Black History, Abridged

When I was four, an elderly white woman bought my elementary school while I was still going to school inside it. Tore the building down. Now, it’s a parking lot.

— Joshua Bennett

Raised in New York, poet and performance artist Joshua Bennett studied English and Africana Studies as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania before earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

[Research note: Joshua Bennett, “Black History, Abridged,” The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016) p. 53; Phillip Williams, “Poet to Watch: Joshua Bennett,” Glappitnova (December 27, 2014)]

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Never Shall I Forget

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long
night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed
into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the
desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned
my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
Never.

— Elie Wiesel

A deserted street in Sighet Marmatiei after the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto. Taken May 1944.
Image courtesy: US Holocaust Memorial Museum & Albert Rosenthal

Along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population, fifteen-year-old Elie Wiesel was confined to a ghetto in Máramarossziget (Sighet), Hungary, in March 1944 when the German army occupied the country. In May 1944, the Wiesel family was sent to Auschwitz, where Elie’s sister and mother were murdered. Elie and his father were later sent to Buchenwald, where Elie’s father subsequently died — taken to the crematorium in the middle of the night.

Sandhills Sandwich Town

I can still feel my wet bare feet
slippin’ on the hot summer concrete
coming home from your old swimming pool
Alliance, you are the Sandhills’ sandwich town
with country-fried-chicken hospitality
so proud to be white-skinned
churchgoing and somewhat dim
Bible school, Boy Scouts, and bigotry
the mighty Lakota Sioux falling-down drunk
in your gutters
unending arrests, subsequent suicides
four dead in the time it takes a life to begin
AND I WON’T LET YOU FORGET
Jo No Leaf
Chillo Whirlwind
Arthur Gene Black Horse
Irene Blackfeather
not even Clarence Pumpkin Seed
the 250 times you locked him up
before they found him frozen stiff
in Whiteclay
so picture Chillo, at eighteen he’s kicking
the wastebasket he’s standing on
picture his bath-towel necktie
picture Gene’s thin leather belt
and Jo’s wine-stained sweatshirt
picture them dangling
in your jail cells
after they cut the bodies down
picture poor Irene coughing her lungs out
your chief cop who thought
she was just inebriated
and your doctor whose sleep
was more important than her life
then picture
the agony of nails pounded through the hands
of Jesus Christ

— David Hugh Bunnell

Between October 1970 and June 1971, four members of the Lakota tribe died or were murdered in the Alliance (Nebraska) City Jail. Angered by the town’s failure to sufficiently investigate the deaths, David Hugh Bunnell, still in his early twenties and a long way from his career as a computer magazine mogul, submitted Sandhills Sandwich Town to the annual “Poetry Day” edition of the Alliance Times-Herald. His father, then editor of the newspaper, printed the poem on October 15, 1971. “My word ignited a firestorm,” Bunnell later said. “Subscriptions were canceled and advertising pulled, and letters to the editor flooded the newsroom; at home my dad received anonymous threatening phone calls and my mom was embarrassed. I became a persona non grata.”

[Research note: David Hugh Bunnell, Good Friday on the Rez ( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017)]

Borderbus

A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to come
A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to get us hermana
Pero qué hicimos but what did we do
Speak in English come on
Nomás sé unas pocas palabras I just know a few words

You’d better figure it out hermana the guard is right there
See the bus driver

Tantos días y ni sabíamos para donde íbamos
So many days and we didn’t even know where we were headed

I know where we’re going
Where we always go
To some detention center to some fingerprinting hall or cube
Some warehouse warehouse after warehouse

Pero ya nos investigaron ya cruzamos ya nos cacharon
Los federales del bordo qué más quieren
But they already questioned us we already crossed over they
already grabbed us the Border Patrol what more do they want

We are on the bus now
that is all

A dónde vamos te digo salí desde Honduras
No hemos comido nada y dónde vamos a dormer
Where are we going I am telling you I came from Honduras
We haven’t eaten anything and where are we going to sleep

I don’t want to talk about it just tell them
That you came from nowhere
I came from nowhere
And we crossed the border from nowhere
And now you and me and everybody else here is
On a bus to nowhere you got it?

Pero pore so nos venimos para salir de la nada
But that’s why we came to leave all that nothing behind

When the bus tops there will be more nothing
We’re here hermana

Y esas gentes quiénes son
No quieren que siga el camion
No quieren que sigamos
Están bloqueando el bus
A dónde vamos ahora
Those people there who are they
they don’t want the bus to keep going
they don’t want us to keep going
now they are blocking the bus
so where do we go

What?

He tardado 47 días para llegar acá no fue fácil hermana
45 días desde Honduras con los coyotes los que se – bueno
ya sabes lo que les hicieron a las chicas allí mero en frente
de nosotros per qué íbamos a hacer y los trenes los trenes
cómo dire hermana cientos de
nosotros como gallinas como topos en jaulas y verduras
pudriendóse en los trenes de miles me oyes de miles y se resbalaban
de los techos y los desiertos de Arizona de Tejas sed y hambre
sed y hambre dos cosas sed y hambre día tras día hermana
y ahora aquí en este camion y quién sabe a dónde
vamos hermana fíjate vengo desde Brownsville dónde nos amarraron
y ahora California per todavía no entramos y todavía el bordo
está por delante
It took me 47 days to get here it wasn’t easy hermana
45 days from Honduras with the coyotes the ones – well
you know what they did to las chicas
right there in front of us so what were we supposed
to do and the trains how can I tell you hermana hundreds
of us like chickens like gophers in cages and vegetables
rotting on the trains of thousands you hear me thousands and they slid
from the rooftops and the deserts of Arizona and Texas thirst and hunger
thirst and hunger two things thirst and hunger day after day hermana
and now here on this bus of who-knows-where we are going
hermana listen I come from Brownsville where they tied us up
and now in California but still we’re not inside and still the border
lies ahead of us

I told you to speak in English even un poquito
the guard is going to think we are doing something
people are screaming outside
they want to push the bus back

Pero para dónde les damos hermana
pore so me vine
le quebraron las piernas a mi padre
las pandillas mataron a mi hijo
solo quiero que estemos juntos
tantos años hermana
separados
But where do we go hermana
that’s why I came here
they broke my father’s legs
gangs killed my son
I just want us to be together
so many years hermana
pulled apart

What?

Mi madre me dijo que lo más importante
es la libertad la bondad y la buenas acciones
con el prójimo
My mother told me that the most important thing
is freedom kindness and doing good
for others

What are you talking about?
I told you to be quiet

La libertad viene desde muy adentro
allí reside todo el dolor de todo el mundo
el momento en que purguemos ese dolor de nuestras
seremos libres y en ese momento tenemos que
llenarnos de todo el dolor de todos los seres
Freedom comes from deep inside
all the pain of the world lives there
the second we cleanse that pain from our guts
we shall be free and in that moment we have to
fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings
to free them – all of them

The guard is coming well
now what maybe they’ll take us
to another detention center we’ll eat we’ll have a floor
a blanket toilets water and each other
for awhile

No somos nada y venimos de la nada
pero esa nada lo es todo si la nutres de amor
por eso venceremos
We are nothing and we come from nothing
but that nothing is everything, if you feed it with love
that is why we will triumph

We are everything hermana
Because we come from everything

— Juan Felipe Herrera

The son of Mexican migrant workers, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. As a young man, he became involved street and spoken-word performances as part of the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from high school in San Diego, he earned a B.A. in Social Anthropology from UCLA, a Masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. He is a Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside and CSU-Fresno.

[Research note: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Borderbus,” Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2015), pp. 59-63]

Power

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being
ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a 10-year-old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove that. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size or nothing else
only the color.” And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black woman’s frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

— Audre Lorde

On April 28, 1973, Thomas Shea, a white police officer in Queens, NY, shot ten-year-old Clifford Glover in the back. In 1974, a jury of 12 judged Shea not guilty of murder, prompting American (black, feminist, lesbian) poet Audre Lorde to write Power. This poem was included in her 1976 collection Between Our Selves.

[Research note: Jim Dwyer, “A Police Shot to a Boy’s Back in Queens, Echoing Since 1973,” New York Times (April 16, 2015)]

The Grand Silos of the Sacramento

From a distance, at night, they seem to be
industries — all lit up but not on the map;
or, in this scientific age, they could be
installations for launching rocket ships —
so solid, and with such security, are they . . .
Ah, but up close, by the light of day,
we see, not “pads” but actual paddies —
for these are simply silos in ricefields,
structures to hold the harvested grain.
Still, they’re the tallest things around,
and, by night or day, you’d have to say
they’re ample for what they do: storage.
And, if you amble around from your car,
you can lean up against one in the sun,
feeling warmth on your cheek as you spread
out your arms, holding on to the whole world
around you, to the shores of other lands
where the laborers launched their lives
to arrive and plant and harvest this grain
of history — as you hold and look, look
up, up, up, and whisper: “Grandfather!”

— Lawson Fusao Inada

American poet Lawson Fusao Inada was born in 1938 in Fresno, California. He was four years old when he was incarcerated with his family by the U.S government. Together with more than 5,000 other Japanese-Americans from Fresno, the Inada family was imprisoned at the county fairgrounds before being forcibly relocated to concentration camps.

How We See

After Treblinka
And the spezialkommando
Who tore a child with bare hands
Before its mother in Warsaw
We see differently.

Men taken from workshops and farms to fight for kaiser and king
Lived in a world asleep in mist
The spezialkommando lived in a world of electric lights cinemas planes and radios
We see racist slogans chalked on walls differently
We see walls differently.

— Edward Bond

Polish Jews captured by Germans during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler, May 1943.

Edward Bond is best known as a playwright. His experimental plays, which often featured scenes of violence linked to themes of social injustice, imperialism, war, and apartheid, tested the limits of censorship and morals laws in the U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s.

A Few Days

Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.
Under oppression’s shadows condemned to breathe,
Still for a time we must bear them, and tears, and endure
What our forefathers, not our own faults, bequeath:
Fettered limbs, each impulse held on a chain,
Minds in bondage, our words all watched and set down
Courage still nerves us, or how should we still exist,
Now with existence only a beggar’s gown,
Tattered, and patched every hour with new rags of pain?
Yes, but to tyranny not many hours are left now;
Patience a little, few hours of lamenting remain.
In this parched air of an age that desert sands choke
We must stay now — not forever and ever stay!
Under this load beyond words of a foreign yoke
We must submit for a while — not for ever submit!
Dust of affliction that clings to your beauty today,
Crosses unnumbered that mar our few mornings of youth,
Torment of silver nights, a pain with no cure,
Heartache unanswered, the body’s long cry of despair —
Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.

— Faiz Ahmad Faiz
(Trans. by Victor Kiernan)

Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was a politically active leftist and member of the Communist Party. After Partition, he worked as the editor of the Pakistan Times, a socialist English-language newspaper. He was arrested on March 9, 1951, and charged with plotting a coup against the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan. Faiz was given the death penalty and spent four years in prison before his sentence was commuted by Prime Minister Huseyn Shurawardy. After his release, he lived in exile until 1964. Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on October 16, 1951.