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Black Poetry Day

On October 17, 2020, we celebrate Black Poetry Day in honor of Jupiter Hammon, who is believed to be the first African American to publish poetry in the United States. He was born into slavery in Long Island, New York on October 17, 1711.

His poem An Evening Thought was first published on Christmas Day at the age of 49. Jupiter Hammon is considered one of the founders of African-American literature, though he was never emancipated and his first published poem listed the name of his master at that time. In honor of his birth, we celebrate the contributions of all African Americans to the world of poetry. Some of the most notable are Langston Hughes, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Maya Angelou.

It’s no surprise that many of the early poems by African Americans spoke of overcoming struggles and hardship, often with encouragement and a look to a brighter future.

Here are a couple of CT3’s team’s favorites (by no means a comprehensive list; merely personal favorites from a few):

Nataki Gregory, CEO

The first, sorrow song, I read for the first time before I decided to move into education (for reasons she outlines in her poem). The second, why some people be mad at me sometimes, is a constant reminder of why I stay in the field.

sorrow song

for the eyes of the children,

the last to melt,

the last to vaporize,

for the lingering

eyes of the children of

buchenwald,

Of viet nam and Johannesburg,

for the eyes of the children

of nagasaki,

for the eyes of the children

of middle passage,

for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,

for all that remains of the children,

their eyes,

staring at us,amazed to see

the extraordinary evil in

ordinary men.

why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and I keep on remembering

mine.

Lucille Clifton

 

John Maynes, data specialist

The poem I want to share is titled This is for You by Arielle Estoria. It is a spoken word poem, so rather than transcribing it I thought I would share a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0F3Pe6KTJ4

This poem is really an affirmation for me. It helps me focus on my purpose and find healing to pursue it. One line that has been resonating with me recently is meant for teachers striving to fight oppression. Racist policies have been established as barriers on the path to equity. “You tell them instead, ‘Stop giving directions to places you’ve never been!’” The path to equity is not well-paved and white supremacy cannot lead us there.

 

Leah Pearson, associate

Sympathy

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the son of African parents who had been slaves prior to the American Civil War. He was a poet, a novelist and a playwright and died at the young age of 33. I like his poem, “Sympathy”, because it is a reminder of why it is essential to examine what is below the surface. This poem is not simply about a bird in a cage, but about the oppression of the enslaved. It is extremely relevant today given the ongoing oppression of the descendants of enslaved, and the oppression of so many other groups of people, animals and natural resources across the globe. For me, the poem points the reader to the truth of an oppressed experience by taking the idea of oppression slightly out of context (focusing on the bird). The metaphor mysteriously makes the poem feel urgent and undeniable- the bird is suffering; the joyful singing is a lie.

The poem is a concise and potent form of truth telling because it pushes the reader to think about oppression in a simple and different way. I believe truth telling leads to empathy, which leads to healing. I believe healing is the key not only to being antiracist, but to the sustainability of the human race and this planet. For me this poem strikes a chord of empathy (rather than sympathy as it is entitled), because it urgently forces me to put myself in the bird (oppressed person’s)-shoes, and motivates in me a desire to break down the cage and make my life a giving to happiness and freedom for all, not just for some.

 

Kristyn Klei Borrero, co-founder

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

— Maya Angelou

At my first turn around school, we did monthly affirmations. Our first was this poem. Every student in the school would memorize our monthly affirmations and we would chant together. The president of our parent group chose Still I Rise and it has remained on of my favorites… although Bell Hooks has some very close seconds!

Please share your favorite Black poet’s poem in the comments below.

CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

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