The Hill We Climb

Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, January 20, 2021.

— Amanda Gorman, January 20, 2021

Amanda Gorman was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Raised in West L.A., Gorman’s early worldview was shaped by her mother’s experience as a sixth-grade teacher in the (still, always) under-served community of Watts. Her work as an activist, which includes spoken word performances, poetry, children’s books, videos, and more, frequently emphasizes intersectionality, calling for unity even while celebrating our differences. “I feel it’s prudent to understand that to fight for one group of people is essentially to fight for all people,” she notes. “You can’t be against racism but anti-trans, just like you can’t be feminist and anti-black — they’re practically oxymorons! All communities are interwoven and affect each other, either directly or indirectly.”

[Research Note: Amanda Gorman]

Protest

— Imani Cezanne, National Poetry Slam, 2015

Imani Cezanne, originally from San Diego, is a poet, activist, and educator. Her spoken-word poetry is rooted in her experiences as a Black woman in the world, exploring race (see above), family (see above), violence (see above), injustice (see above), and protest (see above). She is the founding President of S.P.E.A.K. (Spoken Poetry Expressed by All Kinds), San Francisco State University’s first poetry-centered organization. She has won many Grand Slam Championships. She was the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam Co-Champion, and in March she became the 2020 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion.

[Research Note: Imani Cezanne]

Not for Him the Fiery Lake of the False Prophet

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
— Donald Trump, June 16, 2015

They woke him up by pissing in his face. He opened his mouth
to scream in Spanish, so his mouth became a urinal at the ballpark.

Scott and Steve: the Leader brothers, celebrating a night at Fenway,
where the Sox beat the Indians and a rookie named Rodríguez spun
the seams on his changeup to hypnotize the Tribe. Later that night,
Steve urinated on the door of his cell, and Scott told the cops why
they did it: Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.

He was a Mexican in a sleeping bag outside JFK station on a night
in August, so they called him a wetback and emptied their bladders
in his hair. In court, the lawyers spoke his name: Guillermo Rodríguez,
immigrant with papers, crop-picker in the fields, trader of bottles
and cans collected in his cart. Two strangers squashed the cartilage
in his nose like a can drained of beer. In dreams, he would remember
the shoes digging into his ribcage, the pole raked repeatedly across
his cheekbones and upraised knuckles, the high-five over his body.

Donald Trump was right, said Scott. And Trump said: The people
that are following me are very passionate. His hands fluttered
as he spoke, a demagogue’s hands, no blood under the fingernails,
no whiff of urine to scrub away. He would orchestrate the chant
of Build That Wall at rally after rally, bellowing till the blood rushed
to his face, red as a demagogue in the grip of masturbatory dreams:
a tribute to the new conquistador, the Wall raised up by Mexican hands,
Mexican hair and fingernails bristling in the brick, Mexican blood
swirling in the cement like raspberry syrup on a vanilla sundae.
On the Cinco de Mayo, he leered over a taco bowl at Trump Tower.

Not for him the fiery lake of the false prophet, reddening
his ruddy face. Not for him the devils of Puritan imagination,
shrieking in a foreign tongue and climbing in the window
like the immigrant demons he conjures for the crowd.
Not even for him ten thousand years of the Leader brothers,
streaming a fountain of piss in his face as he sputters forever.

For him, Hell is a country where the man in a hard hat
paving the road to JFK station sees Guillermo and dials 911;
Hell is a country where EMTs kneel to wrap a blanket around
the shivering shoulders of Guillermo and wipe his face clean;
Hell is a country where the nurse at the emergency room
hangs a morphine drip for Guillermo, so he can go back to sleep.
Two thousand miles away, someone leaves a trail of water bottles
in the desert for the border crossing of the next Guillermo.

We smuggle ourselves across the border of a demagogue’s dreams:
Confederate generals on horseback tumble one by one into
the fiery lake of false prophets; into the fiery lake crumbles
the demolished Wall. Thousands stand, sledgehammers in hand,
to await the bullhorns and handcuffs, await the trembling revolvers.
In the full moon of the flashlight, every face interrogates the interrogator.
In the full moon of the flashlight, every face is the face of Guillermo.

— Martín Espada

Martín Espada’s published his first book of political poems, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, illustrated with photographs taken by his father, in 1982. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. Professor of English at UMass-Amherst, Espada was awarded the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

[Research note: Poetry (November 2018)]

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)]

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)]