1968 was fifty four 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 that 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 demurred, 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, who 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 post-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.
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
palm same thing different sling
and then they shot him
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
—Harmony HolidayJune 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 Poetry for the People to inspire and empower students to use poetry as a means of social justice 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
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
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
Defiant of criticism 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, was 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.”
THE THIRD SERMON ON THE WARPLAND
“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.
West Madison Street.
In “Jessie’s Kitchen”
nobody’s eating Jessie’s Perfect Food.
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.
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.
GUARD HERE, GUNS LOADED.
The young men run.
The children in ritual chatter
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
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
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
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.”
AN ASPECT OF LOVE, ALIVE IN THE ICE AND FIRE
In a package of minutes there is this We.
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.
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.
in different directions
down the imperturbable street.
Post a Comment