On this Thoughtful Thursday our thoughts could be on nothing else but the incredible failure of another grand jury to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed Black man. And using an illegal chokehold to take him down as a cellphone camera recorded the entire thing, so there is no question as to what transpired.
As this is Thoughtful Thursday we turn to poetry. Protest poetry by Black poets of differing generations, responding to different events, but with the same sense of sadness and outrage. “If We Must Die”, written by Claude McKay in 1919. “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song” written by Countee Cullen in 1934. “Battle of a Landlord” by Langston Hughes, 1943. “right on: white america” by Sonia Sanchez, 1969. Read these poems and show them to your older sons. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
If We Must Die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Claude McKay, 1919
Scottsboro Too, Is Worth Its Song
(a poem to American poets)
Now will the poets sing,⎯
Their cries go thundering
Like blood and tears
Into the nation’s ears,
Like lightning dart
Into the nation’s heart.
Against disease and death and all things fell, And war,
Their strophes1 rise and swell
The foe smug in his citadel.
Remembering their sharp and pretty Tunes for Sacco and Vanzetti,2
Here too’s a cause divinely spun
For those whose eyes are on the sun, Here in epitome
Is all disgrace
And epic wrong.
Like wine to brace
The minstrel heart, and blare it into song.
Surely, I said,
Now will the poets sing.
But they have raised no cry. I wonder why.
Countee Cullen, 1934
Battle of the Landlord
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ’member I told you about it Way last week?
These steps is broken down. When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you Till you fix this house up new.
Um-huh! You talking high and mighty. Talk on ⎯ till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word If I land my fist on you.
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government And overturn the land!
Copper’s whistle! Patrol bell! Arrest.
Precinct Station. Iron cell. Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL.
Langston Hughes, 1943
right on: white america
this country might have been a pio
but. there ain’t
￼with a different
image of america.
but. there ain’t
no mo real/ white allamerican
u & me
blk/ and un/armed.
this country might have
been a pio
neer land once.
and it still is.
gun/shells on our blk/tomorrows.
Sonia Sanchez 1970
image: Hands, Glenn Ligon 1996