Black Men & Poetry

“Black lives matter” is an idea in the making…

The Poet Himself

The Poet as Black Man:  Yusef Komunyakaa                 photo credit: Tom Wallace

for which many people have and continue to give their lives.

If you follow the US calendar, you’ll see that February was Black History Month, as if there’s just the one time of year to consider a whole race of people.   Proof positive (for me) that we are a country that likes to pat itself on the back for doing the ‘right thing’, but all we are doing is Hallmark-ifying (make trite and sappy) the hard or meaninful things in our lives.

Watching the good trains go by

Watching the good trains go by  (Romare Bearden, 1988)

Certainly Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, did not mean for it to succumb to this fate:

Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, like W. E. B. Du Bois before him, believed that truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice. His hopes to raise awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization was realized when he and the organization he founded, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), conceived and announced Negro History Week in 1925. The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The response was overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils; and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort.


If there is to be any thinking about ‘Negro Life’ and its influence on our civilization, as was the hope of Mr. Woodson, it cannot happen without reading the writings of the people who live and lived it.

Henry Dumas, Poet

Henry Dumas, Poet

A good place to start is poet Henry Dumas, shot by a NYC transit cop in 1968 when he was thirty-three.  Dumas’s career overlapped with Langston Hughes’ who’d passed just a year before.  It is without question that Hughes deserves all the hoopla and ticker tape he gets, but Dumas was no slouch and could use some ticker tape too:


Neon stripes tighten my wall

where my crayon landlord hangs

from a bent nail.

My black father sits crooked

in the kitchen

drunk on Jesus’ blood turned

to cheap wine.

In his tremor he curses

the landlord who grins

from inside the rent book.

My father’s eyes

are bolls of cotton.

Follow the trail of Dumas to Yusef Komunyakaa, a poet who writes the guts out of a poem––taboo topics get the quiet elegant treatment and political musings make fine talking points:


The war’s over.  Daddy’s dead

beneath a hero’s white oak,

& I’m left with this

gimpy leg, a Yankee’s

bullet nestled in a bone

finer than Grecian

porcelain.  The cotton flowers

are gone.  Voices stolen

from the air, days

left like mud eels

after the river’s receded––

And see how they were both begat by Langton Hughes:

The Panther: Langton Hughes

The Panther: Langton Hughes

excerpted from CULTURAL EXCHANGE

In the Quarter of the Negroes

Where the doors are doors of paper

Dust of dingy atoms

Blows a scratchy sound.

Amorphous jack-o’-lanterns caper

and the wind won’t wait for midnight

For fun to blow doors down.

And because I am one to play the race card, I have to say that one poem that adds another layer of understanding to the Black experience for me is Philip Levine’s DETROIT GREASE SHOP POEM (may he rest in peace):

We’re all here to be count

and to be counted, Lemon,

Rosie, Eugene, Luis,

and me, too young to know

this is for keeps, pinning

on my apron, rolling up

my sleeves.

The roof leaks

from yesterday’s rain,

waiting for the on mistake.

When a drop fall on Lemon’s

corded arm, he looks at it

as though it were something

rare or mysterious

like a drop of water or

a single lucid meteor

fallen slowly from

nowhere and burning on

his skin like a tear.


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