A 
Death Song For You Before You Die.’ 
If you could hear it 
you would make music too. 
The blackblues.” 

   West Madison Street. 
In “Jessie’s Kitchen” 
nobody’s eating Jessie’s Perfect Food. 
Crazy flowers 
cry up across the sky, spreading 
and hissing This is 

The young men run. 

They will not steal Bing Crosby but will steal 
Melvin Van Peebles who made Lillie 
a thing of Zampoughi a thing of red wiggles and trebles 
(and I know there are twenty wire stalks sticking out of her 
as her underfed haunches jerk jazz.) 

A clean riot is not one in which little rioters 
long-stomped, long-straddled, BEANLESS 
but knowing no Why 
go steal in hell 
a radio, sit to hear James Brown 
and Mingus, Young-Holt, Coleman, John on V.O.N. 
and sun themselves in Sin. 

However, what 
is going on 
is going on. 

That is their way of lighting candles in the darkness. 
A White Philosopher said 
‘It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.’ 
                     These candles curse— 
inverting the deeps of the darkness. 


The young men run. 
The children in ritual chatter 
scatter upon 
their Own and old geography. 

The Law comes sirening across the town. 

A woman is dead. 
She lies among the boxes 
(that held the haughty hats, the Polish sausages) 
in newish, thorough, firm virginity 
as rich as fudge is if you’ve had five pieces. 
Not again shall she 
partake of steak 
on Christmas mornings, nor of nighttime 
chicken and wine at Val Gray Ward’s 
nor say 
of Mr. Beetley, Exit Jones, Junk Smith 
nor neat New-baby Williams (man-to-many) 
“He treat me right.” 

That was a gut gal. 

“We’ll do an us!” yells Yancey, a twittering twelve. 
“Instead of your deathintheafternoon, 
kill ’em, bull! 
kill ’em, bull!” 

The Black Philosopher blares 
“I tell you, exhaustive black integrity 
would assure a blackless Amrica. . . .” 

Nine die, Sun-Times will tell 
and will tell too 
in small black-bordered oblongs “Rumor? check it 
at 744-4111.” 

A Poem to Peanut. 
“Coooooool!” purrs Peanut. Peanut is 
Richard—a Ranger and a gentleman. 
A Signature. A Herald. And a Span. 
This Peanut will not let his men explode. 
And Rico will not. 
Neither will Sengali. 
Nor Bop nor Jeff, Geronimo nor Lover. 
These merely peer and purr, 
and pass the Passion over. 
The Disciples stir 
and thousandfold confer 
with ranging Rangermen; 
mutual in their “Yeah!— 
this AIN’T all upinheah!” 

“But WHY do These People offend themselves?” say they 
who say also “It’s time. 
It’s time to help 
These People.” 

Lies are told and legends made. 
Phoenix rises unafraid. 

The Black Philosopher will remember: 
“There they came to life and exulted, 
the hurt mute. 
Then is was over. 

The dust, as they say, settled.”

                                                                              LaBohem Brown

In a package of minutes there is this We.
How beautiful.
Merry foreigners in our morning,
we laugh, we touch each other, 
are responsible props and posts.

A physical light is in the room.

Because the world is at the window
we cannot wonder very long.

You rise. Although
genial, you are in yourself again.
I observe
your direct and respectable stride.
You are direct and self-accepting as a lion
in Afrikan velvet. You are level, lean,

There is a moment in Camaraderie
when interruption is not to be understood.
I cannot bear an interruption.
This is the shining joy;
the time of not-to-end.

On the street we smile.
We go
in different directions
down the imperturbable street.

—Gwendolyn Brooks

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