The Sobbing School

is where I learned to brandish the black like a club
you know, like a blunt object, or cobalt flashes of strobe
dotting damp walls after dusk drops the dark motion
our modern world can’t hold. There’s a process
by which bodies blend in, or don’t, or die, or roll on
past the siren’s glow so as not to subpoena the grave.
Mama never said surviving this flesh was a kind
of perverse science, but I’ve seen the tape,
felt the metal close & lock around my wrists, witnessed
bone bisected by choke hold. A crow turns crimson
against the windshield & who would dare mourn
such clean transition, the hazard of not knowing
you are the wrong kind of alive. But enough
about extinction. Entire towns mad with grief, whole
modes of dreaming gone the way of life before lyric,
all faded into amber & archive, all dead as the VCR,
all buried below the surface where nothing breaks, bleeds.

— Joshua Bennett

American 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.

The Sobbing School was inspired by the words of Zora Neale Hurston: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. . . . No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

[Research note: Joshua Bennett, The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016)]

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Half-Mexican

Odd to be half-Mexican, let me put it this way
I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the other half
To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing
One could say only Mexican
Then think of pyramids — obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with
With flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts — these are not Mexican
They are existences, that is to say
Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum,
Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees
Then darkness
What is the other — yes
It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles
European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect
Better to think of Kant in his tiny room
Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time
Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation
Concerning the way light bends — all this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half being

Time

Light

How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your lifelong project, that is
You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half
Mexican, then the half against itself.

— 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, “Half-Mexican,” Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2015), pp. 87]

Minidoka, Idaho

In Minidoka
I ordered a pair of white
majorette boots
with tassels from
Montgomery Ward
and swaggered in
ankle deep dust.

I heard
bullsnakes were sprinkled
along the edges
to rid of us dread
rattlers.
A few of their orphans
hatched and escaped behind
barbed wires
befriended by boys
with mayonnaise jars.

Let them go I said to Joe
they will poison us.
But they are lost, and see? Blind
Joe said.
We rescued them
from the bullies.

— Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada was born in Japan and moved with her family to Seattle when she was three years old. Her father was the founder and president of the Senryu (Japanese 17-syllable poetry) Society in Seattle. Mr. Yamada was arrested, accused of being an enemy of the state, on December 7, 1941. In 1942, Mitsuye was imprisoned with her family in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho.

[Research notes: Camp Notes and Other Writings (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 1976), p. 18]

Claudette Colvin Goes to Work

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case. . . . This must be stopped.
— Boycott Flier, December 5, 1955

Menial twilight seeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance — lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.

Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light — one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
Toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer — as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason

you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy —
What we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid, my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.

I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick and scratch like they said I did then
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done . . . and I sleep
Whenever sleep comes down on me.

— Rita Dove

Claudette Colvin in 1953. Image courtesy: The Visibility Project / Claudette Colvin

Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote this poem about Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old high school student from Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, 1955, as Colvin was on her way to school at Booker T. Washington High School, the bus driver demanded she give up her seat so a white woman could take it. Colvin refused to get up and was subsequently dragged off the bus and sent to an adult detention center. She was eventually convicted in juvenile court of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault.

[Research note: Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), p. 79]

For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Estaban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks

I have noticed that the hostess in peasant dress,
the wait staff and the boss
share the complexion of a flour tortilla.
I have spooked the servers at my table
by trilling the word burrito.
I am aware of your T-shirt solidarity
with the refugees of the Américas,
since they steam in your kitchen.
I know my cousin Estaban the sculptor
rolled tortillas in your kitchen with the fingertips
of ancestral Puerto Rican cigarmakers.
I understand he wanted to be a waiter,
but you proclaimed his black dreadlocks unclean,
so he hissed in Spanish
and his apron collapsed on the floor.

May La Migra handcuff the wait staff
as suspected illegal aliens from Canada;
may a hundred mice dive from the oven
like diminutive leaping dolphins
during your Board of Health inspection;
may the kitchen workers strike, sitting
with folded hands as enchiladas blacken
and twisters of smoke panic the customers;
may a Zapatista squadron commandeer the refrigerator,
liberating a pillar of tortillas at gunpoint;
may you hallucinate dreadlocks
braided in thick vines around your ankles;
and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies
to the menu wait for you in the parking lot
at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.

— Martín Espada

Poet and activist Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Frank Espada, was active in the labor and civil rights movement. Much of Espada’s poetry focuses on immigration, Latino rights, and the working class experience in the United States.

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)]

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]

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.