Remembering those lost to racial injustice while hoping for a brighter tomorrow, with poems by Art Cohen, Robert Nelson and Ted Lockhart.
February is African American History Month. On this edition of Burning Bright, three pieces about the ongoing tragedy of Black men being unfairly accused and then punished outside the justice system for the crime of having been born Black. And — unusual for us at Passager — all three are rhyming poems.
Art Cohen started out as a legal aid lawyer in inner city East Baltimore in 1967 and has been trying to improve and make his community fairer to all ever since. He said his poem “Urban Requiem” “came right out of the events of April 2015: the fatal injuring of young Freddie Gray at the hands of local police, and the upsurge of community reaction as a result of his death.” He said that period reminded him of the aftermath of the April 1968 death of Martin Luther King.
For every Freddie Gray
A thousand others have gone
Unheeded invisible with
About what went down for them
It is like some huge mass
Where bodies accumulate and
Little changes with each
While accountability efforts
When will it all
So that we can be on
And loud and clear this
Each life demands that
Art Cohen’s poem “Urban Requiem” from Passager Issue 59.
This next poem “The Sense to Die” is also from Passager Issue 59. Robert Nelson said it was inspired by the recent deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers. He said his poems, short stories and novel all involve current social issues.
America, your sons lie in the street, uncovered and alone,
The squalid cages where they dwelled have boundaries not their own,
They’ve been abandoned from the womb, no indignation were they spared,
You’ve turned your back on dreams they had and left them crushed and lying there.
America, your sons have gasped for breath, on sidewalks ‘cross the land,
You’ve loaded burdens on their backs and shackles on their hands,
They crossed the sea against their will, and realized their darkest fears,
They’ve felt the lash, it’s never stopped, for more than half a thousand years,
America, your sons lie on the ground, with bullets in their backs,
They’re hunted down like rabid dogs in unprovoked attacks.
When laid to rest, you’ll hear a sigh that echoes to the sky,
The only peace they ever found was when they had the sense to die.
“The Sense to Die,” Robert Nelson.
And finally, this by retired United Methodist minister Ted Lockhart. “Black Man Walking.”
Black man walking,
Black man running,
How fast should I walk
You who do that talk?
Should I walk at double-time speed
Or imitate a slow-go steed?
What’s the right pace for me to run,
You who hold the gun?
Should I run at the jogger’s pace
Or do you want my sprinter’s race?
Black man walking,
Black man running,
Black man walking in my neighborhood.
Everyone knows he’s up to no good.
Call security, the police, and the watchman for our ‘hood,
Cuz a black man is walking in our neighborhood.
Black man running down the street,
Everyone knows he is fleeing the heat.
Call Security, tell the police a thief is out here running.
Better yet, let us go get him with our own gunning.
Black man walking in the land of the free,
Somebody stalking in the name of liberty.
Black man running in America the Beautiful,
Somebody gunning in a seeming act dutiful.
On the other side a voice rang out,
“Whom shall I send to bring him about?”
“Send Martin,” some said, “He’ll fill the bill.”
“Not me,” King said, “send Emmett Till.”
So one murdered black boy-child,
On a visit in a Mississippi city,
Fetched another boy-child,
On a visit in a Florida city.
Shot stone dead for walking like it was his,
And yours and even ours, singing
My Country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of . . .
O how long have we been looking for thee, America?
O how long?
Ted Lockhart’s poem “Black Man Walking” from the book The Poets of Ingleside at Rock Creek.
To buy The Poets of Ingleside at Rock Creek or to subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts and various other podcast apps.
For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.