Poetry Performs as an Act of Civil Rights

African American poets have long understood that language can be used to instigate chaos, but also to make sense out of nonsense, order out of disorder. Today, this understanding has unassailable currency. In a moment of history marred by the prevalent use of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” — language that constantly puts truth on trial, favoring feeling over fact, emotions over ethics — Black poets still lead the way, taking advantage of the powerful role words play when poetry performs as an act of civil rights.

Freedom House, an advocacy group for global democracy, reports a “dismissive attitude toward core civil and political rights” as fomenting ground for gross abuses of civil and human rights and threats to democracy in the United States. Guardian writer Matthew d'Ancona places the public’s growing appetite for mendacity at the heart of such attitudes, “the growing primacy of emotional resonance over fact and evidence.” In “Ten alternative facts for the post truth world,” d’Ancona claims: “Truth is losing its value as society’s reserve currency.”

But the Freedom House report, titled Democracy in Retreat, balances the dismal with light and evokes hope. Observing that America’s firm status among the world’s free countries owes largely to effective social movements, it attests to current events as a continuance of the human struggle for freedom, justice, and democracy. It also points to the power of the written, spoken, sung, and signed word. Tenets of the 1964 Civil Rights Act rest on principles that became the major subjects of freedom songs wrought from spirituals, gospels, calypso forms, and the blues. Poet-songwriters such as Alicia Keys continue the tradition today with songs like “We Gotta Pray.”

So, too, do literary poets, as the 19th US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey confirms in “Poet’s Notebook: Pilgrimage, Revisited.” The following verses have, over time, encouraged America to address the protection of every citizen’s constitutional rights and every human’s entitlement to dignity and liberty as a national struggle. In “Fifty Years, 1863-1913” (1917), James Weldon Johnson refuses to submit to racial violence and intolerance of difference. Considering three centuries of disenfranchising African Americans to whom “this land” belongs by “birth” and “toil,” Johnson’s speaker appeals to the remaining faith of those who feel that despite their fight for American freedom — “Attucks' willing blood” — they wait in vain “to hear” from their country “some voice for justice raised.”

Five decades later, the “wait,” now with Black self-determinist leanings, continues in Naomi Long Madgett’s “Midway” (1959) and Julian Bond’s “I, Too, Hear America Singing” (1960). Madgett’s collective “I” claims that “in time you’ll know you need me and it won’t be long,” while Bond’s speaker, with an ear to the soul of a people’s music, won’t “mind standing / a little longer.”

In “Malcolm” (1966), however, Sonia Sanchez will have none of waiting for equal rights and first-class citizenship still denied to women and African Americans in the late ‘60s. The vision for a “better union” gives way to the poem’s speaker throwing light on America’s hand in its self-destruction by disenfranchising over half of its population. Instead, Sanchez’s speaker empowers the population, encouraging them to embrace a sense of community, a space to grow “rebellious” and creative within the places that exclude them.

Alice Walker’s “Revolutionary Petunias” (1973) echoes the commitment to nurturing unity and community found in the work of Johnson, Madgett, and Sanchez. Walker’s speaker appeals to a faith in one’s nature to bloom and grow — “Rebellious.” Like Walker, poets as diverse as Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, and E. Ethelbert Miller urge a communal “self” to bond through shared experiences of resistance. These poets also challenge the communal self to declare their ownership and the right to help shape the laws that govern it. As June Jordan’s “angry Black woman on the subject of the angry / White man” in “Jim Crow: The Sequel” exclaims: “Justice don’t mean nothin’ to a / hateful heart!”

At the turn of the century, Toi Derricotte’s “Love Story in Black and White” (2013) boldly confronts that “hateful heart” hardened by well-known “fears and angers— / heirlooms of slavery—.” But the speakers in both Derricotte’s poem and my tribute to fallen activist Heather Heyer, (“Stronger, August 2017” ), are determined to amend “the violence of history” with love, the most potent weapon against hate. This comes close to the treatment of love as a central theme in Natasha Trethewey’s autobiographical poem, “Elegy” (2012). Through a fishing trip metaphor, the poem’s speaker introduces Trethewey’s own story of separation initiated by her white father. In “Her Swing,” Eric Trethewey reduces his biracial daughter to the study of a “crossbreed child.”

Natasha Trethewey, however, examines the “misnomer / and taxonomy, the language of zoology” by exploring cultural artifacts across time and space which tell similar stories of parsing the mixed-race body for evidence of whiteness. Her findings set a historical precedent for her father’s act of separation and inevitable dependency on a language of division and classification used for centuries to justify empirical doctrines of blood superiority and the systematic segregation of mixed-race people via bogus taxonomies to which they were literally “in thrall.” Yet, in keeping with the theme of love, Trethewey writes “Elegy” to consider her father’s actions not in hatred, but in an effort to warn that while they hurt her, they were drowning him.

The theme of love and dedication to truth-telling in “Elegy” connects Trethewey to American poets across races and cultures still writing for freedom because the struggle remains no bygone era in this post-truth moment. Phillip Luke Sinitiere, a white poet writing about a fellow Black citizen, uses wordplay in “A Literary Libation on Sandra Bland Parkway” (2018) to “perform a literary reversal” by “re-doubling the imagery of light (as when . . . [Encinia] screamed he'd ‘light’ Sandy up) with Sandy ‘returning’ through the digital resurrection of her Sandy Speaks videos.” Someone is praying.

About the Author

Olga Dugan is a Cave Canem poet. Her award-winning poems appear in The Southern Quarterly, Origins, Virga Poetry, E-Verse Radio, The Sunlight Press, Tipton Poetry Journal, The Peacock Journal, Kweli, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Pirene’s Fountain, The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku, Cave Canem Anthology: XIII, and Scribble. Olga's most recent articles on the work of US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014) appear in the Journal of African American History and in Emory University's "Meet the Fellows." Olga has a Ph.D. in literary history and culture from the University of Rochester and is a Lindback professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia.