“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

. . . . .


Lucille Clifton: “La muerte de Caballo Loco”

Strange Man of the Lakota_Crazy Horse around 1876_giclée print on watercolour paper_copyright Kenneth Ferguson“Strange Man of the Lakota” (Crazy Horse around 1876): giclée print on watercolour paper © Kenneth Ferguson


Un poema para El Día Americano del Indio / El Día del Indio Americano (19 de abril):


Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

la muerte de Caballo Loco * (5 de septiembre de 1877, a la edad de 35)


en los cerros donde el aro

del mundo

se inclina a las cuatro direcciones

ha mostrado a mí el WakanTanka*

el camino que caminan los hombres es una sombra.

Yo era un niño cuando llegué a comprender ese hecho:

que los cabellos largos y las barbas grises, y yo,

tendríamos que entrar al sueño para ser real.


por lo tanto soñé y soñé

y sobreviví.


soy el último jefe de guerra,

nunca derrotado en batalla*.

Lakotah*, acuérdense mi nombre.


ahora durante esta vuelta

mis huesos y mi corazón

están calentitos en las manos de mi padre.

WakanTanka me ha enseñado que

las sombras van a quebrarse

cerca del arroyo llamado Rodilla Herida*


acuérdense mi nombre, Lakotah.

soy el último jefe de guerra.

padre, el corazón,

nunca vencido en batalla,

padre, los huesos,

nunca dominado por batalla,

déjenlos al sitio de Rodilla Herida


y acuérdense nuestro nombre: Lakota.

estoy soltado de la sombra.

Mi caballo sueña / baila debajo de mí

mientras entro en el mundo real.

. . .

*Caballo Loco = “Crazy Horse” en inglés y Tȟašúŋke Witkó en la lengua Sioux. aprox.1840 – 1877. Era un líder de guerra de los indios Lakotah (una rama de la nación indígena Sioux de las Grandes Llanuras de los EE.UU.)

*WakanTanka = el “gran espíritu” o el “gran misterio”: el término para lo sagrado o lo divino en la cosmovisión de la gente Sioux.

*nunca derrotado en batalla = La Batalla de Little Big Horn (junio de 1876)

*Lakotah = la gente Sioux en los estados de Dakota del Norte y Dakota del Sur.

*Rodilla Herida = “Wounded Knee” en inglés. Lugar en Dakota del Sur. Sitio de una matanza de los indios Sioux por los soldados del gobierno estadounidense. Considerada como “el episodio final” en la conquista de la gente indígena norteamericana.

. . .

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

the death of crazy horse (sept.5th, 1877, age 35)


in the hills where the hoop

of the world

bends to the four directions

WakanTanka has shown me

the path men walk is shadow.

i was a boy when i saw it,

that long hairs and grey beards

and myself

must enter the dream to be real.


so i dreamed and i dreamed

and i endured.


i am the final war chief.

never defeated in battle.

Lakotah, remember my name.


now on this walk my bones

and my heart

are warm in the hands of my father.

WakanTanka has shown me the shadows

will break

near the creek called Wounded Knee.


remember my name, Lakotah.

i am the final war chief.

father, my heart,

never defeated in battle,

father, my bones,

never defeated in battle,

leave them at Wounded Knee


and remember our name. Lakotah.

i am released from shadow.

my horse dreams and dances under me

as i enter the actual world.

. . . . .

Otras reflexiones para El Día del Aborigen Americano…





. . . . .


“As dearly as possible”: the Life of Ida B. Wells + poems by Lucille Clifton and Sterling A. Brown

.     .     .

Ida B. Wells portrait by Bruce Patrick Jones_graphite and watercolour

Ida B. Wells portrait by Bruce Patrick Jones_graphite and watercolour

.     .     .

IDA B. WELLS (African-American journalist / civil-rights activist, 1862-1931)


Born to slave parents in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, Ida Bell Wells grew up to become a gutsy journalist and a pioneer civil-rights activist who launched a virtual one-woman crusade against the vicious practice of Lynching (a murderous mob action taken by Whites in the decades following Emancipation as a form of intimidation and social control mainly of newly-free Blacks). In her early 20s, after asserting her place in but being forcibly removed from a railway car, Wells went on to co-own and write for a Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech, and to write passionate editorials which resulted in both death threats made upon her plus an act of arson that destroyed the business.
In school the young Ida favoured reading Shakespeare and The Bible, but at the age of 16 both of her parents died during a yellow-fever epidemic, leaving Ida to care for her six younger siblings. She obtained a teaching position at a rural school which paid her $25 per month. Later on, while her brothers remained in Holly Springs to train as carpenter’s apprentices, she moved with her sisters to her aunt’s home near Memphis, Tennessee. She began to teach in Shelby County, and also to attend Fisk University to broaden her teaching skills. It was in May of 1884 that the discriminatory railway-car incident occurred, and some time after that the name “Iola” began to appear in print in black publications as the author of articles about race and politics in the South. Miss Wells had been using the pseudonym for less than a year when, in 1887, she attended the National Afro-American Press Convention and was named the most prominent correspondent for the American black press.
Miss Wells did not shy away from controversy when she wrote for Free Speech. An anonymous article she penned was critical of Memphis’s separate but not-so-equal schools. She described rundown buildings and teachers who had received little more education than their students. Such revelations irked members of the local Board of Education. They also took issue with her claim that a member of the all-white board was having an affair with a black teacher. The ensuing uproar cost Wells her teaching job.
Yet she was now prepared to focus more fully on the newspaper and what its very name – Free Speech – entailed. She gradually earned enough to purchase a half-share of Free Speech, and while her partner, J.L. Fleming, handled business matters, Miss Wells handled the editorial and subscription departments, and under her leadership circulation increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Readers continued to rely on Free Speech to tackle controversial subjects, even when that meant speaking out against blacks as well as whites — even when it meant challenging the widely-accepted practice of Lynching.
When word reached Miss Wells that her friend Tom Moss, the father of her goddaughter, had been lynched, she learned a great deal more about the horrific practice than she could’ve imagined. Until that time, Wells, like most other people, knew that there were usually two reasons why a black man was lynched: he was accused of raping a white woman, or he was accused of killing a white man. Yet Moss’s “crime” was that he successfully competed with a white grocer, and for this reason he and his partners were murdered. Wells now understood that lynchings were not being used to weed out criminals but to enforce the ugly values of White Supremacy. So, in a series of scathing editorials in Free Speech, she urged Memphis’ black populace to boycott the city’s new streetcar line and to pack up their belongings and move out West if they could manage it.
African Americans heeded Wells’ pleas and began leaving Memphis by the hundreds. Two pastors of large black churches took their entire congregations to Oklahoma, and others soon followed. Those who stayed behind boycotted white businesses, creating financial hardships for commercial establishments as well as for the public transportation system. The city’s papers attempted to dissuade blacks from leaving by reporting on the hostile American Indians and dangerous diseases awaiting them out West. To counter their claims, Wells spent three weeks traveling in Oklahoma and published a firsthand account of the actual conditions. She was fast becoming a target for angry white men and women, so she was advised by her friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, though, she decided to carry a pistol. In later years she was to recall: “[I had] already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, that might even up the score a little bit.”
After the murders of Moss and his partners, Wells spent some months investigating other lynchings across the South. Traveling from Texas to Virginia, she interviewed both whites and blacks in order to discern truth from rumour. Margaret Truman has written in her book Women of Courage: “To call this dangerous work is an understatement. Imagine a lone black woman in a small town in Alabama or Mississippi, asking questions that no one wanted to answer about a crime that half the whites in the town might’ve committed.” Miss Wells was to learn that rape was far from being the only crime lodged against victims of lynch mobs. Indeed, men had been lynched for “being saucy.”
In May of 1892, an article appeared in Free Speech stating that “nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” Many white citizens of Memphis did not appreciate the implication that some of their women might prefer the company of black men, and the editor of one Memphis newspaper declared that the “black wretch who had written that foul lie should be tied to a stake at the corner of Main and Madison Streets, a pair of tailor’s shears used on him, and he should then be burned at the stake.”
Wells, en route to New York City and unaware of the impact of her latest anonymous editorial, did not discover its fallout until reaching her destination. Fellow journalist T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, informed her that a mob of white men had marched into the Free Speech offices, demolished the printing press, and set fire to the building. Fleming, Wells’s partner, had escaped just before the attack and was in hiding. The angry group had promised that both editors would be lynched if they ever again set foot again in Memphis. Wells received telegrams and letters from friends begging her not to return. They told her that there were instructions to kill her on sight.
And so, Miss Wells remained in New York and accepted a job from Fortune at the New York Age. Among the first stories she wrote for the newspaper was a front-page spread detailing names, dates, and locations of several dozen lynchings. In some cases, the lynchers were prominent members of society who could have easily gone through proper legal channels had there been actual evidence of their victims’ guilt.
That particular issue of the Age sold 10,000 copies, yet it reached a predominantly black audience — not the northern white progressives Wells knew she needed to move to action if she wanted to stop the brutalities of Lynching. In 1893, therefore, she embarked upon a speaking tour of the British Isles and Europe, and it was in those overseas nations that she found white people who were more receptive to her activist concerns. Via this circuitous route, Miss Wells’ message – with the help of various newspaper editors and organizations such as the London-based Anti-Lynching Committee and the Society of Brotherhood of Man – made its way back to the United States. Some American newspaper editorials continued to attack Wells, referring to her as “the slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress.” And she faced the opposition of both conservative whites and upper-class blacks who feared any threat to the security of their positions.
“Home” after her overseas speaking tour, Wells moved to Chicago in 1893 or 1894, and began working for The Conservator, a black newspaper founded and edited by a lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett. When blacks were excluded from participating in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (held in Chicago), she teamed up with Barnett and Frederick Douglass to compile a booklet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not Represented in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Thousands of copies of it were distributed during the fair. Miss Wells also published A Red Record, which recounted three years’ worth of American lynchings, and in order to avoid any charges of bias, she gathered all of her data from white-published sources, primarily the Chicago Tribune.
In 1895, at the age of 33, Miss Wells married Barnett, who shared her passion for civil rights. They remained in Chicago, and Mrs. Wells-Barnett divided her time between raising four children and working on various causes: the anti-lynching crusade; establishing kindergartens in the black district of Chicago; and – with reformer Jane Addams – protesting successfully against a plan to segregate the city’s schools.
Ida Wells-Barnett – now a wife and mother – kept on speaking out against discrimination…
She denounced the restriction of blacks to the backs of buses and theatre balconies, plus their exclusion from organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In 1909, Wells-Barnett attended the conference of “radical” activists that led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Perhaps not surprisingly – given her feisty and energetic character – she resigned not long afterwards, frustrated that the organization was not committed enough to militant action. Some years earlier, she had quit the Afro-American Council in protest against Booker T. Washington and his policy of “accommodation”.
In the last decades of her passionate life, Wells-Barnett devoted most of her time and energy to various civic and political activities in Chicago. From 1913 until 1916, for instance, she worked as an adult probation officer. She also remained busy with club work and founded the first African-American women’s suffrage organization. She even ran for state senator in the 1930 elections, though she was easily defeated.
Imagine if Ida Wells-Barnett had been able to see into the future?
She might then have seen how much she influenced the civil-rights movement of the 1960s – and a new era in race relations – with her own battles against discrimination all those decades earlier.  Ida Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease in 1931 at the age of sixty-nine. But she is remembered here and now in the 21st century as a courageous pioneer for truth and justice – and as an African-American woman of whom we should all be proud.
. . .
The above biographical essay and commentary has been edited for length. It first appeared in Americans Who Tell The Truth: Models of Courageous Citizenship © The Gale Group

. . .

Lynching as a subject for poetry: two examples from poets Lucille Clifton and Sterling Allen Brown:


. . .

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)
The Photograph: A Lynching
Is it the cut glass
of their eyes
looking up toward
the new gnarled branch
of the black man
hanging from a tree?
Is it the white milk pleated
collar of the woman
smiling toward the camera,
her fingers loose around
a christian cross drooping
against her breast?
Is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album? Will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?

. . .

Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989)
Let Us Suppose
Let us suppose him differently placed
In wider fields than these bounded by bayous
And the fringes of moss-hung trees
Over which, in lazy spirals, the carancros [carrion crows] soar and dip.
Let us suppose these horizons pushed farther,
So that his eager mind,
His restless senses, his swift eyes,
Could glean more than the sheaves he stored
Time and time again:
Let us suppose him far away from here.
Or let us, keeping him here, suppose him
More submissive, less ready for the torrent of hot Cajan speech,
The clenched fist, the flushed face,
The proud scorn and the spurting anger;
Let us suppose him with his hat crumpled in his hand,
The proper slant to his neck, the eyes abashed,
Let us suppose his tender respect for his honour
Calloused, his debt to himself outlawed.
Let us suppose him what he could never be.
Let us suppose him less thrifty
Less the hustler from early morning until first dark,
Let us suppose his corn weedy,
His cotton rusty, scantily fruited, and his fat mules poor.
His cane a sickly yellow
Like his white neighbour’s.
Let us suppose his burnt brick colour,
His shining hair thrown back from his forehead,
His stalwart shoulders, his lean hips,
His gently fused patois of Cajan, Indian, African,
Let us suppose these less the dragnet
To her, who might have been less lonesome
Less driven by Louisiana heat, by lone flat days,
And less hungry.
Let us suppose his full-throated laugh
Less repulsive to the crabbed husband,
Let us suppose his swinging strides
Less of an insult to the half-alive scarecrow
Of the neighbouring fields:
Let us suppose him less fermenting to hate.
Let us suppose that there had been
In this tiny forgotten parish, among these lost bayous,
No imperative need
Of preserving unsullied,
Anglo-Saxon mastery.
Let us suppose –
Oh, let us suppose him alive.

. . .
“Let Us Suppose” was first published in the September 1935 issue of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life.
.     .     .     .     .

Lucille Clifton: “Oh Dios bufonesco” y “El martes” / “Oh antic God” and “Tuesday”

ZP_Retrato de Lucille Clifton por Summer Pierre_Oh, reza que lo que queremos vale correr el riesgo...Reza que lo que estamos corriendo hacia...es lo que queremos.

ZP_Retrato de Lucille Clifton por Summer Pierre_Oh, reza que lo que queremos vale correr el riesgo…Reza que lo que estamos corriendo hacia…es lo que queremos.

Lucille Clifton (poeta/educadora estadounidense, 1936 – 2010)

Oh Dios bufonesco”


Oh Dios bufonesco


mi madre durante la treintena

inclinando atrás del porche del frente

el cojín enorme de su pecho

apoyando contra el pasamanos

llamándome a la cama.


Casi llego a la-edad-por-dos de esa mujer muerta.


Apenas puedo recordar su canción

el olor de sus manos

aunque su cabello indómito roza mis sueños, las noches.

Regrésame, oh Dios de entonces – Dios de ahora,

el canto de mi madre,

su joven voz que tararea mi nombre.

.     .     .

Lucille Clifton (poet/educator, U.S.A., 1936 – 2010)

Oh antic God”


Oh antic God

return to me

my mother in her thirties   

leaned across the front porch   

the huge pillow of her breasts   

pressing against the rail

summoning me in for bed.


I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.


I can barely recall her song

the scent of her hands

though her wild hair scratches my dreams   

at night.  Return to me, oh Lord of then   

and now, my mother’s calling,

her young voice humming my name.

.     .     .

El martes” (un poema sobre “9-11”)


Trueno, relámpago – y nuestro mundo es

otro lugar; no permanecerá ningún día;

no quedará insensible, ninguna sangre.


Conocen esta tormenta en otros lugares:

Israel, Irlanda, Palestina.

Pero Dios ha bendecido “America”

(es lo que cantamos…)


Y Dios ha bendecido “America” –

a aprender que no hay nadie exento…

Es Uno el Mundo:

todo miedo – es uno

toda vida – es uno;

aún toda muerte.

Todo Uno.

.     .     .

Tuesday” (a poem about “9-11”)

thunder and lightning and our world
is another place no day
will ever be the same no blood


they know this storm in otherwheres
israel ireland palestine
but God has blessed America
(we sing)


and God has blessed America
to learn that no one is exempt
the world is one all fear
is one all life all death

all one.

.     .     .

Traducciones del inglés:  Alexander Best

.     .     .     .     .