The Black Lives Matter movement has increased social awareness about police brutality, systemic racism, and white privilege in the United States. The homicide of George Floyd ignited worldwide protests to mourn his death and to create change in our justice system and institutions—because the racism Black people face every day is not eradicated by simply acknowledging the problem.
Racism is a disease in our country that needs to be healed, and I’m not just speaking metaphorically: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared racism a “public health issue.” This is an ongoing, systemic problem that will take time to change. But just in a few weeks of protests and mass coverage of this issue, “editors have resigned, statues have toppled, and police reforms have been announced in several cities across the US,” according to Business Insider.
Political poetry has documented the civil rights movement and many other equal rights movements, such as feminism. Now, because of technology and social media, poets are able to reach a far wider audience than ever before. Poets are spreading their messages and taking a stand on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. People are having conversations about racism in their living rooms, in their workplaces, in the press—even in ASMR videos.
Education is one way to create lasting change as we work to eradicate racism from our world and our collective psyches, and throughout modern history, poetry has been one of the most profound ways to both teach and learn about the human experience. Let’s first look at some well-known poetry that is often taught during Black History Month and in literature classes, and then we’ll examine a contemporary poem that addresses the impact slavery and racism have on Black people living in America.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
This well-known poem by Hughes is important for our understanding of racism because it documents segregation using the voice of a black speaker. According to Smithsonian historian David Ward, the poem “embodies that history at a particular point in the early 20th century when Jim Crow laws throughout the South enforced racial segregation; and argues against those who would deny that importance—and that presence.”
Maya Angelou was raised in the Jim Crow South. She overcame racism, trauma, and prejudice and published many books of poetry and prose. Her masterpiece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiography and coming-of-age story that has influenced many memoirists and novelists.
In the lyrical poem “Still I Rise,” Angelou showcases her strength, spirit, and determination to defeat oppression, racism, and hate speech. The memorable ending honors the struggle and pain of African-Americans who were victims of slavery:
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In 2016, I watched Ashley Jones read this powerful poem at Books and Books in Miami from her debut poetry book, Magic City Gospel, winner of the 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. The poem is a lyrical reflection of her experience observing a KKK uniform at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. She provides in concrete and vivid detail the experience of being so close to a uniform that is a literal representation of racism:
All you can really tell at first
is that it was starched.
Some Betty Sue, Marge, Jane,
some proper girl
with a great black iron
made those corners sharp.
The hood, white and ablaze
body flat and open
for husband, brother, son.
Behind the glass,
it seems frozen, waiting
for summer night
to melt it into action,
for the clean white flame
of God to awaken its limbs.
In front of it, you are dwarfed—
you imagine a pair of pupils
behind the empty holes
of the mask.
Behind the stiff cotton,
would the eyes squint
to see through small white slits,
or would they open wide
as a burning house
to hunt you down
until you pooled
like old rope
Jones imagines the uniform taking on the life of the energy of the person who wore it, and then the fear of the speaker becomes the fear of the reader as they are hunted and haunted by this uniform.
Jones powerfully depicts the traumatic history of racism living on through remnants of the past and how this trauma affects Black people today. Through the Library of Congress, I was able to find a photograph of the very KKK uniform that Jones based her poem on, and its hateful energy is visible even from the safety of a computer screen. We cannot even imagine the cruelty of its limbs coming to life as it once did in Alabama.