The nation remembers Martin Luther King on Monday, so let's take a look at three poems that highlight different aspects of the civil rights movement.
"I, Too, Sing America" by Langston Hughes--simple, direct, but emotionally powerful--is one of my favorite poems. It confronts the extreme race-based inequality that used to be the norm in America, and dramatizes Hughes' determination to overcome it. It's remarkable (at least for someone my age) to think that he wrote this just over 50 years ago.
I, Too, Sing 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.
Contrast Hughes' quiet but challenging tone with the anger and violence in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "Riot" below. So called "race riots" weren't uncommon in the late 60s, and a particularly ugly one (sadly) took place in Chicago in reaction to Dr. King's assassination. Brooks' blunt and brutal poem brings a riot to life, and focuses on a fictitious victim--a man named John Cabot--whom Brooks paints in a very unsympathetic light. Even though Cabot is ostensibly killed in the poem, one could argue that Brooks doesn't want us to see him as a victim at all.
A riot is the language of the unheard.
--Martin Luther King
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."
It's easy to imagine why some critics accused Brooks of celebrating violence here, though the poem is more complex than that. And notice how Brooks employs an epigraph from Dr. King: she uses a quote from a man committed to non-violence in a way that seems to justify violence. Don't blame the rioters too much for harming Cabot, the epigraph implies, they were "unheard" and needed a way to speak.
While "Riot" mined the anger underlying the civil rights movement and the violence that sprung up from it, Nikki Giovanni's "A Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy" meditates on the grief born from the movement's losses. Bobby Kennedy was, of course, a key figure in the movement, and Giovanni probably had Dr. King--assassinated just two months before--in mind as well.
A Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
Trees are never felled . . . in summer . . . Not when the fruit . . .
is yet to be borne . . . Never before the promise . . . is fulfilled . . .
Not when their cooling shade . . . has yet to comfort . . .
Yet there are those . . . unheeding of nature . . . indifferent to
ecology . . . ignorant of need . . . who . . . with ax and sharpened
saw . . . would . . . in boots . . . step forth damaging . . .
Not the tree . . . for it falls . . . But those who would . . . in
summer's heat . . . or winter's cold . . . contemplate . . . the
beauty . . .
Thankfully, we can still contemplate the beauty of Martin Luther King's message, and contemplate the success of that message. Monday, in "winter's cold," is as suitable a time as any to do just that.