“Our particular whirlwind”: poetry by African-American Innovators

Poet Bob Kaufman_1925 to 1986. . .

Gwendolyn Brooks

(1917-2000, Topeka, Kansas, USA)

Sadie and Maud


Maud went to college.

Sadie stayed at home.

Sadie scraped life

With a fine-tooth comb.


She didn’t leave a tangle in.

Her comb found every strand.

Sadie was one of the livingest chits

In all the land.


Sadie bore two babies

Under her maiden name.

Maud and Ma and Papa

Nearly died of shame.

Every one but Sadie

Nearly died of shame.


When Sadie said her last so-long

Her girls struck out from home.

(Sadie had left as heritage

Her fine-tooth comb.)


Maud, who went to college,

Is a thin, brown mouse.

She is living all alone

In this old house.

. . .

Gloria Oden

(1923-2011, Yonkers, New York, USA)

Testament of Loss


You would think that night could lift;

that something of light would sift

through to grey its thick self



It’s five years now.

Still black gloams over

day unable to slip

across my sill

one finger

to raise its white form

of hope.

. . .

Bible Study


In the old testament

Hizzoner” was forever

singling out someone

to speak with.


and he would make

a visit.

Cruise the world

from your favourite

mountain top

and he would come

to call.


Even out of the garrulous

mouth of the whirlwind

he would fetch

himself forth

for a bit of

spirited conversation.


he was apt to

catch up with you

at the most staggering

of times,

and in the most debatable

of places.


So, I think,

he does still.

Who else, my dear,

could have snapped us

together and put us

so warmly to bed?


What puzzles me now

is our particular whirlwind.

Tell me,

did the Old Guy

trumpet us out of

your upset

or mine?

. . .

Bob Kaufman

(1925-1986, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA)



You are with me, Oregon,

Day and night, I feel you, Oregon.

I am Negro. I am Oregon.

Oregon is me, the planet

Oregon, the state Oregon, Oregon.

In the night, you come with bicycle wheels,

Oregon you come

With stars of fire. You come green.

Green eyes, hair, arms,

Head, face, legs, feet, toes

Green, nose green, your

Breasts green, your cross

Green, your blood green.

Oregon winds blow around

Oregon. I am green, Oregon.

Oregon lives in me,

Oregon, you come and make

Me into a bird and fly me

To secret places day and night.

The secret places in Oregon,

I am standing on the steps

Of the holy church of Crispus

Attucks St. John the Baptist,

the holy brother of Christ,

I am talking to Lorca. We

Decide the Hart Crane trip,

Home to Oregon,

Heaven flight from Gulf of Mexico,

The bridge is

Crossed, and the florid black found.

. . .

Dolores Kendrick

(born 1927, Washington, D.C., USA)

Jenny in Love

[the poet imagines the voice of a young black slavewoman in the nineteenth century]


Danced in the evenin’


the supper




in the morning:


danced again!

. . .

Ted Joans (born Theodore Jones)

(1928-2003, Cairo, Illinois, USA)

The Overloaded Horse


On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his buttons were crushed into powder for their soup

his hair was wovened into ship sails

his foreskin was sewn by an antique dealer

his manure supplied several generations with xmas gifts

and now they speak bad of him, the horse, the head of their family

On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his earwax was packaged in America

his rump was displayed on early morning garbage trucks

his crossed eye is on loan to a soap museum

his manners have since been copied by millions of glass blowers

and still yet, they spit at this stable, the horse, the head of the house

On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his ribs were riveted outside an airbase

his knees bend in shadows of Russia

his shoelaces are used to hang lovely violinists

his dignity is exported as a diary product to the Orient

and in spite of it all, those he loved most, lie and cheat horse’s heirs

On a battu le cheval, au mois de Mai and they ate him

his tears now drown the frowning yachtsmen

his urine flows rapidly across millionaires’ estates

his annual vomit destroys twelve dictators’ promises a year

his teeth tear wide holes in the scissormaker’s Swiss bank account

and even in death, filled with revenge, they eat him, again and again

they deny and lie as they speak bad of the horse,

the head of their house, the father of their home

. . .

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones)

(1934-2014, Newark, New Jersey, USA)

How People Do


To be that weak lonely figure

coming home through the cold

up the stairs

melting in grief

the walls and footsteps echo

so much absence and ignorance

is not to be the creature emerging

into the living room, an orderly universe

of known things all names and securely placed

is not to be the orderer the namer, the stormer

and creator, is not to be that, so we throw it

from our minds, and sit down casually

to eat.

. . .

Jayne Cortez

(born 1934, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, USA)



Listen i have

a complaint to make

my lips are covered

with thumb prints

insomnia sips me

the volume of isolation

is up to my thyroid

and i won’t disappear

can you help me

Poet June Jordan_around 1968_photograph possibly taken by Louise Bernikow

June Jordan

(1936-2002, Harlem, New York, USA)

All the World moved


All the world moved next to me strange

I grew on my knees

in hats and taffeta trusting

the holy water to run

like grief from a brownstone



Blessing a fear of the anywhere

face too pale to be family

my eyes wore ribbons

for Christ on the subway

as weekly as holiness

in Harlem.


God knew no East no West no South

no Skin nothing I learned like

traditions of sin but later

life began and strangely

I survived His innocence

without my own.

. . .

Lucille Clifton

(1936-2010, Depew, New York, USA)

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


. . .

Joseph Jarman

(born 1937, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, USA)


what we all

would have of

each other

the men of

the sides of ourworlds


in a window

yes ”  go contrary

go sing……….

to give

all you have


to each yourself

yet never

to remember

to look back

into a void

––it is time

yes; to move from

yourself to

yourself again

to know


what you are



. . .

Ishmael Reed

(born 1938, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA)


(in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man)


i am outside of

history. i wish

i had some peanuts, it

looks hungry there in

its cage


i am inside of


hungrier than i


. . .

William J. Harris

(born 1942, Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA)

Practical Concerns


From a distance, I watch

a man digging a hole with a machine.

I go closer.

The hole is deep and narrow.

At the bottom is a bird.


I ask the ditchdigger if I may climb down

and ask the bird a question.

He says, why sure.


It’s nice and cool in the ditch.

The bird and I talk about singing.

Very little about technique.



. . . . .

The poems above are by no means representative of all the Innovators among African-American poets; they are a brief sample. Readers should also look up the following poets’ work, wherever it is available – whether at the library, the bookstore, or upon the internet!

Lloyd Addison

Russell Atkins

Lawrence S. Cumberbatch

Randy Bee Graham

Percy Johnston

Stephen Jonas

Eloise Loftin

Clarence Major

Oliver Pitcher

Norman Pritchard

Ed Roberson

Melvin B. Tolson

Gloria Tropp

Tom Weatherly


. . .


Bob Kaufman in the 1950s

June Jordan in 1968

. . . . .