“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

. . . . .


“They now gonna make us shut up”: The Black Nationalist / Third-World Socialist poetry of Amiri Baraka

ZP_photograph by Fundi_Billy Abernathy_from the 1970 Imamu Amiri Baraka book In Our Terribleness_I love you black perfect woman. Your spirit will rule the twenty first century. This is why we ourselves speed to grace...

ZP_photograph by Fundi_Billy Abernathy_from the 1970 Imamu Amiri Baraka book In Our Terribleness_I love you black perfect woman. Your spirit will rule the twenty first century. This is why we ourselves speed to grace…

Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones, 1934)

“Numbers, Letters” (written in 1965)


If you’re not home, where

are you?  Where’d you go?  What

were you doing when gone?  When

you come back, better make it good.

What was you doing down there, freakin’ off

with white women, hangin’ out

with Queens, say it straight to be

understood straight, put it flat and real

in the street where the sun comes and the

moon comes and the cold wind in winter

waters your eyes.  Say what you mean, dig

it out put it down, and be strong

about it.


I cant say who I am

unless you agree I’m real


I cant be anything I’m not

except these words pretend

to life not yet explained,

so here’s some feeling for you

see how you like it, what it

reveals, and that’s Me.


Unless you agree I’m real

that I can feel

whatever beats hardest

a our black souls

I am real, and I can’t say who

I am.  Ask me if I know, I’ll say

yes, I might say no.  Still, ask.

I’m Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 yrs old.


A black nigger in the universe.  A long breath singer,

wouldbe dancer, strong from years of fantasy

and study.  All this time then, for what’s happening

now.  All that spilling of white ether, clocks in ghostheads

lips drying and rewet, eyes opening and shut, mouths churning.


I am a meditative man, And when I say something it’s all of me

saying, and all the things that make me, have formed me, coloured me

this brilliant reddish night.  I will say nothing that I feel is

lie, or unproven by the same ghostclocks, by the same riders

Always move so fast with the word slung over their backs or

in saddlebags, charging down Chinese roads.  I carry some words,

some feeling, some life in me.  My heart is large as my mind

this is a messenger calling, over here, over here, open your eyes

and your ears and your souls;  today is the history we must learn

to desire.  There is no guilt in love.



(from “Black Magic”, published 1969)


.     .     .


“Black Art”


Poems are bullshit unless they are

teeth or trees or lemons piled

on a step.  Or black ladies dying

of men leaving nickel hearts

beating them down.  Fuck poems

and they are useful, wd they shoot

come at you, love what you are,

breathe like wrestlers, or shudder

strangely after pissing.  We want live

words of the hips world live flesh &

coursing blood.  Hearts Brains

Souls splintering fire.  We want poems

like fists beating niggers out of Jocks

or dagger poems in the slimy bellies

of the owner-jews.  Black poems to

smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches

whose brains are red jelly stuck

between  ’lizabeth taylor’s toes.  Stinking

Whores!  We want “poems that kill”.

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns.  Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.  Knockoff

poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite

politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr


…rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…Setting fire and death to

whities ass.  Look at the Liberal

Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat

& puke himself into eternity…rrrrrrr

There’s a negroleader pinned to

a bar stool in Sardi’s eyeballs melting

in hot flame Another negroleader

on the steps of the white house one

kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs

negotiating cooly for his people.

Agggh … stumbles across the room …

Put it on him, poem.  Strip him naked

to the world!  Another bad poem cracking

steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth

Poem scream poison gas on beasts in green berets

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly.  Let Black People understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of lovers and warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world


We want a black poem. And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem




(from “Black Magic”, published 1969)

ZP_from page 1 of In Our Terribleness_Some elements and meaning in black style_by Imamu Amiri Baraka_with Fundi_1970

ZP_from page 1 of In Our Terribleness_Some elements and meaning in black style_by Imamu Amiri Baraka_with Fundi_1970


“J. said, “Our whole universe is generated by a rhythm””


Is Dualism, the shadow inserted

for the northern trip, as the northern

trip, minstrels of the farther land,

the sun, in one place, ourselves, somewhere

else.  The Universe

is the rhythm

there is no on looker, no outside

no other than the real, the universe

is rhythm, and whatever is only is as

swinging.  All that is is funky, the bubbles

in the monsters brain, are hitting it too,

but the circles look like

swastikas, the square is thus

explained, but the nazis had dances, and even some of the

victims would tell you that.


There is no such thing as “our

universe”, only degrees of the swinging, what

does not swing is nothing, and nothing swings

when it wants to.  The desire alone is funky

and it is this heat Louis Armstrong scatted in.


What is not funky is psychological, metaphysical

is the religion of squares, pretending no one

is anywhere.

Everything gets hot, it is hot now, nothing cold exists

and cold, is the theoretical line the pretended boundary

where your eye and your hand disappear into desire.


Dualism is a quiet camp near the outer edge of the forest.

There the inmates worship money and violence. they are

learning right now to sing, let us join them for a moment

and listen.  Do not laugh, whatever you do.



(from “Funk Lore” – New Poems, 1984-1995)


.     .     .


“Brother Okot”


Our people say

death lives

in the West

(Any one

can see

plainly, each evening

where the sun

goes to die)


So Okot

is now in the West


Here w/ us

in hell


I have heard

his songs

felt the earth

drum his


his wide ness

& Sky self


Ocoli Singer

Ocoli Fighter


Brother Okot

now here w/ us

in the place


Where even the Sun



Editor’s note:

Okot p’Bitek (1931-1982) was a Ugandan poet, author of the epic poem “Song of Lawino”,

written in the Acholi language.  (Acholi = Ocoli).

One of Okot p’Bitek’s daughters, Juliane Okot Bitek, is a poet whose work was featured by

Zócalo Poets in February 2012.


.     .     .







But Drum




act      slick

drum turn



drum go voice

be hand

on over


dont die

how some ever

drum turn slick


no drum




be a piano

a fiddle

a nigger tap




if it need to

Thing say Kill drum

but drum

dont die/dont even


& drum cant die

& wdn’t

no way!


(from “Funk Lore” – New Poems, 1984-1995)


.     .     .


“Bad People”


We want to be happy


to check

the definition


We want to love

& be loved


What does that



Then you, backed up against

yr real life


claim you want


to  be correct.


Imagine the jeers,

the cat calls

the universal dis


such ignorance




(from “Funk Lore” – New Poems, 1984-1995)


.     .     .     .     .

ZP Editor’s note:

“They now gonna make us shut up” is the opening line of Baraka’s 1969 poem “The People Burning”.


Editor Paul Vangelisti wrote in a 1995 foreword to an Amiri Baraka anthology that the poet “remains difficult to approach” – that is, for readers trying to place his ‘opus’ – since the U.S. literary establishment is “positioned somewhere between Anglo-American academicism and the Entertainment industry.”  Baraka cannot be fitted neatly anywhere – though he has been compared to Ezra Pound for “making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action” (M.L. Rosenthal, 1973).

Imamu Amiri Baraka (Arabic for Spiritual Leader-Blesséd-Prince) was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, and was one of the “urgent new voices” – black voices – of the 1960s.  Like a number of U.S. cities with Black citizens who were barred from “getting ahead” and who felt fed up with a normalized police brutality, Newark experienced what were then called “race riots”, in July 1967, leaving 26 people dead.  Over the decades Baraka has stuck by his city, continuing to live there through thick and thin.


The poet had often signed his poems “Roi”, up until 1966, at which time he took his Muslim name.  After the assassination of Malcolm X Baraka became more forceful in his poetry – promoting a Black Nationalist culture – and trying to give poetic shape to Anger.  But in the 1970s he distanced himself from Black Nationalism, finding in it “certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically”, and he gravitated toward Third-World Liberation movements involving Marxism.


Baraka has been brought to task over the years for sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in his writing (from the 1960s especially) – but he was,  in his poetic passion, giving expression to his full self – his ugly thoughts as well as his ideas and yearnings.  In that sense Baraka was ordinary not special – yet he was egocentric enough to want to ‘say it all’.

About the criticisms against the “prejudices” evident in his work he has said:

“The anger was part of the mindset created by, first, the assassination of John Kennedy, followed by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, followed by the assassination of Malcolm X – amidst the lynching, and national oppression. A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What changed my mind was that I became a Marxist, after recognizing classes within the Black community…..”

ZP_Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X in the background_1964 photograph by Robert L. Haggins

ZP_Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X in the background_1964 photograph by Robert L. Haggins

Baraka’s poetry from the 1990s took as its template Blues and Jazz structures and he penned poems that in their own weird ways honoured Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Sun Ra.  There was also polemic and vitriol, sometimes downright pessimistic, in poems about Clarence Thomas and Spike Lee.  Still “making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action”, as Rosenthal had described Baraka in the early 1970s, it came as no surprise when the poet wrote an inflammatory poem, “Somebody Blew Up America”, about the September 11th, 2001, World Trade Center attack.

.     .     .     .     .

All poems © Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes: “Throw jesus out yr mind” / “Goodbye, Christ”

ZP_photograph by Fundi_Billy Abernathy_from the 1970 Imamu Amiri Baraka book In Our Terribleness

ZP_photograph by Fundi_Billy Abernathy_from the 1970 Imamu Amiri Baraka book In Our Terribleness

Amiri Baraka (born 1934, Newark, New Jersey, U.S.A.)

“When We’ll Worship Jesus”

(written after 1970, published in Baraka’s poetry collection “Hard Facts”, 1975)


We’ll worship Jesus

When Jesus do


When jesus blow up

the white house

or blast nixon down

when jesus turn out congress

or bust general motors to

yard bird motors

jesus we’ll worship jesus

when jesus get down

when jesus get out his yellow lincoln

w/the built in cross stain glass

window & box w/black peoples

enemies we’ll worship jesus when

he get bad enough to at least scare

somebody – cops not afraid

of jesus

pushers not afraid

of jesus, capitalists racists

imperialists not afraid

of jesus shit they makin money

off jesus

we’ll worship jesus when mao

do, when toure does

when the cross replaces Nkrumah’s


Jesus need to hurt some a our

enemies, then we’ll check him

out, all that screaming and hollering

& wallering and moaning talkin bout

jesus, jesus, in a red

check velvet vine + 8 in.heels

jesus pinky finger

got a goose egg ruby

which actual bleeds

jesus at the Apollo

doin splits and helpin

nixon trick niggers

jesus  w/his one eyed self

tongue kissing johnny carson

up the behind

jesus need to be busted

jesus need to be thrown down and whipped

till something better happen

jesus aint did nothin for us

but kept us turned toward the

sky (him and his boy allah

too, need to be checkd out!)

we’ll worship jesus when he get a boat load of ak-47s

and some dynamite

and blow up abernathy robotin

for gulf

jesus need to be busted

we ain’t gonna worship nobody

but niggers getting up off

the ground

not gon worship jesus

unless he just a tricked up

nigger somebody named

outside his race

need to worship yo self fo

you worship jesus

need to bust jesus ( + check

out his spooky brother

allah while you heavy

on the case

cause we ain gon worship jesus

we aint gon worship


not till he do something

not till he help us

not till the world get changed

and he ain, jesus ain, he cant change the world

we can change the world

we can struggle against the forces of backwardness, we can

change the world

we can struggle against our selves, our slowness, our connection


the oppressor, the very cultural aggression which binds us to

our enemies

as their slaves.

we can change the world

we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus dont exist

xcept in song and story except in ritual and dance, except in

slum stained

tears or trillion dollar opulence stretching back in history, the


of the oppression of the human mind

we worship the strength in us

we worship our selves

we worship the light in us

we worship the warmth in us

we worship the world

we worship the love in us

we worship our selves

we worship nature

We worship ourselves

we worship the life in us, and science, and knowledge, and


of the visible world

but we aint gonna worship no jesus

we aint gonna legitimize the witches and devils and spooks and


the sensuous lies of the rulers to keep us chained to fantasy and


sing about life, not jesus

sing about revolution, not no jesus

stop singing about jesus,

sing about creation, our creation, the life of the world and


nature how we struggle to transform it, but dont victimize our

selves by

distorting the world

stop moanin about jesus, stop sweatin and crying and stompin

and dyin for jesus

unless thats the name of the army we building to force the land

finally to

change hands.  And lets not call that jesus, get a quick

consensus, on that,

lets damn sure not call that black fire muscle

no invisible psychic dungeon

no gentle vision strait jacket, lets call that peoples army, or

wapenduzi or


wachanga, but we not gon call it jesus, and not gon worship

jesus, throw

jesus out yr mind.  Build the new world out of reality, and new


we come to find out what there is of the world

to understand what there is here in the world!

to visualize change, and force it.

we worship revolution


.     .     .     .     .


Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

“Goodbye, Christ” (published in “The Negro Worker” Socialist journal, Nov.-Dec. 1932)


Listen, Christ,

You did alright in your day, I reckon –

But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too,

Called it Bible –

But it’s dead now.

The popes and the preachers’ve

Made too much money from it.

They’ve sold you too many


Kings, generals, robbers, and killers –

Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,

Even to Rockefeller’s Church,

Even to “The Saturday Evening Post”.

You ain’t no good no more.

They’ve pawned you

Till you’ve done wore out.



Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,

Beat it on away from here now.

Make way for a new guy with no religion at all –

a real guy named

Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME

I said, ME!


Go ahead on now,

You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.

And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,

And Saint Pope Pius,

And Saint Aimee McPherson,

And big black Saint Becton

Of the Consecrated Dime.

And step on the gas, Christ!



Don’t be so slow about movin’!

The world is mine from now on –

And nobody’s gonna sell ME

To a king, or a general,

Or a millionaire.

ZP_Negro Worker_1938 lithograph by James Lescesne Wells

ZP_Negro Worker_1938 lithograph by James Lescesne Wells

Langston Hughes

“A Christian Country” (Feb. 1931)


God slumbers in a back alley

With a gin bottle in His hand.

Come on, God, get up and fight

Like a man.


.     .     .


Langston Hughes

“Tired” (Feb. 1931)


I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you?

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind.

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two –

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.


.     .     .


Langston Hughes

“Bitter Brew” (1967, published posthumously)


Whittle me down

To a strong thin reed

With a piercing tip

To match my need.


Spin me out

To a tensile wire

To derrick the stones

Of my problems higher.


Then simmer me slow

In the freedom cup

Till only an essence

Is left to sup.


May that essence be

The black poison of me

To give the white bellies

The third degree.


Concocted by history

Brewed by fate –

A bitter concentrate

Of hate.

.     .     .     .     .

It may seem curious to place Langston Hughes on the same page with Amiri Baraka yet these two strikingly different poets do intersect.  Both wrote passionate and angry poems about Jesus Christ – about belief in Jesus Christ – during periods when each was exploring elements of one of those other great world religions:  Socialism/Communism.


Though the life lived by Hughes appears to have been more conservative and/or Bohemian-Establishment than Baraka’s, Hughes’ conventional rhyming verse poetry shows real guts.  The poem “Goodbye, Christ” haunted Hughes, being re-printed and circulated by zealously orthodox American Christians , becoming a thorn that pierced Hughes’ side from 1940 onward when the FBI put the poet under surveillance for alleged Communist activity.  He was denounced as a communist by a U.S. senator in 1948 and was subpoena’d in 1953 to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee on subversive “un-American” activities.  It “exonerated” him because it couldn’t link him to anyone juicy to nail.  Though Hughes had been involved in Leftist politics – his “turning” came after a trip to Haiti in 1931 (followed by visits to Moscow in 1932-33 and Spain in 1937) – he was never a member of any Socialist or Communist party organization.


We have included what is believed to be one of the last poems Langston Hughes wrote before he died in 1967:  “Bitter Brew”.  In miniature it quick-sketches the emotional and psychological geography for the new-angry Black America that an up-and-coming LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka would map out in greater detail…

.     .     .     .     .