I don’t remember meeting or having a conversation with anyone black as I was growing up in Salt Lake City, even though I see a few African American faces in my high school yearbooks. My friends were mostly white, but also included Greeks and Italians (considered exotic for the time and place), Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans. What little I knew must have come from books, but I’m not sure which ones–To Kill a Mockingbird, at some point, a few others by white authors. I was really curious to know what black lives were like, but I didn’t know where to look. I had no sense of details, just the largest generalizations–slavery, prejudice, Jim Crow south, segregation.
I wanted to know what they wore, how the ate, how they dressed, what their houses looked like. I think the first poem that gave me a glimpse, a little window into actual lives, was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Bean Eaters.” I could picture that couple, and their little apartment. I liked them, and wanted to know more. Sometime later, Robert Hayden’s poems did the same, then Lucille Clifton’s filled me with joy and anguish. I went back in time: Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen. Then forward from them: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Al Young, Nikki Giovanni.
Then all the way back to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and terrible story. She was kidnapped from her home in West Africa in about 1760,when she was eight years old, and brought to this country on a slave ship. In Boston, John Wheatley purchased her–I can barely make myself type that–as a servant for his wife Susanna. When they realized how intelligent she was they gave her a classical education and encouraged her to write. She was the first African American woman to publish poems here, and her work was widely known. Almost all of it is based on her education in western history and mythology, except for one piercing passage in a poem titled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth.” I think these are the only lines in her work that speak out of that moment when a stranger stole her from her life and family, and out of the unbearable pain and loss that rang through the rest of her life. I wonder if her work would have been so popular if she’d written more of her story.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
In recent years there’s a dazzling range of black lives in poetry, from Marilyn Nelson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Tretheway, Elizabeth Alexander, Derek Walcott, Claudia Rankine, Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Tim Seibles, Danez Smith. The list goes on and on and on. Here are just a few examples.
THE BEAN EATERS
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
(there is a girl inside)
there is a girl inside.
she is randy as a wolf.
she will not walk away
and leave these bones
to an old woman.
she is a green tree
in a forest of kindling.
she is a green girl
in a used poet.
she has waited
patient as a nun
for the second coming,
when she can break through gray hairs
and her lovers will harvest
honey and thyme
and the woods will be wild
with the damn wonder of it.
(Kittery Point, Maine, 1958)
Mama’s rented a colonial house
a block from the ocean, in a village
where we’re the First Negroes of everything.
We’re the First Negro Family in Town,
the First Negro Children in the Town’s School.
The Baylisses live in the house next door;
their mantel has photos of dead people
in their coffins. Uncle Ed sits all day
in their bay window with binoculars,
then comments on what we had for dinner.
Aunt Flossie asks us over for cookies.
Sometimes Mama lets me and Jennifer cook.
Tonight we made a Caucasian dinner:
cauliflower, broiled cod, and mashed potatoes.
Marilyn Nelson, from her memoir in poems about her childhood, How I Discovered Poetry
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin /swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet–. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This name. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.
First snow—I release her into it—
I know, released, she won’t come back.
This is different from letting what,
already, we count as lost go. It is nothing
like that. Also, it is not like wanting to learn what
losing a thing we love feels like. Oh yes:
I love her.
Released, she seems for a moment as if
some part of me that, almost,
I wouldn’t mind
understanding better, is that
not love? She seems a part of me,
and then she seems entirely like what she is:
a white dog,
less white suddenly, against the snow,
who won’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,
I release her. It’s as if I release her
because I know.
summer, somewhere (first section)
somewhere, a sun. below boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog, bad blood, bad day to be a boy
color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven we can’t recall our white shirts
turned ruby gowns. here, there’s no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.