Politics and Poetry: Black Lives Matter

ross gay

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which started because, you know, black lives matter and black bodies shouldn’t find themselves beaten by police, murdered, and ignored. Because Black Lives Matter is a grassroots movement that stems out and extends the ongoing civil rights movement (because, seriously, that never ended and equal rights have never been granted to people of color), there are a lot of poems out there across social media spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. that help perpetuate the movement’s voice. I have three selections here today I feel are strong pieces of poetry as well as a strong representation of the movement itself.

Dr. Ross Gay is a black male American poet. He has three collections of poetry published thus far, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Against Which. This poem is titled “A Small Needful Fact”:

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

The last two pieces come from Danez Smith. Smith is a black, queer writer and performer from St. Paul, MN. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Kinsfolk, as well as Buzzfeed (for those that don’t read poetry journals regularly to find poetry). He was also a finalist in the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam and is a founding member of the multigenre, multicultural Dark Noise Collective:

not an elegy for Mike Brown

I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.

His second poem is titled “alternative names for black boys”

1. smoke above the burning bush
2. archnemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

This is just a small sample of the Black Lives Matter poetry that is out there for reading. Besides contemporary poetry found here, BLM has revived poets like Audre Lorde (who can be read in our Politics and Poetry: Feminism post) and poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

Poetry, in our contemporary age, is heavily linked not just to our feelings but to our bodies and how those bodies are misused by those in power under our current political system. Black Lives Matter poetry engages readers on the political level by making public and poetic the deaths and abuses of black bodies happening everyday in America.

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