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

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Ida B. Wells portrait by Bruce Patrick Jones_graphite and watercolour

Ida B. Wells portrait by Bruce Patrick Jones_graphite and watercolour

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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.
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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

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


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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?

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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.

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“Let Us Suppose” was first published in the September 1935 issue of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life.
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Brazilian Women Poets (Cadernos Negros / “Black Notebooks”, 1997): new translations from the Portuguese: Rufino, da Silva, Evaristo, Ribeiro, Vieira, Alves, Fátima, Tadeu

Steadfast and Strong_collage by Brazilian artist Ananda Nahu

Steadfast and Strong_collage by Brazilian artist Ananda Nahu

Alzira Rufino (born 1949, Santos, São Paulo state)
The black woman is not stopped
by this brutish thing
by this lukewarm discrimination
your strength is a secret
show your speech through your pores
your scream will echo in the city
they weed your dignity
as poisonous weeds
they hurt you with arrows commended
they experiment on you
your négritude – Blackness –
your whirlpool of forces drowns all around it
they don’t want your presence
they cross your name with absence
come, black woman,
be, black woman,
see, black woman –
after the storm

. . .
Mulher negra não para
por essa coisa bruta
por essa discriminação morna
tua força ainda é segredo
mostra tua fala nos poros
o grito ecoará na cidade
capinam como mato venenoso
a tua dignidade
ferem-te com flechas encomendadas
te fazem alvo de experiências
tua negritude
teu redemoinho de forças afoga
não querem a tua presença
riscam teu nome com ausência
mulher negra, chega,
mulher negra, seja,
mulher negra, veja,
depois do temporal
. . .
Ana Célia da Silva (born in Salvador da Bahia)
(To my father)
Down the street
there goes Joe,
sad and tired
Joe’s the people
Joe is Joe
An urn-less fakir
A stage-less actor
A nameless acrobat
There goes Joe
No present
No future
And any past he gets
he tries to forget
At times he cries
He rarely laughs
He always thinks
he’ll leave
as a sad inheritance
for the future
the tightrope
the shack
the empty casserole
and a bread-less family
. . .

(Para meu pai)
Descendo a rua
lá vai o Zé,
triste e cansado
ele é o povo
ele é o Zé.
Faquir sem urna,
ator sem palco,
acrobata anônimo,
lá vai o Zé.
Não tem presente,
Não tem futuro,
se tem passado
tenta esquecer.
Às vezes chora,
bem pouco ri,
vive pensando
que vai deixar
de triste herança
para o futuro,
a corda bamba,
o barracão
marmita vazia
e família sem pão.
. . .
Conceição Evaristo (born 1946, Belo Horizonte)
In writing hunger
With empty-palmed hands
when the hole-stomach
expels famished desires
there is, in this demented movement
the dream-hoping
for any leftovers.
In writing cold
with the tip of my bones
caring in my body the tremor
of pain and shelterless-ness
there is, in this tense movement
the warmth-hoping
for any miserable little vest.
In writing pain,
searching for the resonance
of another in me
there is in this constant movement
the illusion-hoping
for our doubled consonance.
In writing life
fading and swimming
on departure’s test tube
there is, in this useless movement
the treacherous-hoping
for catching Time
and caressing eternity.
. . .
Ao escrever a fome
com as palmas das mão vazias
quando o buraco-estômago
expele famélicos desejos
há neste demente movimento
o sonho-esperança
de alguma migalha alimento.
Ao escrever o frio
com a ponta de meus ossos
e tendo no corpo o tremor
da dor e do desabrigo,
há neste tenso movimento
o calor-esperança
de alguma mísera veste.
Ao escrever a dor,
buscando a ressonância
de outro em mim
há neste constante movimento
a ilusão-esperaça
da dupla sonância nossa.
Ao escrever a vida
no tubo de ensaio da partida
esmaecida nadando,
há neste inútil movimento
a enganosa-esperança
de laçar o tempo
e afagar o eterno.
. . .
Esmeralda Ribeiro (born 1958, São Paulo)
There is an island
There is ivory
There is an archipelago in me
I’m the same actress rehearsing
every day
the same love case
lived by a whisker.
Inside me
solitude dressed as a Harlequin
I’m that one that although full of bruises
makes her body like cinnamon
perfumed grass
for her negro to sleep
Inside me
Illusions drawn with Indian ink
I am that woman
trying to wake up sleeping beauties
but, inside, I am a princess
in profound lethargy.
Inside me
a warrior’s strength dressed in satin.
I am that one who at night
hides as a chameleon
eye’s pearly drops
in warm passion.
Inside me
lives at last the enigma of love.
I am that one which no verb translates
before the loneliness and the pain,
that one with insane behaviours
That’s me – the eternal
Mary Joanne.
. . .
Há uma ilha
há marfim
há tristes arquipélagos em mim.
Sou a mesma atriz que ensaia
todos os dias
o mesmo caso de amor
vivido por um triz.
Dentro de mim
solidão vestida de Arlequim.
Sou aquela cheia de hematomas,
mas que faz do corpo relva
com aroma de canela
pro seu negro dormir.
Dentro de mim
ilusões traçadas à nanquim.
Sou aquela mulher
tentando despertar belas adormecidas
mas, no íntimo, sou a princesa
em profunda letargia.
Dentro de mim
força guerreira vestida de cetim.

Sou aquela que à noite
esconde como camaleão
gotas de pérolas d’olho
na cálida paixão.
Dentro de mim
enfim mora o enigma do amor.
Sou aquela que nenhum verbo traduz
diante da solidão e da dor
aquela que tem atitudes insanas
Esta sou eu, a eterna
Maria Joana.

Ananda Nahu_Queen

Ananda Nahu_Queen

Lia Vieira (born 1958, Rio de Janeiro)
In the memory blinks
images of remote times
and recent things
The air is heavy
always has been
There’s hunger in the world outside
There’s no eating.
There’s tiredness in the world here inside
There is big fear
something frightful
As if nothing might
ever sprout again.
There’s something deformed here inside
Madness that explodes
about to crash / soul made of glass
Maybe is the answer I’m waiting for
Maybe is my ego
egocentric, egotistic, which
– throbbing –
is eager for love.
. . .
Pisca a memória
imagens de tempos remotos
e também de coisas recentes.
O ar está pesado
tem estado
No mundo lá for a há fome.
Não se come.
No mundo cá dentro há cansaço.
Há um medo grande
uma coisa de susto.
Como se fosse acontecer
não brotar nunca mais.
Há algo disforme cá dentro.
Loucura que explode
prestes a estilhaçar / alma de vidro.
Talvez seja a resposta que espero…
Talvez seja apenas meu ego,
egocêntrico, egoísta, que,
latejante …
deseja amor.
. . .
Miriam Alves (born 1952, São Paulo)
The night breeds chords
the joyful star turns into a moon
a dream’s sonata rolls along the asphalt
A sleeping sky confuses itself
the sun shines over it with
a middle-of-the-night smile
dew splashes on the roofs
The sky’s face muddles
half nights, half days
a dawn rises
a playful child is born
wrapped in dawn’s early hours
Wake up, day!
There’s eagerness for hope!
. . .
A madrugada respira acordes
estrela brincalhona enluará
sonata dum sonho rola asfalto
O céu todo em sono confunde-se
o sol ilumina-o com
um sorriso madrugada
respinga orvalho nos telhados
A face do céu confunde-se
meio em noites, meio em dias
desponta uma autora
nasce uma criança brincalhona
toda envolta em madrugada.
Acorda dia!
há fome de esperança!
. . .
Sônia Fátima (born 1951, Araraquara, São Paulo state)
The night brought me it:
I don’t know if I call it
I don’t know if I contradict it
or if I just don’t care about
the Benedict
. . .
A noite trouxe-me isto:
não sei se ligo para o dito
não sei se desdigo o dito
ou simplesmente não ligo
para o Benê-dito
. . .
Teresinha Tadeu (born in São Paulo)
The dirty water grabs you
quietly, falsely, and you don’t even scream
You mix your innocence
with crab feces and mud
And you sleep precociously
holding your toy.
Gliding over the water
under the stilts.
The sun comes and goes
and doesn’t dry you out
in its foamy sheets
You’re one less to share the bread!
. . .
A água insalubre te recolhe
quieta, falsa, e tu nem gritas.
Misturas tua alvura
com fezes caranguejo e lama.
E dormes precocemente
segurando teu brinquedo.
Deslizando sob as águas
debaixo das palafitas.
O sol se vem e se vai
e não te enxuga
no lençol de espumas.
És menos um, na partilha do pão!
. . .

Other Black Brazilian poets featured in Cadernos Negros


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“The Road Before Us”: Gay Black Poets from a generation ago

Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Ice_B_February 2016

Preface to The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets (1991)
The Road Before Us could have taken a far different path. As its editor and co-publisher, what I wanted foremost was a collection that would provide one more stepping-stone on the road to gay black poetical empowerment. Too often this has been the road not taken.
Each poet in this volume is represented by one poem…..
I relish this mixture of styles, which are as wide-ranging as our concerns. The myths, metaphors, and mundaneness of our gay black community, like those of any other community, broaden and deepen everyone’s knowledge of what it is to be human.
Most of the poets in this anthology have never appeared in a book before…..
It is my dream that all these fine young writers will keep penning poetry, polishing their craft, and juicing up a literally dying art.
The title The Road Before Us is borrowed from a line in the poem “Hejira” that the late Redvers JeanMarie wrote about our friendship. He dedicated it to me. I cherish it. It is anthologized here. The choice of “gay black poets” rather than “black gay poets” was a personal one. I originally used the working subtitle Gay African-American Poets – to which some contributors strongly objected because they were not born in the United States and, moreover, have not chosen to naturalize as American citizens (as I have).
Afrocentrists in our community have chosen the term “black gay” to identify themselves. As they insist, black comes first. Interracialists in our community have chosen the term “gay black” to identify themselves. As they insist, gay comes first. Both groups’ self-descriptions are ironically erroneous. It’s not which word comes first that matters, but rather the grammatical context in which those words are used – either as an adjective or as a noun. An adjective is a modifier of a noun. The former is dependent upon the latter.
I have never labeled myself either Afrocentrist or interracialist. From reading or seeing my theatre pieces, many might characterize me as an Afrocentrist; but others might immediately characterize me as an interracialist because I have loved and lived with a white man for the past eleven years.
Although I make no excuses or apologies for the racially bold statements in my writings, I also owe no one any justification of my “till-death-do-us-part” interracialist relationship. While the black gay vs. gay black debate rages on, in much-needed constructive dialogue, we’d best ponder, as L. Lloyd Jordan did at the conclusion of his essay “Black Gay vs. Gay Black”(BLK, June 1990): “Who are gay blacks and black gays? Halves of a whole. Brothers.”
Furthermore, I consider my sexuality a preference. Most of us have an inclination to bisexuality that we don’t acknowledge or act upon. I am very proud of my gayness – which is not to be confused with homosexuality.
In the preface to his book Gay Spirit, Mark Thompson explains this distinction clearly: “Gay implies a social identity and consciousness actively chosen, while homosexual refers to a specific form of sexuality. A person may be homosexual, but that does not necessarily imply that he or she would be gay.”
I declare that a person may be gay – but not necessarily homosexual.
Colour – and it is much more than skin pigmentation – is not a preference. The same has not to this day been scientifically demonstrated regarding our gayness, which is so much more than sexual orientation. It’s hard to imagine that any writer in this anthology would ever want to change either his colour or his gayness, given a choice.
I realize that these views add fuel to the “fire and brimstone” pronouncements of those in far-right politics who argue that we lesbians and gays could change to “normal” if we wanted to.
While I agree with our lesbian and gay community’s tenet that some of us can’t change, I would stand up anytime to Jesse Helms and his ilk, and declare loudly that, whatever the case may be, I refuse to change. Far too many of us continuously let church and state dictate our fate, by submitting to their painful spiritual and political butt-fuck.
What does all this politics have to do with poetry?
As Judy Grahn said in a keynote address at OutWrite ’90: “Poetry predicts us, tells us where we are going next.”
Shouldn’t we, the poets in this anthology, dispatch to Helms our gay black poems each time he gets up in front of the Senate and spews forth yet another homophobic or racist harangue without fairness of debate and real challenge? Couldn’t fifty of us (one representing each state of siege that he wants to turn our USA into) also fax him full-size etchings of our dicks to be inserted in The Congressional Record. Then ours would not be the dicks of death – as popularly characterized – but truly the dicks of everlasting political life.
. . .
Some months ago I urged all the contributors who are HIV-positive or have AIDS to come out. I felt than, and I still feel, that there is nothing that those of us in this predicament could reveal in our bios that is more urgent and deserving of mention than our sero-positivity or diagnosis.
A number of contributors agreed. I applaud their trust and thrust. Others who have previously come out publicly chose not to do so in this instance. A few who I know to be in the last stages of HIV illness cited confidentiality and their right of privacy.
While sympathetic to the right of privacy issue, I also find it part of the overall problem. It fosters anonymity rather than visibility. And when we don’t show en masse the lives, the faces, and the hearts of AIDS – ours included – we are accepting all the connotations of shame, all the mystification of sin and repentance that those who are plainly simple-minded place on a virus.
AIDS is a Pandora’s Box.
There is real jeopardy in revealing sero-positivity, publicly or privately. In gay black poetry the issue has been primarily dealt with from a third-person narrative rather than a first-person focus.
Meanwhile, in highly disproportionate numbers compared to our percentage in the American population, and adding to the lowering of our expected paltry sixty-year-or-so lifespan as black men, there are many gay disappearing acts among us, too often played solo, or for a small – and not so captive – audience. As the late Joseph Beam, editor of In The Life, anticipated and stated: “These days the nights are cold-blooded and the silence echoes with complicity.”
Back in April 1988 Joe [Joseph Beam] stayed overnight at my apartment, as he always did when he visited New York City. I detected the [AIDS] syndrome beneath the moodiness, innuendoes, and fungus of the fingers. I did not disclose to him my own sero-positivity, although – thinking of it now – I believe that he detected more than just a holocaust obsession in the poems I shared with him.
What kind of “deadly guessing game” were Joe and I – two of the better-known gay black writers – supposedly leaders – and most importantly, friends – playing with each other? What kind of label do I attach to my name, after leaving unreturned messages on his answering maching, for not marching down to Philadelphia and knocking on / down his door?
Yes, I am sick of the destructive threats that HIV constantly poses to my life-partner, my lovers, my friends, my communities, and me. On my desk, pictures of Redvers [JeanMarie], David [Frechette], and Ortez [Alderson] – to whose memory this anthology is dedicated – are framed like icons.
Each time I write I hear their voices, backed by a chorus of others I loved (“One AIDS death every eight minutes; it ain’t enough to write, you gotta demonstrate!”) pound in my head, like those sanctifying drums, especially tambou assôto, I used to hear in my childhood in Haiti in the hours of darkness.
. . .
May the rhythm of our gay black hearts be as uplifting in our daily lives as it is in our essays, anthologies, films, rallies, one-night-stands – and poems.
May the rhetoric never rage like the grandstand of many pedantics in the gay white community, which we so often hasten to castigate for claiming to speak on behalf of our “rainbow” community.
And most of all, may we come to believe in each other – heroes, first, to ourselves – unafraid to “strike a pose” and take a stand.
Ours is a country where omens abound out of control. Ours is a country tempted by fascism. Ours is a country in a demythologized age, perhaps void of salvation. Yet I don’t believe in the destruction of America, but in a reconstitution that recognizes our fully participating gay black voices.
Silence = Death.
Writing = Life.
Publishing = Survival.
With sixty T-cells left, I live on borrowed time. However, self-pity and sympathy are not part of my survival kit – another factor why making this book a reality became a first priority.
But when I do die, killed like hundreds of thousands in this AIDS war, may it transpire that every Memorial Day – until the circus of media, clown masks of stigma, and jeers of hysteria stop in our country; and certainly until a cure is found, or at least until a do-or-die governmental, scientific, and societal commitment to discover one finally gets underway – my life-partner, mother, lovers, friends, fellow poets, somebody, anybody…burn the Stars and Stripes then toss the ashes over my grave.
And please don’t sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” – but, furiously, read back every poem in the following pages.
Assotto Saint, nom de guerre
Summer 1991, New York City

Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Ice_A_February 2016

Poems from The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets, edited by Assotto Saint, published 1991
. . .
Love Song
you move me to poetry
to song
you’re often in my thoughts
are my thoughts
moving me to poetry
to song
then to poetry
even your silence
tells me things
your heart can’t
and when you are near
you can no more
maintain than i
in a dream
i loved you long
and deep
you let go
i let go
without a touch
i awoke wet
you move me to poetry
to song
you’re in my fantasies
are my fantasies
you are moving me to poetry
to song
then to poetry

. . .
Eric Stephen Booth
An Exercise in Misogyny
So I lied and told her that I loved her
Starved, she took me seriously
My heart couldn’t make a U-turn
Out of pity I married her
I hit her when I was wrong, then gave her
Roses with thorns to reconfirm our vows
Out of fear of being exposed
Growing up just like dad
Through journeys of weekend violence
It dawned on me after our fourth child
That my heart wasn’t steering
And my brain was on automatic drive
She damned me to hell
My mother couldn’t believe her ears
After a lifetime of masculine strife
I came face to face with my fears
. . .’

Rory Buchanan
I was taught
men marry women
have two point five kids
ranch homes in suburbs
with impossibly green lawns
surrounded by
pristine white picket fences
shop at pathmark and k-mart
buy tools from sears
go to church every sunday
pray for salvation
find mistresses when bored
I was told
it was wrong to
love another man
touch the way I do
mingle spirits and fluids
feel okay about who I am
listen to my heart
expose the real me
admit to being gay
I was warned
that if I followed my
unconventional desires
slept with a man
satisfied wants
fulfilled needs
I would burn in hell
fry forever
I tell them
“Start the barbecue”.
. . .
John E. Bush
Remember Me
Remember me for the love I gave
and tried to give
for the companionship we shared
held dear
– remember me.
Although I would have liked
our time together to have been longer
so much I wanted to do
so much you expected of me
it was not to be
– still remember me.
Think about those good times
when we laughed and dined
at the table of fellowship
good times now gone
yet preserved forever in your memory
– remember me.
Know that my love for you
was not one that was duty-bound
but it emerged sincerely
from some unknown place
a love once mine
now left to you to hold
and pass on to others
when it is your turn to leave
– so remember me.
Not in a sorrow of despair
but triumphantly
remember me.
. . .
Rickey Butler
After the Fuck
when the sheets are up
the curtains drawn
and your eyes get all fuzzy
because of the sun,
don’t disappear
. . .
Don Charles
Pony Boy
White man
Wealthy man
Bed is cold
Body old
Black man
Healthy man
Firm and young
Heavy hung
Silver man
Pays to score
Horny guy
Out to buy
Mocha man
Plays the whore
Life is hell
Got to sell
Business man
Hotel suite
So discreet
Hustler man
Hired lover
Money’s right
Spends the night
Respected man
Life of leisure
Owns the town
Sneaks around
Survivor man
Selling pleasure
Rich man’s toy
Pony boy
. . .
J. Coleman
When I write to Godmother
I’m careful with
Slang takes a holiday
careful not to twist
my tongue
She must not hear the
loose metaphor nights
nor smell the necks I’ve licked –
I don’t smack my lips
She must not see
the boys I’ve kissed
nor hear the whispers –
She must not examine my prose
for nuance
nor read between
too many lines –
But if asked
I won’t deny perdition –
What price
a letter!
I feel pen pricks
in my soul.
With a clean sheet of paper in hand
and newly brushed teeth
I ask
“How are you?”
. . .
Carl Cook
Love Letter #25
September has
the clearest air
the coolest nights
the brightest moons lie still
like autumn leaves
I am renewed
by thoughts of you
my love
I may need to wear a raincoat
galoshes made of manufactured latex
an umbrella wide enough
to keep us dry
in a sudden storm
But I am
of the faith
that storms will pass
the rains will dry
and love as cool and clear
as September air
will still be ours
. . .

Rodney G. Dildy
The heroes have died
Died twisting to blind
leadened boogies
Died broken blue midst indigo
moods, sworded bone
unsheathed ivory
blood-burned biceps
Died cold-dredged
thru mute catfish alleys
My heroes
they have all died
over or underqualified
neglected or exposed
from genius and gross
Died dirty-nailed
Died gem-cysted
Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Snow_A_February 2016
Sean Drakes
Love Lesson #1
(To Richard Cousar, whose death to AIDS encourages safer-sex behaviour, drives knowledge-sharing, stimulates my artistic responses to the epidemic, and has taught me what love feels like.)
A summer Sunday on Christopher Street
brought us together:
Two black gay men
yearning for love.
Quicker than instantly,
we shared secrets, passion,
weekends and underwear.
Suddenly, my six months exhausted,
I had to package
then file
this ideal come true.
I was twenty-one,
he, forty-three,
and rekindling
a thirteen-year romance
as I coped with foreign feelings.
The bright winter moon
guided me –
a messenger of good will
and faith
in a plastic pouch –
to and from his hospital
Day by day,
and offerings failed
to salvage my friend,
till after I hung up the phone,
a restless night
. . .
Roy Gonsalves
Black Summer
I know what it’s like to pick peppermint
from my garden
to make tea to calm my shattered nerves
wishing for magic to render sanity.
I’ve torn memories in my photos
ripped decorations by ex-lovers
snipped petunias for fun
burned hate letters in the fire of the grill.
I know what it’s like to recite
eighteen psalms in one night
to pray not to become one of Satan’s disciples
and cast a deadly spell.
I’ve heard whispers from my lover’s lips
telling me he’s sleeping with my so-called friend
I’ve lived harlequin romances
and watched them turn into bloody nightmares
where I became the murderer.
I know what it’s like to plot murder
to shoot a friend in the face
and watch his smile fall blank
to beat bloody my belovéd
with a hammer
and leave him in the cellar.
I know what it’s like to choke on hatred
despise the image in the mirror
and every living thing that moves.
I know the terror of being alone
for fear I might kill myself.
I’ve seen impatiens in my garden
shrivel up and die before my eyes.
I know what it’s like to be dead.
I’ve been to a funeral
in my own home
heard the ancestors scream:
“It’s not your time…”
I’ve watched summer turn black.
I know what it’s like to have your heart
turn into hot ice
waiting to burn.
. . .
L.D. Hartfield-Coe
You have been wasting a life /
with struggle and strife /
still you wonder /
late at night /
will the dawn ever come /
the rain stop /
so you can /
reach out for the light /
and make amends /
raining again /
will the sun ever shine /
a rainbow will be his sign /

. . .
F. Spencer Irvin
Black Culture in the Park
There’s a lot of culture in the park.
From the handsomest B-boys
To the sassiest Divas;
The Black Bourgeosie
To Homeless America.
There’s a lot of culture in the park.
A large wooded area:
A place with fountains and ponds,
Hills and rocks, grass and trees
Where “boys” walk, look, searing,
And men grope, seek, searching
For orgasms.
Do you practise “safe sex”?
Neither did they.
There’s a lot of culture in the park.
A youngman of twenty-eight or so:
A beautiful man, but a man of the streets –
Survivor – he asked me to pay him
Three bucks, and he’d take care of me.
There’s a lot of Black culture in the park.
. . .

G. Winston James
To Be Brave
Can you hear my footsteps as I approach the waiting grave?
Can you see my despair as I descend into death’s cave?
Do you recall the day when I imbibed that savage blood?
Do you know of shattered dreams, crushing of frozen rosebud?
How can I look ’round at my prints buried in the deep snow?
How can I bear that as it melts all trace of me will go?
Can you hear my footsteps as I approach the waiting grave?
If so, will you be there with me to help me to be brave?
. . .
Redvers JeanMarie
(for Yves Lubin)*
There were no colours
A night without azure
And a cloud-covered moon misted
Our skins
Such yearning could not be pinned
A rustle of trees gave no answers
Nor the ambient air
A sense of plenitude
The road before us with no symbols
A restrictive sense of nothingness
Wrapped us firm
I’ve a natural strength
And can follow with you
I heard myself
Questions long forgotten
What we’ve become
Has no name
. . .
* Yves Lubin = Assotto Saint
. . .
Sidney Curtis Johnson
Sunday, November 6, 1987
He came
the day
its reason.


I stared
a child
at the circus
dim hope
his call.

. . .
Anthony B. Knight-Dewey
Loneliness is an abandoned house.
It creaks with stillness and rests
on the blackness of its foundation.
It sits alone in the backyard of our minds,
yet stands out and demands recognition.
It hides elusively behind the rubbish of life,
yet shines a light most radian from its highest loft.
It is weather-beaten from years of torment and anguish,
but still retains its shape and strength.
Loneliness gives no clues or suggestions.
Secrets are hidden and locked away in the attic of darkness.
Groans and cries race through the pitted corridor
down the infested stairwell
to the moldy basement.
Loneliness gathers dust in the dungeon of time.
The windows of hope and aspiration are boarded up
with the greyness of despair.
Yet, only in loneliness does one experience
all those dimensions that are one,
those distant faraway lands of beingness –
the spirit supreme,
the temple eternal.
. . .
Steve Langley
My name Butch
I work at the hardware store
I got this l’il gal I be messin wif
Fine as shit
She wanna move in wif me
But I don’t need no bitch up under me
Wantin this and that
I be hangin out at this punk club
Somethin to do
I may get a drink, get high
But I don’t talk to nobody
If I do hook wif somebody
I go to they place
I may let em suck my dick
I may fuck em
But I don’t be kissin em
And they bet not try to kiss me
I’ll beat the shit out of em
I don’t give em my name or my number
Not my real one
Once I git off
I’m gone
. . .
Harvey J. Lucas
Too Late to Say I Love You
(for David)
Often he was parental,
But the rebellious pride masked
His contentment with concern.
Often he was great,
Generic in dress – forceful passion –
And a dynamic friend.
Often he was risqué,
Public kisses – arrogant smirks –
Not afraid to say anything.
Now, I often remember him:
Consumed by that inscrutable entity
Of eternal silence.
. . .
Jerome Mack
i wish i could
rid myself
of this skin
that covers me
subdue carnality
pick fights
with truth
pull husk
over conscience
i would…
there’s just no
hiding place

Scotch Bonnet Peppers on Snow_February 2016
Scott Mackey
I Couldn’t Speak His Language
(for Romuald Du Clos de Saint André)
when i first me him
he was only a boy,
but not really.
he allowed me to believe
i was in control – the man,
old, wise and mature.
reality obscured the dream
i couldn’t speak his language.
he knew
but needed to hear
what i couldn’t say.
a part of me burns
as i become
desperately aware of my mortality.
i didn’t realize
how important
words could be.
. . .
Vernon Maulsby
Gender Bender
(To Richard)
Is it safe for me
to let my hair down
and speak freely with you?
Will this woman’s heart
speaking through a deep throat
make you dismiss me
as just another gender bender,
incomplete in your eyes?
Can I share the men I’ve loved,
the women I’ve liked, the fears
of death that sired my children?
Would you understand,
or should I just sit here,
and make lewd jokes, as we
talk of sports I never watch?
. . .
Rodney McCoy, Jr.
I used to dream
of a ghost in
Dreaming of
tightening around
my finger
like a blessing
or was it a noose
These dreams
were my mother’s smile
handed down
to my sister
and me
thinking it was
our birthright
our duty
our gift to her
But the day I kissed
your mustached lips
to me
Those dreams
and my mother’s smile
popped loud
absent forever
. . .
Jim Murrell
Infinite carapace of day ingathers hard, riding noon fire
On molten hillocks beyond the coral.
Sun-drovered come
Sarabands of iodine, nomad across the sea grape.
Pupils burn to pinpoint smoke: rolling glitter of
Water’s desert.
Our boat burns in rise and slap
And indigo swells from the east:
My father, the friends of his youth, myself.
And I am thirteen, struggling to man manliness.
Head, heart, stomach…vortex.
Resolve eddies on fuming wash of clubbed fish blood.
Betrayal of inner ear for which gravity is not enough.
And the rum talk: pompous, monotonous.
Men and ritual braiding the deep world into submission –
Pattern of a weaving,
A harnessing I cannot learn.
. . .
L. Phillip Richardson
The Book of Lists
so fickle ink on first acquaintance
i penciled them in
the urban gods
the fleeting sparkles
the would-be stars
were the heavens kinder those days
by name i now browse the list
the ABCs of ruthless order
unordered by homeless strays
the innumerable nicknames
attached to numbers
on unattached slips of paper
at home in my book
like family
i remember the first call
in my ear the first word
high on “hi”
the voice vibrating man vibes
then the jittery jive
of jigsaw sympathies
the flirts
the dirts
the jerks
the hurts
still hurting
suddenly i see
the old book older
its frayed memories losing the fray
as some fall free
come loose without restraint
no spine
no rubber binds them
holds them close
i chill
with each name i can’t erase
how graceless and cheap faint recall
leaving dead men in leaded glory
in the book of lists
i keep
. . .
Bryan Scott
Roller Coaster
You’ve called but haven’t spoken.
You’ve expressed but haven’t clearly stated.
You’ve suggested but haven’t taken action.
You’ve reached out but haven’t connected.
You’ve touched but haven’t felt.
You’ve been here yet you seemed elsewhere.
You’ve mentioned “love” but implied “like”.
Before I get on this emotional rollercoaster
I’d better listen to the silence…
. . .
Jamez L. Smith
Dreaded Visitation
(for my Grandmother)
The knock on the door
on the lazy Saturday afternoon
like the toll of Donne’s bell.
Someone runs
and turns the television off.
The air becomes as still
as a dead fish.
Slowly, carefully,
Grandmama tips toward the window.
Another knock breaks
the silence,
and Grandmama freezes
like a doe suddenly aware
of the hunters stalking her.
Grandmama reaches the window
and, recognizing the form outside,
breathes a sigh of relief.
She opens the door.
“What took you so long?”
the visitor asks.
Grandmama replies:
“We thought you was a Jehovah’s Witness.”
. . .
Marvin K. White
Last Rights
When I learned of Gregory’s death
I cried silently
But at the funeral
Giiiiirl I’m telling you
I rocked Miss Church
Hell I fell to my knees twice
before I reached my seat
Three people had to carry me
To my pew
I swayed and swooned
Blew my nose
On any and every available sleeve
The snot was flying everywhere
Then when I finally saw his body
My body jerked itself
Right inside that casket
And when I placed my lips on his
Honey the place was shaking
I returned to my seat
But not before passing by his mother
Who I’m sure at this point
Was through with me
I threw myself on her knees
Shouting “Help me
Help me Jesus”
When someone in the choir
Sang out “Work it girl
Wooooork it”
All hell broke loose
I was carried out
Kicking and screaming
Ushered into the waiting limo
Which sped me to his family’s house
Where I feasted
On fried chicken
Hot water corn bread
Macaroni and cheese
Johnny Walker Black
Finally in my rightful place
. . .

Andre De Shields
His (Blues) Story
Verse I
Before there was Desdemona,
Iago would warm Othello’s bed.
Before there was Desdemona,
Iago would warm Othello’s bed.
He would sharpen his sword,
Fill his lamp with oil,
And rub his woolly head.
Verse II
Before Caesar knew Cleopatra,
He would hold Mark Antony to his chest.
Before Caesar knew Cleopatra,
He would hold Mark Antony to his chest.
And that’s why the Queen of the Nile
Invited a serpent to make a home in her breast.
Stop Time
Now Achilles destroyed the Trojans
Because of a boy in his tent.
And if it hadn’t been for Jimmy Baldwin,
Young Giovanni would’ve had no rent.
When Alexander marched out of Egypt,
He was fierce; he was festive; he was grand.
And when Jesus chose his disciples,
He made everyone a man.
Verse III
when you study your history,
You’d better learn it like you should.
‘Cause after God created the Heavens and the Earth,
And separated the light from the darkness,
And divided the water from the waters,
And gathered the dry land from the seas,
And produced vegetation according to its kind,
And hung the moon, and sun, and stars in the sky,
And threw birds in the air and fish in the ocean,
And placed wild creatures in the forest,
God said:
“I’m lonely. I think I’ll make Me a man in My image.”
And, so, He did.
Then, God looked around at all He had done and shouted:
“This is good.”

. . .

Assotto Saint (born Yves François Lubin) was a Haitian-American poet, performance artist, musician and editor. He increased the visibility of black queer authors and themes during the 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, Saint was both one of the first black activists to disclose his HIV-positive status and one of the first poets to respond to the AIDS crisis in his work.

Assotto Saint photographed by Robert Giard in 1987

Assotto Saint photographed by Robert Giard in 1987

. . . . .

Countee Cullen: poems from “The Black Christ” (1929) and “Color” (1925)

Illustration from 1929 by Charles Cullen for the epic poem The Black Christ written by Countee Cullen 1903 to 1946

Poems from The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) by Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
. . .
Little Sonnet to Little Friends
Let me not the proud of heart condemn
Me that I mould my ways to hers,
Groping for healing in a hem
No wind of passion ever stirs;
Nor let them sweetly pity me
When I am out of sound and sight;
They waste their time and energy;
No mares encumber me at night.
Always a trifle fond and strange,
And some have said a bit bizarre,
Say, “Here’s the sun,” I would not change
It for my dead and burnt-out star.
Shine as it will, I have no doubt
Some day the sun, too, may go out.
. . .
I think an impulse stronger than my mind
May some day grasp a knife, unloose a vial,
Or with a little leaden ball unbind
The cords that tie me to the rank and file.
My hands grow quarrelsome with bitterness,
And darkly bent upon the final fray;
Night with its stars upon a grave seems less
Indecent than the too complacent day.
God knows I would be kind, let live, speak fair,
Requite an honest debt with more than just,
And love for Christ’s dear sake these shapes that wear
A pride that had its genesis in dust,–
The meek are promised much in a book I know
But one grows weary turning cheek to blow.

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the poem Minutely Hurt_1929

Minutely Hurt
Since I was minutely hurt,
Giant griefs and woes
Only find me staunchly girt
Against all other blows.
Once an atom cracks the heart
All is done and said;
Poison, steel, and fiery dart
May then be buffeted.
. . .

Pity me, I said;
But you cried, Pity you;
And suddenly I saw
Higher than my own grief grew.
I saw a tree of woe so tall,
So deeply boughed with grief,
That matched with it my bitter plant
Was dwarfed into a leaf.
. . .
Song in Spite of Myself
Never love with all your heart,
It only ends in aching;
And bit by bit to the smallest part
That organ will be breaking.
Never love with all your mind,
It only ends in fretting;
In musing on sweet joys behind,
Too poignant for forgetting.
Never love with all your soul,
For such there is no ending,
Though a mind that frets may find control,
And a shattered heart find mending.
Give but a grain of the heart’s rich seed,
Confine some under cover,
And when love goes, bid him God-speed.
And find another lover.
. . .
One Day I Told My Love
One day I told my love my heart,
Disclosed it out and in;
I let her read the ill-writ chart
Small with virtue, big with sin.
I took it from the hidden socket
Where it was wont to grieve;
“I’ll turn it,” I said, “into a locket,
Or a bright band for your sleeve.”
I let her hold the naked thing
No one had seen before;
And had she willed, her hand might wring
It dry and drop it to the floor.
It was a gentle thing she did,
The wisest and the best;
“The proper place for a heart,” she said
“Is back in the sheltering breast.”
. . .
Black Majesty
(After reading John W. Vandercook’s chronicle of sable glory)
These men were kings, albeit they were black,
Christophe and Dessalines and L’Ouverture;
Their majesty has made me turn my back
Upon a plaint I once shaped to endure.
These men were black, I say, but they were crowned
And purple-clad, however brief their time.
Stifle your agony; let grief be drowned;
We know joy had a day once and a clime.
Dark gutter-snipe, black sprawler-in-the-mud,
A thing men did a man may do again.
What answer filters through your sluggish blood
To these dark ghosts who knew so bright a reign?
“Lo, I am dark, but comely,” Sheba sings.
“And we were black,” three shades reply, “but kings.”

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the 1929 poem Song of Praise by Countee Cullen
Song of Praise
Who lies with his milk-white maiden,
Bound in the length of her pale gold hair,
Cooled by her lips with the cold kiss laden,
He lies, but he loves not there.
Who lies with his nut-brown maiden,
Bruised to the bone by her sin-black hair,
Warmed with the wine that her full lips trade in,
He lies, and his love lies there.

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the epic poem "The Black Christ" by Countee Cullen

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the epic poem “The Black Christ” by Countee Cullen

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the 1929 epic poem The Black Christ by Countee CullenCharles Cullen illustration for The Black Christ_1929.     .     .

Four poems from Countee Cullen’s Color (1925)

“I’ll tell him, when he comes,” she said,
“Body and baggage, to go,
Though the night be darker than my hair,
And the ground be hard with snow.”
But when he came with his gay black head
Thrown back, and his lips apart,
She flipped a light hair from his coat,
And sobbed against his heart.
. . .
She gave her body for my meat,
Her soul to be my wine,
And prayed that I be made complete
In sunlight and starshine.
With such abandoned grace she gave
Of all that passion taught her,
She never knew her tidal wave
Cast bread on stagnant water.
. . .
Bread and Wine
From death of star to new star’s birth,
This ache of limb, this throb of head,
This sweaty shop, this smell of earth,
For this we pray, “Give daily bread.”
Then tenuous with dreams the night,
The feel of soft brown hands in mine,
Strength from your lips for one more fight:
Bread’s not so dry when dipped in wine.
. . .
I fast and pray and go to church,
And put my penny in,
But God’s not fooled by such slight tricks,
And I’m not saved from sin.
I cannot hide from Him the gods
That revel in my heart,
Nor can I find an easy word
To tell them to depart:
God’s alabaster turrets gleam
Too high for me to win,
Unless He turns His face and lets
Me bring my own gods in.

. . . . .

Black History Month: Thomas Washington Talley’s “Negro Folk Rhymes –– Wise and Otherwise” (1922)

Vintage Valentine 1

Selections from: Thomas Washington Talley’s “Negro Folk Rhymes –– Wise and Otherwise” (1922)
. . .

Love is just a Thing of Fancy
Love is jes a thing o’ fancy,
Beauty’s jes a blossom;
If you wants to git yo’ finger bit,
Stick it at a ‘possum.
Beauty, it’s jes skin deep;
Ugly, it’s to de bone.
Beauty, it’ll jes fade ‘way;
But Ugly’ll hold ‘er own.
. . .
Joe and Malinda Jane
Ole Joe jes swore upon ‘is life
He’d make Merlindy Jane ‘is wife.
W’en she hear ‘im up ‘is love an’ tell,
She jumped in a bar’l o’ mussel shell.
She scrape ‘er back till de skin come off.
Nex’ day she die wid de Whoopin’ Cough.
. . .
I love Somebody
I loves somebody, yes I do;
An’ I wants somebody to love me too.
Wid my chyart an’ oxes stan’in ‘roun’,
Her pretty liddle foot needn’ tetch de groun’.
I loves somebody, yes I do,
Dat randsome, handsome, Stickamastew.
Wid her reddingoat an’ waterfall,
She’s de pretty liddle gal dat beats ’em all.
. . .
Likes and Dislikes
I sho’ loves Miss Donie! Oh yes, I do!
She’s neat in de waist,
Lak a needle in de case;
An’ she suits my taste.
I’se gwineter run wid Mollie Roalin’! Oh yes, I will!
She’s pretty an’ nice
Lak a bottle full o’ spice,
But she’s done drap me twice.
I don’t lak Miss Jane! Oh no, I don’t.
She’s fat an’ stout,
Got her mouf sticked out,
An’ she laks to pout.
. . .
Sugar Loaf Tea
Bring through yo’ Sugar-lo’ tea, bring through yo’ Canday,
All I want is to wheel, an’ tu’n, an’ bow to my Love so handy.
You tu’n here on Sugar-lo’ tea, I’ll turn there on Candy.
All I want is to wheel, an tu’n, an’ bow to my Love so handy.
Some gits drunk on Sugar-lo’ tea, some gits drunk on Candy,
But all I wants is to wheel, an’ tu’n, an’ bow to my Love so handy.
. . .
Kissing Song
A sleish o’ bread an’ butter fried,
Is good enough fer yo’ sweet Bride.
Now choose yo’ Lover, w’ile we sing,
An’ call ‘er nex’ onto de ring.
“Oh, my Love, how I loves you!
Nothin’ ‘s in dis worl’ above you.
Dis right han’, fersake it never.
Dis heart, you mus’ keep forever.
One sweet kiss I now takes from you;
Caze I’se gwine away to leave you.”

. . .

Kneel on this Carpet
Jes choose yo’ Eas’; jes choose yo’ Wes’.
Now choose de one you loves de bes’.
If she hain’t here to take ‘er part
Choose some one else wid all yo’ heart.
Down on dis chyarpet you mus’ kneel,
Shore as de grass grows in de fiel’.
Salute yo’ Bride, an’ kiss her sweet,
An’ den rise up upon yo’ feet.
. . .
Sweet Pinks and Roses
Sweet pinks an’ roses, strawbeers on de vines,
Call in de one you loves, an’ kiss ‘er if you minds.
Here sets a pretty gal,
Here sets a pretty boy;
Cheeks painted rosy, an’ deir eyes battin’ black.
You kiss dat pretty gal, an’ I’ll stan’ back.
. . .
You love your Girl
You loves yo’ gal?
Well, I loves mine.
Yo’ gal hain’t common?
Well, my gal’s fine.
I loves my gal,
She hain’t no goose –
Blacker ‘an blackberries,
Sweeter ‘an juice.
. . .
Down in the Lonesome Garden
Hain’t no use to weep, hain’t no use to moan;
Down in a lonesome gyardin.
You cain’t git no meat widout pickin’ up a bone,
Down in a lonesome gyardin.
Look at dat gal! How she puts on airs,
Down in de lonesome gyardin!
But whar did she git dem closes she w’ars,
Down in de lonesome gyardin?
It hain’t gwineter rain, an’ it hain’t gwineter snow;
Down in my lonesome gyardin.
You hain’t gwineter eat in my kitchen doo’,
Nor down in my lonesome gyardin.
. . .
A Wind-Bag
A Nigger come a-struttin’ up to me las’ night;
In his han’ wus a walkin’ cane,
He tipped his hat an’ give a low bow;
“Howdy-doo! Miss Lize Jane!”
But I didn’t ax him how he done,
Which make a hint good pinned,
Dat I’d druther have a paper bag,
When it’s sumpin’ to be filled up wid wind.
. . .
Why look at Me?
What’s you lookin’ at me for?
I didn’ come here to stay.
I wants dis bug put in yo’ years,
An’ den I’se gwine away.
I’se got milk up in my bucket,
I’se got butter up in my bowl;
But I hain’t got no Sweetheart
Fer to save my soul.
. . .
A Short Letter
She writ me a letter
As long as my eye.
An’ she say in dat letter:
“My Honey –– Good-by!
. . .
A Request to Sell
Gwineter ax my daddy to sell ole Rose,
So’s I can git me some new clo’s.
Gwineter ax my daddy to sell ole Nat,
So’s I can git a bran’ new hat.
Gwineter ax my daddy to sell ole Bruise,
Den I can git some Brogran shoes.
Now, I’se gwineter fix myse’f “jes so”,
An’ take myse’f down to Big Shiloh.
I’se gwine right down to Big Shiloh
To take dat t’other Nigger’s beau.

. . .
Coffee grows on White Folks’ Trees
Coffee grows on w’ite folks’ trees,
But de Nigger can git dat w’en he please.
De w’ite folks loves deir milk an’ brandy,
But dat black gal’s sweeter dan ‘lasses candy.
Coffee grows on w’ite folks’ trees,
An’ dere’s a river dat runs wid milk an’ brandy.
De rocks is broke an’ filled wid gold,
So dat yaller gal loves dat high-hat dandy.
. . .
Kept Busy
Jes as soon as de sun go down,
My True-love’s on my min’.
An’ jes as soon as de daylight breaks
De white folks is got me a gwine.
She’s de sweetes’ thing in town;
An’ when I sees dat Nig,
She make my heart go “pitty-pat”,
An’ my head go “whirly-gig.”
. . .
Pretty little Pink
My pretty liddle Pink,
I once did think,
Dat we-uns sho’ would marry;
But I’se done give up,
Hain’t got no hope,
I hain’t got no time to tarry.
I’ll drink coffee dat flows,
From oaks dat grows,
‘Long de river dat flows wid brandy.
. . .
A bitter Lovers’ Quarrel – side One
You nasty dog! You dirty hog!
You thinks somebody loves you.
I tells you dis to let you know
I thinks myse’f above you.
. . .
Do I Love You?
Does I love you wid all my heart?
––I loves you wid my liver;
An’ if I had you in my mouf,
I’d spit you in de river.
. . .
She hugged Me and kissed Me
I see’d her in de Springtime,
I see’d her in de Fall,
I see’d her in de Cotton patch,
A cameing from de Ball.
She hug me, an’ she kiss me,
She wrung my han’ an’ cried.
She said I wus de sweetes’ thing
Dat ever lived or died.
She hug me an’ she kiss me.
Oh Heaben! De touch o’ her han’!
She said I wus de puttiest thing
In de shape o’ mortal man.
I told her dat I love her,
Dat my love wus bed-cord strong;
Den I axed her w’en she’d have me,
An’ she jues say “Go long!”
. . .
You have made Me weep
You’se made me weep,
you’se made me mourn,
you’se made me tears an’ sorrow.
So far’ you well, my pretty liddle gal,
I’se gwine away to-morrow.
. . .
Me and my Lover
Me an’ my Lover, we fall out.
How d’you reckon de fuss begun?
She laked licker, an’ I laked fun,
An’ dat wus de way de fuss begun.
Me an’ my Lover, we fall out.
W’at d’you reckon de fuss wus ’bout?
She loved bitters, an’ I loved kraut,
An’ dat wus w’at de fuss wus ’bout.
Me an’ my Lover git clean ‘part.
How d’you reckon dat big fuss start?
She’s got a gizzard, an’ I’se got a heart,
An’ dat’s de way dat big fuss start.
. . .
I wish I was an Apple
I wish I wus an apple,
An’ my Sallie wus anudder.
What a pretty match we’d be,
Hangin’ on a tree togedder!
If I wus an apple,
An’ my Sallie wus anudder;
We’d grow up high, close to de sky,
Whar de Niggers couldn’ git ‘er.
We’d grow up close to de sun
An’ smile up dar above;
Den we’d fall down ‘way in de groun’
To sleep an’ dream ’bout love.
W’en we git through a dreamin’,
We’d bofe in Heaben wake.
No Nigger shouldn’t git my gal
W’en ‘is time come to bake.
. . .
Invited to take the Escort’s Arm
Miss, does you lak strawberries?
Den hang on de vine.
Miss, does you lak chicken?
Den have a wing dis time.
. . .
Sparking or Courting
I’se heaps older dan three.
I’se heaps thicker dan barks;
An’ de older I gits,
De mo’ harder I sparks.
I sparks fast an’ hard,
For I’se feared I mought fail.
Dough I’se gittin’ ole,
I don’t co’t lak no snail.
. . .
A clandestine Letter
Kind Miss,
If I sent you a letter,
By de crickets,
Through de thickets,
How’d you answer better?
Kind Suh,
I’d sen’ you a letter,
By de mole,
Not to be tol’;
Fer dat’s mo’ secretter.
. . .
Antebellum Marriage Proposal
(A proposal of marriage with the answer deferred)
De ocean, it’s wide; de sea, it’s deep.
Yes, in yo’ arms I begs to sleep,
Not fer one time, not fer three;
But long as we-uns can agree.
Please gimme time, Suh, to “reponder”;
Please gimme time to “gargalize”;
Den ‘haps I’ll tu’n to “cattlegog”,
An’ answer up ‘greeable fer a s’prise.
. . .
(A proposal of marriage with its acceptance)
Kind Miss,
I’se on de stage o’ action,
Pleadin’ hard fer satisfaction,
Pleadin’ ‘fore de time-thief late;
Darfore, Ma’m, now, “cravenate”.*
If I brung to you a gyarment;
To be cut widout scissors,
An’ to be sewed widout thread;
How (I ax you) would you make it,
Widout de needle sewin’
An’ widout de cloth spread?
Kind Suh,
I’d make dat gyarment
Wid love from my heart,
Wid tears on yo’ head;
We never would part.
. . .
Presenting a Hat to Phoebe
Sister Phoebe,
Happy wus we,
W’en we sot under dat Juniper tree.
Take dis hat it’ll keep yo’ head warm.
Take dis kiss, it’ll do you no harm.
Sister Phoebe,
De hours, dey’re few;
But dis hat’ll say I’se thinkin’ ’bout you.
Sugar, it’s sugar; an’ salt, it’s salt;
If you don’t love me, it’s sho’ yo’ own fault.
. . .
W’at is dat a wukin
At yo’ han’bill on de wall,
So’s yo’ sperit, it cain’t res’,
An’ a gemmun’s heat, it call?
Is you lookin’ fer sweeter berries
Growin’ on a higher bush?
An’ does my combersation suit?
If not, w’at does you wush?
. . .
When I go to marry
W’en I goes to marry,
I wants a gal wid money.
I wants a pretty black-eyed gal
To kiss an’ call me “Honey”.
Well, w’en I goes to marry,
I don’t wanter git no riches.
I wants a man ’bout four foot high,
So’s I can w’ar de britches.
. . .
Good-by, Wife!
I had a liddle wife,
An’ I didn’ want to kill ‘er;
So I tuck ‘er by de heels,
An’ I throwed ‘er in de river.
“Good-by, Wife! Good-by, Honey!
Hadn’t been fer you,
I’d a had a liddle money.”
My liddle fussy wife
Up an’ say she mus’ have scissors;
An’ druther dan to fight,
I’d a throwed ‘er in three rivers.
But she crossed dem fingers, w’en she go down,
An’ a liddle bit later
She walk out on de groun’.
. . .
My Baby
I’se de daddy of dis liddle black baby.
He’s his mammy’s onliest sweetes liddle Coon.
Got de look on de forehead lak his daddy,
Pretty eyes jes as big as de moon.
I’se de daddy of dis liddle black baby.
Yes, his mammy keep de “Sugar” rollin’ over.
She feed him wid a tin cup an’ a spoon;
An’ he kick lak a pony eatin’ clover.
. . .
My Folks and your Folks
If you an’ yo’ folks
Likes me an’ my folks
Lak me an’ my folks
Likes you an’ yo’ folks;
You’s never seed folks
Since folks ‘as been folks
Like you an’ yo’ folks
Lake me an’ my folks.
. . .
Fed from the Tree of Knowledge
I nebber starts to break my colt,
Till he’s ole enough to trabble.
I nebber digs my taters up
W’en dey’s only right to grabble.
So w’en you sees me risin’ up
To structify in meetin’,
You can know I’se climbed de Knowledge Tree
An’ done some apple eatin’.
. . .
The Tongue
Got a tongue dat jes run when it walk?
It cain’t talk.
Got a tongue dat can hush when it talk?
––It cain’t squawk.
. . .
Don’t tell All You know
Keep dis in min’, an’ all ‘ll go right;
As on yo’ way you goes;
Be shore you knows ’bout all you tells,
But don’t tell all you knows.
. . .
Thomas Washington Talley (1870 – 1952) taught chemistry and biology at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He also sang with the New Fisk Jubilee Singers and conducted the Fisk choir for several seasons. But mainly, today, he is known as a seminal scholar of African-American rhymes and folksongs. Some of the rhymes he compiled dated as far back as the mid-19th-century – the final decades of slavery. In middle age Talley had begun to search out and collect rural black folk songs, many of which were disappearing with the gradual demise of the older generation. Professor Talley compiled several hundred rhymes and songs, and in 1922 published his anthology: Negro Folk Rhymes (Wise and Otherwise).

Negro Folk Rhymes is divided into sections: nursery rhymes, child’s-play call&response rhymes, dance rhymes, “wise sayings” and so forth. But it being Valentine’s Day today, we have chosen our selection from the Love, Courtship, and Marriage chapters of Talley’s volume!

. . . . .

Sexploitation, Politics, Anger, God, and Happiness: Poems by Gerald Kithinji (Kenya, 1976)

Richard Kimathi_Churches in AfricaGerald Kithinji (Kenya)

Selections from Whispers at Dawn
. . .
Magic Woman
I am the black magic woman
I feed from the dartboard
served by the wine drunkards
I am the female equivocator
I provoke the male prostitutes
by a lisp of “guinness is good for you!”
I am the adding machine
computing your poverty
by a controlled throw of the dart
I am the ‘mother-in-law’
sucking your slumberous prick
for want of a longer trip
I am the ever-thirsty sleuth
whose eternal furnace
consumes your holy waters
If in any reasonable doubt
follow that last stagger
to the edge of the moonlight
– to the last tango away from the dartboard.
. . .
The talk took a comic turn
adding dry wood to the fire
lit by the sex debate
– or was it the women’s lib
Yes; I think it was that lost battle
now come from the mists of antiquity
through currents of a missionary zeal
to plague the human race
They were not ‘fiddlers on the roof’
nor sexperienced population exploders
but just college infuriates
that must have sexquality – or die!
“What men can do
that women can do
what men can do
let women do”
The lioness roamed the jungle
the zebras rubbed noses
and the birds on the equality twig sung:
“were I an ilk with all her ilk”
And the lights dimmed
leaving only the fireglow
leaving the sons of strife
in clouds of misty speculation
The wind carried no pollen
the flowers refused to bloom
the world stood still
in the wake of a woman’s protest
The world of merit
shed a light on sexpression
but the question persisted
“what if they played hard to get?”
. . .
In Praise of Work
The possibility is there
that I might write
with the poet’s inbuilt inspiration
what comrade time
has reason to portend
Of our aims
I might write
or even our dreams
But our destinations?
Even the Pope’s edict…
I pledge my doubt
Of greater moment
is our faith
in the plough.
Hail plough!
Hail abundance!
. . .
A Pause
On that hot afternoon
even the creatures of heaven
could feel the heat in hell
and paused awhile
to let it pass
But as for me, a wayward son
doomed to labour and toil
there was no pause, no rest
but an eternal longing
an eternal thirst
Had I not been sleepy
I might have witnessed
the comings and goings
of the multitudes
I might have lived!
Hey, birds on the twig
what became of your nests
and your thousand promises
of a thousand nestlings?
I might have witnessed!
Looking back on that day
I see the present through a crack
and I know I have arrived
at the edge of my sanity
at the top of the precipice
Will the heat now abate
and let me fondle the coolness
of the moonlit evening
and let me lick the honey
on my latest fount!
. . .
I have come to take away my Love
I have been thinking about you
all night long;
and re-thinking, asking myself
which is the mid-point
between now and eternity.
And in that one night
I lived three centuries into the past
and three others into the future
(into the ‘dim regions
whence my fathers came’
and into a void
far from my native clime)
And in that one night, too,
I peered deep into your heart
and saw seated there
(as on a pile of loot!)
cupid – silently beckoning…
Ha-ha-ha I have come
to take away my love!
and you whose faces I see
remain invisible to Wanja.
I tried to write in rhyme
of nights I’ve spent awake
weaning my infant love
humming a silent lullaby.
I took my ball-point pen
and jotted down your name
in the space of an hour an’ a half
begging the letters to come.
Every letter I wrote spelt love
and every pause, a prayer
that those that love
should rhyme in love.
Richard Kimathi_mixed media on canvas_The Kiss_2012The Couple_Motherly Love_by Richard Kimathi_painter from Kenya_born 1971
Listen to the deafening silence
of the politician
Behold the benevolence
of this native tyrant
Listen to the transcendental claptrap
of the lonely pauper
Endure the ordeal of change
and the quintessential shock
Beyond freedom and dignity
aspiration and accomplishment
and remember your kinsmen
dancing on a volcano.
. . .
My Ballot Paper
I have long waited
this sunny day
to chide myself
Should I cast for this clown
who with dripping mouth
sang his electorate his ambitions?
Or this home-made angel
who with wings of kites
would myrrh his disciples?
And then again I wonder
should the heavens rock
who will restrain the storm?
So I take the little ballot
and with raging words
in verse expend my anguish.
. . .
The Candidates
They promised us
all manner of pleasant solace
as this manifesto witnesseth;
and to show our reliance
we implored them to denounce
older forms of dishonesty
with charity appreciable by view.
They and each of them
and all their ilk
swore to buy our support
in gross and in detail
and so on and so forth
mutatis mutandis
per omnia saecula saeculorum!!
But we were lowly natives
and matched with local casuistry
and various verbal falsehoods
what code of necromancy
would misfortunes forestall!
Nefarious candidates
the time has come:
purge your consciences!
Soldiers in Pyjamas by Richard Kimathi_painter from Kenya_born 1971
I hate your wife – capitalism
I hate your daughter – socialism
I also detest their suitors –
fascism, militarism, nazism
and even communism!
I clung, yes, clung
to that alien stupor
sapped that suave subastral quintessence
that makes us
and seldom
And I woke up
as familiars quirked,
“He will bite them,
these racists.”

Not my Continent
Do not deride me
Do not mistake my identity
Do not kill my image
You ask me to drive you
to the cocktail in a Benz
You ask me to fly you to Addis
My friend, you’ve got me wrong
Put the cart before the horse
Want me to run before I can walk
If you want me you take me as I am
Not fragments of my torn mouldings
Not imitations of my constitution
Or else leave me alone
I have admirers enough
I have my continent to defend
Would you I sold my self
to the fullest coffer
Would you gnaw at my existence
I will not ration my inherited pride
I will not solicit your return
I will not wail your departure
Take your gifts away
They smack of blackmail
They smell of betrayal
I want nothing from you
And nothing will I take
Save this: Leave my continent!
. . .
And anger
is a friend
that the oppressed
must seize –
a purgative drug
to cleanse and preserve
the knowledge
and indignation
with which they affront
the excesses of apartheid.
Come, behold the scars
that those who angered
seized, arms outstretched
their spears flaming!
And you who dither
de-ice your souls
with flames of anger:
and unreason
will succumb
to reason.
Hail, vanguard
of our freedom. Hail!
. . .
The Palm Tree
We had fought and won
the internecine war;
The foreigners had demarcated
their spoils on our land:
but our spirit of struggle
our thirst for freedom –
kept burning within our hearts.
Our vow and determination
to recapture our terre
to tender our palm tree –
this, too, kept burning
with rage and vengeance.
Our thoughts no longer hazy
Our deeds no longer wavy:
but studied and firm
our men advanced sure of foot.
Vengeance is ours
(and not the Lord’s!)
For we know, liberated,
even here
all manner of genius
may grow…
turning pages of transformation
from centuries of silent mutation
to an eternity of unqualified progress.
Where the wheels of oppression
have finally ground to a halt
There shall be found
the masses that struggle!
. . .
A Dream
None dare call it a dream
to be born and to die
to walk to the market
with a bag empty
and back home
with the bag full
to take cattle to the river
to take calves to the slaughter
None dare call it wisdom
to laugh and to cry
to mourn and to sigh
to be able to reap
what one has sown
to slaughter the ram
to feed their offspring
They die in the evening
they rise in the morning
they live in the day
Each life confirms a death
each death promises a life
and I watch these at my window
. . .
A God
While you are catholic
And I am protestant
We shall remain slaves
Let us shed christianity
And together
Cultivate the African God
Let us learn the creed
That says
Black is Beautiful…
And believe it.
. . .
if ever you be happy
let it be
for things done
dreams come true
possibilities realised
Let it be
for aspirations attained
ambitions accomplished
extremities fathomed
Let it be
for misfortunes overcome
wrongs righted
life well spent
But above all else
let it be
for love bestowed
For these
dear friends
we longed
and lived
to miss.
. . .
The Dreamers
Let us dream
dream our dream
lying here
loving here
Our hearts naked
stripped bare
telling tales
dreaming our naked truth.
Our nakedness
My ego
Perhaps boozing
oozing with hatred
with love
with child.
A sore on foot
on breast
on lip
Like dream – love dream
bending, lame…
like nose
like tick.
thick blood
sticky, haunting –
like ghost
like dream
like fairies
. . .
Let’s rest here
under this shade
of ignorance
it is so cool
and so empty
there is only you
and me
and our host
Come, let’s quick
to the shade
lest, exposed,
we become wise
and waste ourselves
on things philosophic
psychologic, pathologic…
There, under the shade,
there is no literature
no law, nor art
no science of deceit
no poetry, music or life:
just ignorance and ourselves
Just ignorance and ourselves
just ignorance
I came out here
to record nature
but found nature
had herself recorded
in greater detail
and better form:
‘Nature has done her part –
Do thou but thine!’
. . .

The above poems from Whispers at Dawn were composed while Gerald Kithinji attended university, and were published in 1976 by East African Literature Bureau (Dar es Salaam / Kampala / Nairobi). The poet’s Dedication at that time read as follows:
Dedicated to those whose imagination fired my own; whose beauties yearned for recognition; whose hearts overflowed with warmth; whose interest laid bare my secrets; whose magic still conjures my dreams.
. . .
Gerald Kithinji grew up along the eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya, about 250 kilometres from Nairobi. He speaks Kimeru (his natal Kenyan language), and has expanded his reading to include books in French and Portuguese. He has continued to write over the past several decades, but he concentrates now on collections of short stories. Recent titles (2014 and 2015) have included: Hear Me Angry God, Kiss the Handcuffs, Pastor X, Set Her Free, and Masai Mara Adventures with Olê Ntutu. He writes adult fiction as well as children’s books.
In a February 2015 interview Mr. Kithinji was asked What inspires you to get out of bed each day? And his reply: Unfinished business – and that means writing.

. . .

Images: Richard Kimathi (born 1971, Kenya): recent works in mixed media on canvas: “Churches in Africa”, “The Kiss”, “The Couple: Motherly Love”, and “Soldiers in Pyjamas”.

. . . . .

Marcus Bruce Christian: “I am New Orleans” and “The Masquerader”

Marcus Bruce Christian as a boy_probably around 1912

Marcus Bruce Christian as a boy_probably around 1912

Marcus Bruce Christian in the 1960s

Marcus Bruce Christian in the 1960s

Marcus Bruce Christian
(1900 – 1976, Louisiana poet, historian and folklorist)
. . .
I am New Orleans: A Poem (excerpts)
I have known
Many people –
Many voices –
Many languages.
I have heard the soft cries of the African,
Jargoning an European tongue:
Belles des figures!
Bon petit calas! Tout chauds, chère, tout chauds!
Pralines – pistaches! Pralines – pecanes!
“Ah got duh nice yahlah bananas, lady!”
“Bla-a-a-a-a-ack ber-r-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e-z!”
“Peenotsa! Peenotsa! Cuma gitta fromee!”
“Ah wanna qua’tee red beans,
Ena qua’tee rice,
Ena piece uh salt meat –
Tuh makkit tas’e nice:
En hurry up, Mr. Groceryman,
En put dat lan-yap in mah han’!”
“Papa Bonnibee, beat dem hot licks out! –
Ah sed, Poppa Stoppa, let dat jazz cum out!
En efyuh donh feet it,
‘Tain’t no use tellin’ yuh
Jess what it’s all about!
Now, gimme sum High Cs on dat horn ‘n’ let dem
Saints go marching in!”
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans…
Take it away, Mister Charlie!”
. . .
I am New Orleans,
A perpetual Mardi Gras
Of wild Indians, clowns, lords and ladies,
Bourbon Street Jezebels, Baby Dolls, and Fat Cats;
Peanut-vendors, flower-sellers, organ-grinders,
chimney-sweepers, and fortune-tellers.
And then, at the end, bone-rattling skeletons
and flying ghosts.
I am New Orleans –
A city that is a part of, and yet apart from all,
A collection of contradictory environments;
A conglomeration of bloods and races and classes
and colours;
Side-by-side, the New tickling the ribs of the Old;
Cheek-by-jowl, the Ludicrous making faces at the Sublime.

. . .

The Masquerader

Here, as a guest esteemed,
I do not hide;
None would dare laugh at me –
None dare deride.
For I am white now –
Far whiter than you;
How did I get that way?
Ah! if you knew!
You have been very nice!
Took me to tea,
Took me to dinners –
And made love to me.
You have been very kind –
Begged for a date –
Me — in whose veins there flows
Blood that you hate.
I, who am cherished
And part of your joy –
I am more alien than
Those you employ.
You say I am a dream?
Dreams do not last.
When I am lost to you,
Whisper, “She passed.”

. . .


I shall take your image

From out of my heart

And sweep your tracks

From its floor,


Dead yesterdays

And you.

Step by step,

As you walk away,

I go behind you

Sweeping . . .

Sweeping . . .

. . .
Inconvenient Love

Love is an inconvenient thing –
Out of nowhere it slips,
And grows into something that saves or slays,
Or something that binds or grips;
And it sets a seal upon one’s lips.
Love has its own peculiar way –
Knowing its own blind art;
Bending strong souls like reeds to the wind,
And then – when it does depart –
Stamping in frantic and frenzied pain
A signet upon one’s heart.
. . .

Bachelor’s Apartment

The curtains from Daphne,
The curtains from Chloe;
The doilies from Helen;
The pillows from Flo;
The towels from Myrtle,
The teapot from Rose;
The book-ends from Marion –
Anything goes!
The comb-set from Muriel,
The lampshade from Delia;
The picture from Mabel,
The vases from Celia;
From Bertha – the candlesticks;
Those women left things
In my heart and my home!
. . .
The Craftsman
I ply with all the cunning of my art
This little thing, and with consummate care
I fashion it—so that when I depart,
Those who come after me shall find it fair
And beautiful. It must be free of flaws—
Pointing no labourings of weary hands;
And there must be no flouting of the laws
Of beauty—as the artist understands.
Through passion, yearnings infinite—yet dumb—
I lift you from the depths of my own mind
And gild you with my soul’s white heat to plumb
The souls of future men. I leave behind
This thing that in return this solace gives:
“He who creates true beauty ever lives.”

. . .
After the Years…

After the years have carted away

The grief and the shame;

After the years have carted away

The crime and the lust;

After the years have carted away

The faith and the trust:

After the years have carted them all

I claim

–The humblest claim–

Oblivion in the dust.

. . .
The Dreamer
(for Arturo Toscanini)

I am the dreamer – one whose dream
Is a diaphanous strange thing;
I top the crags, I bridge the stream,
I make the dead page glow and sing.
I plumb the depths, I count the stars,
I strain the sinews of my soul
To break through earth’s material bars
And seek perfection at its goal.
For I he who never halts –
I never say, “This task is done.”
I climb through subterranean vaults
To tilt my lance against the sun.
I am the essence of all art –
Javelins of gold from darkness hurled
Into the light – I break my heart
To set my dream against the world.

. . .
Source for the above poems:
I Am New Orleans & Other Poems By Marcus B. Christian, edited by Rudolph Lewis & Amin Sharif
. . .

ZP Editor’s note:

Tuesday, February 9th (Mardi Gras, 2016):

Wishing to feature Black History Month poems for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we chanced upon a poet too little known: Marcus Bruce Christian. Themes of love and loss, love across “the colour line”, labour and economic struggle, and the spirit of place (I am New Orleans: A Poem) run throughout Christian’s close to 2000 poems. Our Special Thanks to editor Rudolph Lewis of Chicken Bones: A Journal, for introducing us to this fine poet from the past!

. . . . .

Claude McKay: selected poems from “Harlem Shadows” (1922)

Claude McKay_photograph from the 1920s
Claude McKay
(1889-1948, Jamaica / New York / Chicago)

Selected poems from Harlem Shadows (1922)

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigour flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
. . .
Home Thoughts
Oh something just now must be happening there!
That suddenly and quiveringly here,
Amid the city’s noises, I must think
Of mangoes leaning o’er the river’s brink,
And dexterous Davie climbing high above,
The gold fruits ebon-speckled to remove,
And toss them quickly in the tangled mass
Of wis-wis twisted round the guinea grass ;
And Cyril coming through the bramble-track
A prize bunch of bananas on his back;
And Georgie —none could ever dive like him—
Throwing his scanty clothes off for a swim;
And schoolboys, from Bridge-tunnel going home,
Watching the waters downward dash and foam.
This is no daytime dream , there’s something in it,
Oh something’s happening there this very minute!

. . .

On Broadway
About me young and careless feet
Linger along the garish street;
Above, a hundred shouting signs
Shed down their bright fantastic glow
Upon the merry crowd and lines
Of moving carriages below.
Oh wonderful is Broadway—only
My heart, my heart is lonely.
Desire naked, linked with Passion,
Goes strutting by in brazen fashion;
From playhouse, cabaret and inn
The rainbow lights of Broadway blaze
All gay without, all glad within;
As in a dream I stand and gaze
At Broadway, shining Broadway—only
My heart, my heart is lonely.

Times Square in Manhattan_photograph from 1922

Times Square in Manhattan_photograph from 1922

The Barrier
I must not gaze at them although
Your eyes are dawning day;
I must not watch you as you go
Your sun-illumined way;
I hear but I must never heed
The fascinating note,
Which, fluting like a river reed ,
Comes from your trembling throat;
I must not see upon your face
Love’s softly glowing spark;
For there’s the barrier of race,
You’re fair and I am dark.

. . .

The City’s Love

For one brief golden moment rare like wine,
The gracious city swept across the line;
Oblivious of the colour of my skin,
Forgetting that I was an alien guest,
She bent to me, my hostile heart to win,
Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast;
The great, proud city, seized with a strange love,
Bowed down for one flame hour my pride to prove.

. . .

When I Have Passed Away
When I have passed away and am forgotten,
And no one living can recall my face,
When under alien sod my bones lie rotten
With not a tree or stone to mark the place;
Perchance a pensive youth, with passion burning,
For olden verse that smacks of love and wine,
The musty pages of old volumes turning,
May light upon a little song of mine,
And he may softly hum the tune and wonder
Who wrote the verses in the long ago;
Or he may sit him down awhile to ponder
Upon the simple words that touch him so.

. . .
On the Road
Roar of the rushing train fearfully rocking,
Impatient people jammed in line for food,
The rasping noise of cars together knocking,
And worried waiters, some in ugly mood,
Crowding into the choking pantry hole
To call out dishes for each angry glutton
Exasperated grown beyond control,
From waiting for his soup or fish or mutton.
At last the station’s reached, the engine stops;
For bags and wraps the red-caps circle round;
From off the step the passenger lightly hops,
And seeks his cab or tram-car homeward bound:
The waiters pass out weary, listless, glum,
To spend their tips on harlots, cards and rum.

. . .

The Harlem Dancer
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on, gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black  shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and  tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
. . .

For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man’s menace, out of time.

. . .
I Know My Soul
I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.

New York subway tunnel_1920s_hand tinted black and white photographNYC subway route sign
Subway Wind
Far down, down through the city’s great, gaunt gut
The gray train rushing bears the weary wind;
In the packed cars the fans the crowd’s breath cut,
Leaving the sick and heavy air behind.
And pale-cheeked children seek the upper door
To give their summer jackets to the breeze;
Their laugh is swallowed in the deafening roar
Of captive wind that moans for fields and seas;
Seas cooling warm where native schooners drift
Through sleepy waters, while gulls wheel and sweep,
Waiting for windy waves the keels to lift
Lightly among the islands of the deep;
Islands of lofty palm trees blooming white
That lend their perfume to the tropic sea,
Where fields lie idle in the dew drenched night,
And the Trades float above them fresh and free.
. . .
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up—
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth—
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
. . .

A Prayer
‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.
Mine eyes are open but they cannot see for gloom of night;
I can no more than lift my heart to thee for inward light.
The wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul;
In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.
For Passion and all the pleasures it can give will die the death;
But this of me eternally must live, thy borrowed breath.
‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.
. . .
Rest in Peace
No more for you the city’s thorny ways,
The ugly corners of the Negro belt;
The miseries and pains of these harsh days
By you will never, never again be felt.
No more, if still you wander, will you meet
With nights of unabating bitterness;
They cannot reach you in your safe retreat,
The city’s hate, the city’s prejudice!
‘Twas sudden—but your menial task is done,
The dawn now breaks on you, the dark is over,
The sea is crossed, the longed-for port is won;
Farewell, oh, fare you well! my friend and lover.
. . .
Upon thy purple mat thy body bare
Is fine and limber like a tender tree.
The motion of thy supple form is rare,
Like a lithe panther lolling languidly,
Toying and turning slowly in her lair.
Oh, I would never ask for more of thee,
Thou art so clean in passion and so fair.
Enough! if thou wilt ask no more of me!
. . .
Nay, why reproach each other, be unkind,
For there’s no plane on which we two may meet?
Let’s both forgive, forget, for both were blind,
And life is of a day, and time is fleet.
And I am fire, swift to flame and burn,
Melting with elements high overhead,
While you are water in an earthly urn,
All pure, but heavy, and of hue like lead.
. . .
Author’s Word: from the first edition (1922) of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows:
In putting ideas and feelings into poetry, I have tried in each case to use the medium most adaptable to the specific purpose. I own allegiance to no master. I have never found it possible to accept in entirety any one poet. But I have loved and joyed in what I consider the finest in the poets of all ages.
The speech of my childhood and early youth was the Jamaica Negro dialect, the native variant of English, which still preserves a few words of African origin, and which is more difficult of understanding than the American Negro dialect. But the language we wrote and read in school was England’s English. Our text books then, before the advent of the American and Jamaican readers and our teachers, too, were all English-made. The native teachers of the elementary schools were tutored by men and women of British import. I quite remember making up verses in the dialect and in English for our moonlight ring dances and for our school parties. Of our purely native songs the jammas (field and road), shay-shays (yard and booth), wakes (post-mortem), Anancy tales (transplanted African folk lore), and revivals (religious) are all singularly punctuated by metre and rhyme. And nearly all my own poetic thought has always run naturally into these regular forms.
Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. My intellect is not scientific enough to range me on the side of either; nor is my knowledge wide enough for me to specialize in any school.
I have never studied poetics; but the forms I have used I am convinced are the ones I can work in with the highest degree of spontaneity and freedom.
I have chosen my melodies and rhythms by instinct, and I have favoured words and figures which flow smoothly and harmoniously into my compositions. And in all my moods I have striven to achieve directness, truthfulness and naturalness of expression instead of an enameled originality. I have not hesitated to use words which are old, and in some circles considered poetically overworked and dead, when I thought I could make them glow alive by new manipulation. Nor have I stinted my senses of the pleasure of using the decorative metaphor where it is more truly and vividly beautiful than the exact phrase. But for me there is more quiet delight in “The golden moon of heaven” than in “The terra-cotta disc of cloud-land.”
Finally, while I have welcomed criticism, friendly and unfriendly, and listened with willing attention to many varying opinions concerning other poems and my own, I have always, in the summing up, fallen back on my own ear and taste as the arbiter.

. . .

Our Special Thanks to: Chris Forster and Roopika Risam of Harlemshadows.org.

. . . . .

Claude McKay: “Songs of Jamaica” (poems)

Jamaican market woman_circa 1920
Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Poems from Songs of Jamaica (published in 1912)
. . .
Quashie to Buccra
You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
You want a basketful fe quattiewut,
‘Cause you no know how ‘tiff de bush fe cut.
De cowitch under which we hab fe ‘toop,
De shamar lyin’ t’ick like pumpkin soup,
Is killin’ somet’ing for a naygur man;
Much less de cutlass workin’ in we han’.
De sun hot like when fire ketch a town;
Shade-tree look temptin’, yet we caan’ lie down,
Aldough we wouldn’ eben ef we could,
Causen we job must finish soon an’ good.
De bush cut done, de bank dem we deh dig,
But dem caan’ ‘tan’ sake o’ we naybor pig;
For so we moul’ it up he root it do’n,
An’ we caan’ ‘peak sake o’ we naybor tongue.
Aldough de vine is little, it can bear;
It wantin’ not’in but a little care:
You see petater tear up groun’, you run,
You laughin’, sir, you must be t’ink a fun.
De fiel’ pretty? It couldn’t less ‘an dat,
We wuk de bes’, an’ den de lan’ is fat;
We dig de row dem eben in a line,
An’ keep it clean – den so it mus’ look fine.
You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it:
Yet still de hardship always melt away
Wheneber it come roun’ to reapin’ day.

. . .
Buccra = white man
petater = sweet potato
quattiewut = quattieworth: quattie is a quarter of sixpence.
cowitch = the Macuna pruriens climbing bean
shamar = Shamebush, a prickly sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
. . .

Me Bannabees
Run ober mango trees,
‘Pread chock to kitchen doo’,
Watch de blue bannabees,
Look how it ben’ down low!
De blossom draw de bees
Same how de soup draw man;
Some call it “broke-pot” peas,
It caan’ bruk we bu’n-pan.
Wha’ sweet so when it t’ick?
Though some calll it goat-tud,
Me all me finger lick,
An’ yet no chew me cud.
A mumma plant de root
One day jes’ out o’ fun;
But now look ‘pon de fruit,
See wha’ de “mek fun” done.
I jam de ‘tick dem ‘traight
Soon as it ‘tart fe ‘pread,
An begin count de date
Fe when de pod fe shed.
Me watch de vine dem grow,
S’er t’row dung a de root:
Crop time look fe me slow,
De bud tek long fe shoot.
But so de day did come,
I ‘crub de bu’n-pan bright,
An’ tu’n down ‘pon it from
De marnin’ till de night.
An’ Lard!me belly swell,
No ’cause de peas no good,
But me be’n tek a ‘pell
Mo’ dan a giant would.
Yet eben after dat
Me nyam it wid a will,
‘Causen it mek me fat;
So I wi’ lub it still.
Caan’ talk about gungu,
Fe me it is no peas;
Cockstone might do fe you,
Me want me bannabees.
. . .
Bannabees = Bonavist, a climbing bean or pea
Me nyam = I ate
gungu = Congo peas
Cockstone = red peas, the beans of America
. . .

King Banana
Green mancha mek fe naygur man;
Wha’ sweet so when it roas’?
Some boil it in a big black pan,
It sweeter in a toas’.
A buccra fancy when it ripe,
Dem use it ebery day;
It scarcely give dem belly-gripe,
Dem eat it diffran’ way.
Out yonder see somoke a rise,
An’ see de fire wicket;
Deh go’p to heaben wid de nize
Of hundred t’ousan cricket.
De black moul’ lie do’n quite prepare’
Fe feel de hoe an’ rake;
De fire bu’n, and it tek care
Fe mek de wo’m dem wake.
Wha’ lef” fe buccra teach again
Dis time about plantation?
Dere’s not’in dat can beat de plain
Good ole-time cultibation.
Banana dem fat all de same
From bunches big an’ ‘trong;
Pure nine-han’ bunch a car’ de fame, –
Ole met’od all along.
De cuttin’ done same ole-time way,
We wrap dem in a trash,
An’ pack dem neatly in a dray
So tight dat dem can’t mash.
We re’ch: banana finish sell;
Den we ‘tart back fe home:
Some hab money in t’read-bag well,
Some spen’ all in a rum.
Green mancha mek fe naygur man,
It mek fe him all way;
Our islan’ is banana lan’,
Banana car’ de sway.
. . .
mancha = “Martinique”, the best variety of banana in Jamaica

. . .
The Biter Bit
[“Ole woman a swea’ fe eat calalu: calalu a swea’ fe wuk him gut.” Jamaican proverb]
Corn an’ peas growin’ t’ick an’ fas’
Wid nice blade peepin’ t’rough de grass;
An’ ratta from dem hole a peep,
T’ink all de corn dem gwin’ go reap.
Ole woman sit by kitchen doo’
Is watchin’ calalu a grow,
An’ all de time a t’inking dat
She gwin’ go nyam dem when dem fat.
But calalu, grow’n’ by de hut,
Is swearin’ too fe wuk him gut;
While she, like some, t’ink all is right
When dey are in some corner tight.
Peas time come roun’ – de corn is lef”;
An’ ratta now deh train himse’f
Upon de cornstalk dem a’ night
Fe when it fit to get him bite.
De corn-piece lie do’n all in blue,
An’ all de beard dem floatin’ too
Amongst de yellow grain so gay,
Dat you would watch dem a whole day.
An’ ratta look at ebery one,
Swea’in’ dat dem not gwin’ lef’ none;
But Quaco know a t’ing or two,
An’ swear say dat dem won’t go so.
So him go get a little meal
An’ somet’ing good fe those dat steal,
An’ mix dem up an’ ‘pread dem out
For people possess fas’ fas’ mout’.
Now ratta, comin’ from dem nes’,
See it an’ say “Dis food is bes’;”
Dem nyam an’ stop, an’ nyam again,
An’ soon lie do’n, rollin’ in pain.

. . .
calalu = “spinach” (could be Amaranthus viridis or Xanthosoma or dasheen leaves)
blue = the blueish leaf of the maize
. . .

Taken Aback
Let me go, Joe, for I want go home:
Can’t stan’ wid you,
For Pa might go come;
An’ if him only hab him rum,
I don’t know whateber I’ll do.
I must go now, for it’s gettin’ night
I am afraid,
An’ ’tis not moonlight:
Give me de last hug, an’ do it tight;
Me Pa gwin’ go knock off me head.
No, Joe, don’t come! – you will keep me late,
An’ Pa might be
In him sober state;
Him might get vex’ an’ lock up de gate,
Den what will becomin’ of me?
Go wid you, Joe? – you don’t lub me den!
I shame o’ you –
Gals caan’ trust you men!
An’ I b’en tekin’ you fe me frien’;
Good-night, Joe, you’ve proven untrue.
. . .
Say if you lub me, do tell me truly,
Ione, Ione;
For, O me dearie, not’in’ can part we,
Ione, Ione.
Under de bamboo, where de fox-tail grew,
Ione, Ione,
While de cool breeze blew – sweet, I did pledge you,
Ione, Ione.
Where calalu grows, an’ yonder brook flows,
Ione, Ione,
I held a dog-rose under your li’l nose,
Ione, Ione.
There where de lee stream plays wid de sunbeam,
Ione, Ione,
True be’n de love-gleam as a sweet day-dream,
Ione, Ione.
Watchin’ de bucktoe under de shadow,
Ione, Ione,
Of a pear-tree low dat in de stream grow,
Ione, Ione,
Mek me t’ink how when we were lee children,
Ione, Ione,
We used to fishen in old Carew Pen,
Ione, Ione.
Like tiny meshes, curl your black tresses,
Ione, Ione,
An’ my caresses tek widout blushes,
Ione, Ione.
Kiss me, my airy winsome lee fairy,
Ione, Ione;
Are you now weary, little canary,
Ione, Ione?
Then we will go, pet, as it is sunset,
Ione, Ione;
Tek dis sweet vi’let, we will be one yet,
Ione, Ione.
. . .
bucktoe = a small crawfish
Pen = the Jamaican equivalent for ranche

. . .
My Pretty Dan
I have a póliceman down at de Bay,
An’ he is true to me though far away.
I love my pólice, and he loves me too,
An’ he has promised he’ll be ever true.
My little bobby is a darlin’ one,
An’ he’s de prettiest you could set eyes ‘pon.
When he be’n station’ up de countryside,
Fus’ time I shun him sake o’ foolish pride.
But as I watched him patrolling his beat,
I got to find out he was nice an’ neat.
More still I foun’ out he was extra kin’,
An’ dat his precious heart was wholly mine.
Den I became his own true sweetheart,
An’ while life last we’re hopin’ not fe part.
He wears a truncheon an’ a handcuff case,
An’ pretty cap to match his pretty face.
Dear lilly p’liceman stationed down de sout’,
I feel your kisses rainin’ on my mout’.
I could not give against a póliceman;
For if I do, how could I lub my Dan?
Prettiest of naygur is my dear police,
We’ll lub foreber, an’ our lub won’t cease.
I have a póliceman down at de Bay,
An’ he is true to me though far away.
. . .

A Midnight Woman to the Bobby
No palm me up, you dutty brute,
You’ jam mout’ mash like ripe bread-fruit;
You fas’n now, but wait lee ya,
I’ll see you grunt under de law.
You t’ink you wise, but we wi’ see;
You not de fus’ one fas’ wid me;
I’ll lib fe see dem tu’n you out,
As sure as you got dat mash’ mout’.
I born right do’n beneat’ de clack
(You ugly brute, you tu’n you’ back?)
Don’t t’ink dat I’m a come-aroun’,
I born right ‘way in ‘panish Town.
Care how you try, you caan’ do mo’
Dan many dat was hyah befo’;
Yet whe’ dey all o’ dem te-day?
De buccra dem no kick dem ‘way?
Ko ‘pon you’ jam samplatta nose:
‘Cos you wear Mis’r Koshaw clo’es
You t’ink say you’s de only man,
Yet fus’ time ko how you be’n ‘tan’.
You big an’ ugly ole tu’n-foot
Be’n neber know fe wear a boot;
An’ chigger nyam you’ tumpa toe,
Till nit full i’ like herrin’ roe.
You come from mountain naked-‘kin,
An’ Lard a mussy! you be’n thin,
For all de bread-fruit dem be’n done,
Bein’ ‘poil’ up by de tearin’ sun:
De coco couldn’ bear at all,
For, Lard! de groun’ was pure white-marl;
An’ t’rough de rain part o’ de year
De mango tree dem couldn’ bear.
An’ when de pinch o’ time you feel
A ‘pur you a you’ chigger heel,
You lef’ you’ district, big an’ coarse,
An’ come join buccra Pólice Force.
An’ now you don’t wait fe you’ glass,
But trouble me wid you’ jam fas’;
But wait, me frien’, you’ day wi’ come,
I’ll see you go same lak a some.
Say wha’? – ‘res’ me? – you go to hell!
You t’ink Judge don’t know unno well?
You t’ink him gwin’ go sentance me
Widout a soul fe witness i’?
. . .
beneat’ de clack = the clock on the public buildings at Spanish Town
come-aroun’ = day-labourer, man or woman, in Kingston streets and wharves, famous for the heavy weight he or she can carry
samplatta = a piece of leather cut somewhat larger than the size of the foot, and tied sandal-wise to it: said of anything that is flat and broad.
Mis’r Koshaw clo’es = Mister Kershaw’s clothes i.e. police uniform. Col. Kershaw was Inspector-General of Police in 1911, (when this poem was written.)
An’ chigger nyam you’ tumpa toe, etc. = And chigoes (burrowing fleas) had eaten your maimed toe, and nits (young chigoes) had filled it.
Lard a mussy! = Lord have mercy!
unno (or onnoo) = an African word meaning “you” collectively

Jamaica_vintage photograph_early 20th centuryJamaican primary schoolhouse with children and their teacher_early 20th century photograph
Mother Dear
“HUSBAN’, I am goin’ –
Though de brooklet is a-flowin’,
An’ de coolin’ breeze is blowin’
Softly by;
Hark, how strange de cow is mooin’,
An’ our Jennie’s pigeons cooin’,
While I feel de water growin’,
Climbing high.
“Akee trees are laden,
But de yellow leaves are fadin’
Like a young an’ bloomin’ maiden
Fallen low;
In de pond de ducks are wakin’
While my body longs for Eden,
An’ my weary breat’ is gledin’
‘Way from you.
“See dem John-crows flyin’!
‘Tis a sign dat I am dyin’;
Oh, I’m wishful to be lyin’
All alone:
Fait’ful husban’, don’t go cryin’,
Life is one long self-denyin’
All-surrenderin’ an’ sighin’
Livin’ moan.”
. . .

“WIFE, de parson’s prayin’,
Won’t you listen what he’s sayin’,
Spend de endin’ of your day in
Christ our Lord?”

. . .
But de sound of horses neighin’,
Baain’ goats an’ donkeys brayin’,
Twitt’rin’ birds an’ children playin’
Was all she heard.
Things she had been rearin’,
Only those could claim her hearin’,
When de end we had been fearin’
Now had come:
Now her last pain she is bearin’,
Now de final scene is nearin’,
An’ her vacant eyes are starin’
On her home.
Oh! it was heart-rendin’
As we watched de loved life endin’,
Dat sweet sainted spirit bendin’
To de death:
Gone all further hope of mendin’,
With de angel Death attendin’,
An’ his slayin’ spirit blendin’
With her breath.
. . .
Akee = Cupania sapida, bearing beautiful red fruits
John-crows = Turkey-buzzards

. . .
Dat Dirty Rum
If you must drink it, do not come
An’ chat up in my face;
I hate to see de dirty rum,
Much more to know de tas’e.
What you find dere to care about
I never understan’;
It only dutty up you mout’,
An’ mek you less a man.
I see it throw you ‘pon de grass
An ‘met you want no food,
While people scorn you as dey pass
An’ see you vomit blood.
De fust beginnin’ of it all,
You stood up calm an’ cool,
An’ put you’ back agains’ de wall
An’ cuss our teacher fool.
You cuss me too de se’fsame day
Because a say you wrong,
An’ pawn you’ books an’ went away
Widout anedder song.
Your parents’ hearts within dem sink,
When to your yout’ful lip
Dey watch you raise de glass to drink,
An’ shameless tek each sip.
I see you in de dancing-booth,
But all your joy is vain,
For on your fresh an’ glowin’ youth
Is stamped dat ugly stain.
Dat ugly stain of drink, my frien’,
Has cost you your best girl,
An’ med you fool ‘mongst better me
When your brain’s in a whirl.
You may smoke just a bit indeed,
I like de “white seal” well;
Aldough I do not use de weed,
I’m fond o’ de nice smell.
But wait until you’re growin’ old
An’ gettin’ weak an’ bent,
An’ feel your blood a-gettin’ cold
‘Fo you tek stimulent.
Then it may mek you stronger feel
While on your livin’ groun’;
But ole Time, creepin’ on your heel,
Soon, soon will pull you down:
Soon, soon will pull you down, my frien’,
De rum will help her too;
An’ you’ll give way to better men,
De best day you can do.
. . .

“white seal” = the name of a brand of cigarettes

. . .

Killin’ Nanny
Two little pickny is watchin’,
While a goat is led to deat’;
Dey are little ones of two years,
An’ know naught of badness yet.
De goat is bawlin’ fe mussy,
An’ de children watch de sight
As de butcher re’ch his sharp knife,
An’ ‘tab wid all his might.
Dey see de red blood flowin’;
An’ one chil’ trimble an’ hide
His face in de mudder’s bosom,
While t’udder look on wide-eyed.
De tears is fallin’ down hotly
From him on de mudder’s knee;
De udder wid joy is starin’,
An’ clappin’ his han’s wid glee.
When dey had forgotten Nanny,
Grown men I see dem again;
An’ de forehead of de laugher
Was brand wid de mark of Cain.

Peasants with their mules_Jamaica_early 20th century photograph

Strokes of the Tamarind Switch
I dared not look at him,
My eyes with tears were dim,
My spirit filled with hate
Of man’s depravity,
I hurried through the gate.
I went but I returned,
While in my bosom burned
The monstrous wrong that we
Oft bring upon ourselves,
And yet we cannot see.
Poor little erring wretch!
The cutting tamarind switch
Had left its bloody mark,
And on his legs were streaks
That looked like boiling bark.
I spoke to him the while:
At first he tried to smile,
But the long pent-up tears
Came gushing in a flood;
He was but of tender years.
With eyes bloodshot and red,
He told me of a father dead
And lads like himself rude,
Who goaded him to wrong:
He for the future promised to be good.
The mother yesterday
Said she was sending him away,
Away across the seas:
She told of futile prayers
Said on her wearied knees.
I wished the lad good-bye,
And left him with a sigh:
Again I heard him talk –
His limbs, he said, were sore,
He could not walk.
I ‘member when a smaller boy,
A mother’s pride, a mother’s joy,
I too was very rude:
They beat me too, though not the same,
And has it done me good?
. . .
Rise and Fall
[Thoughts of Burns – with apologies to his immortal spirit for making him speak in Jamaica dialect.]
Dey read ’em again an’ again,
An’ laugh an’ cry at ’em in turn;
I felt I was gettin’ quite vain,
But dere was a lesson fe learn.
My poverty quickly took wing,
Of life no experience had I;
I couldn’t then want anyt’ing
Dat kindness or money could buy.
Dey tek me away from me lan’,
De gay o’ de wul’ to behold,
An’ roam me t’rough palaces gran’,
An’ show’red on me honour untold.
I went to de ballroom at night,
An’ danced wid de belles of de hour;
Half dazed by de glitterin’ light,
I lounged in de palm-covered bower.
I flirted wid beautiful girls,
An’ drank o’ de wine flowin’ red;
I felt my brain movin’ in whirls,
An’ knew I was losin’ my head.
But soon I was tired of it all,
My spirit was weary to roam;
De life grew as bitter as gall,
I hungered again for my home.
Te-day I am back in me lan’,
Forgotten by all de gay throng,
A poorer but far wiser man,
An’ knowin’ de right from de wrong.
. . .
To Bennie
[ In Answer to a Letter ]
You say, dearest comrade, my love has grown cold,
But you are mistaken, it burns as of old;
And no power below, dearest lad, nor above,
Can ever lessen, frien’ Bennie, my love.
Could you but look in my eyes, you would see
That ’tis a wrong thought you have about me;
Could you but feel my hand laid on your head,
Never again would you say what you’ve said.
Naught, O my Bennie, our friendship can sever,
Dearly I love you, shall love you for ever;
Moment by moment my thoughts are of you,
Trust me, oh, trust me, for aye to be true.
. . .

. . . . .

Langston Hughes: poemas del poemario “Montaje de un Sueño Diferido” (1951)

1951 book cover for Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

Una selección de poemas del poemario Montage of a Dream Deferred (Montaje de un Sueño Diferido) (1951) por Langston Hughes (nacido 1 de febrero de 1902 / muerto 22 de mayo de 1967).  Versiones españoles (enero de 2016): Alexander Best

. . .
¿El trabajo?
Yo, no tengo que trabajar.
No tengo que hacer nada
comer, beber, permanecer negro – y morir.
Este viejo cuartito amueblado es
tan pequeño que
aun no puedo azotar un gato sin pillar el pelaje en mi boca.
Y la casera es tan anciana que sus rasgos desdibujan juntos;
¡y sabe el Señor que ella puede cobrarme de más a mí – eso es seguro!
(Entonces…éso es el motivo por que estimo que debo trabajar – después de todo.)

. . .
I don’t have to work.
I don’t have to do nothing
but eat, drink, stay black, and die.
This little old furnished room’s
so small I can’t whip a cat
without getting fur in my mouth
and my landlady’s so old
her features is all run together
and God knows she sure can overcharge –
which is why I reckon I does
have to work after all.
. . .

Pregunta número 2
Dijo la señora:
¿Puedes hacer lo que no puede hacer
mi otro hombre – ? Y éso es:
¡Quiéreme, papi,
y aliméntame también!
. . .
“Question (2)”
Said the lady, Can you do
what my other man can’t do –
that is
love me, daddy –
and feed me, too?

. . .
‘Bugui’ despreocupado
Abajo en el contrabajo
caminando andando
al firme tiempo
– como pies marchandos.
Abajo en el contrabajo
menearse fácil
– el revolcón como me gusta en mi alma.
< Riffs, manchas, descansos.>
¡Eh, mamacita! – ¿has oído lo que digo?
Despreocupado, yo lo impulso – ¡en mi cama!
. . .
“Easy Boogie”
Down in the bass
That steady beat
Walking walking walking
Like marching feet.
Down in the bass
That easy roll,
Rolling like I like it
In my soul.
Riffs, smears, breaks.
Hey, Lawdy, Mama!
Do you hear what I said?
Easy like I rock it
In my bed!
. . .
Las 3 de la mañana en el café…
Agentes de policía de la vicebrigada,
con ojos agotados y sádicos – divisando a los maricones.
Degenerados, dice alguna gente.
Pero Dios – o la Naturaleza – o alguien – les hizo en esa forma.
¿Una policía – o una Lesbiana – allá?

. . .
“Café: 3 a.m.”
Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
spotting fairies.
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
or somebody
made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
over there?
. . .

Calle número 125 (en Harlem)
Rostro como una barra de chocolate,
lleno de nueces – y dulce.
Cara como una calabaza de Hallowe’en,
y adentro una candela.
Rostro como una loncha de sandía
– y una sonrisa tan amplia.

. . .
“125th Street”
Face like a chocolate bar
full of nuts and sweet.
Face like a jack-o’-lantern,
candle inside.
Face like a slice of melon,
grin that wide.

. . .
Los blues en el alba
No oso empezar con algunos pensamientos
en las primeras horas del día
– no, no oso pensar en ese momento.
Si yo piense algo de pensamiento mientras estoy en cama,
esos pensamientos romperían mi cabeza
– pues, las mañanas: no oso empezar a pensar.
No oso recordar en el alba, no – nunca en el alba.
Porque, si yo evocara el día antes,
no me levantaría nunca más
– pues, las mañanas: no oso recordar.

. . .

“Blues at Dawn”
I don’t dare start thinking in the morning.
I don’t dare start thinking in the morning.
If I thought thoughts in bed,
Them thoughts would bust my head –
So I don’t dare start thinking in the morning.
I don’t dare remember in the morning
Don’t dare remember in the morning.
If I recall the day before,
I wouldn’t get up no more –
So I don’t dare remember in the morning.

. . .
El vecino
En el sur él se colocaba él mismo en la escalera de entrada – y miraba el sol pasando…
Aquí en Harlem, cuando está completo su trabajo – él se coloca en un bar con una cerveza.
Parece más alto que es, y más jóven que no es.
Parece su piel más oscura que es, también – y él es más listo que muestra su rostro.
No es listo, ese vato es un bufón tonto.
Aw, no es eso tampoco – es un buen tipo, salvo que platica demasiado.
A decir verdad es un cuate estupendo – pero cuando toma el vaso, bebe rápido.
A veces no bebe.
Es cierto, sólo deja estar allí su vaso – nada más.

. . .
Down home
he sets on a stoop
and watches the sun go by.
In Harlem
when his work is done
he sets in a bar with a beer.
He looks taller than he is
and younger than he ain’t.
He looks darker than he is, too.
And he’s smarter than he looks –
He ain’t smart.
That cat’s a fool.
Naw, he ain’t neither.
He’s a good man,
except that he talks too much.
In fact, he’s a great cat.
But when he drinks,
he drinks fast.
he don’t drink.
he just
lets his glass
set there.
. . .
La hora punta en el metropolitano
nuestro aliento, nuestro olor.
Tan cerca – nosotros, negros y blancos;
ningún espacio para el temor.
. . .
“Subway Rush Hour”
breath and smell
so close
black and white
so near
no room for fear.

. . .

Somos parientes – tú y yo;
tú del Caribe,
yo de Kentucky.
Familiar – tú y yo;
tú de África,
yo de los EE.UU.
Hermanos somos – tú y yo.
. . .
We’re related – you and I,
You from the West Indies,
I from Kentucky.
Kinsmen – you and I,
You from Africa,
I from U.S.A.
Brothers – you and I.

. . .

Rimas pequeñas corrientes
y una tonadilla ordinária
pueden ser casi peligrosas
como una astilla de la luna.
Una tonadilla ordinária
con unas pequeñas rimas corrientes
pueden ser navaja – a veces –
a la garganta de un hombre.
. . .

Cheap little rhymes
A cheap little tune
Are sometimes as dangerous
As a sliver of the moon.
A cheap little tune
To cheap little rhymes
Can cut a man’s
Throat sometimes.
. . .
Mi gente, les digo a ustedes:
el Nacimiento es duro
y la Muerte es miserable – así que
agarren ustedes mismos algo de Amor
entre aquellos dos.

. . .

Folks, I’m telling you:
Birthing is hard
And Dying is mean,
So get yourself
Some loving in between.
. . .
Lo juego muy tranquilo esta vida – y me gusta toda la jerga.
Es la razón que aún estoy vivo.
Mi lema,
como estoy viviendo, descubriendo, es:
dar amor-tomar amor y
. . .
I play it cool
And dig all jive.
That’s the reason
I stay alive.
My motto,
As I live and learn,
Dig And Be Dug
In Return.

. . .

No hemos incluido los dos poemas más famosos del poemario Montaje de un Sueño Diferido: Tarea para el segundo curso de inglés (“Theme for English B”) y “Harlem (2)”, más conocido por una frase extraída de su primera línea:  Un Sueño Diferido (A Dream Deferred).





. . . . .