In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, TNB Poetry has created this space for BIPOC voices to shine. We will be publishing work by Black poets daily. Black Lives Matter.
The bold arc of your odyssey: from soul-shunting slavery to sweeping vision,
From bales and blisters to blackboard chalk and opened books—
Dear Booker, as in your flinty era of lynch-ropes and urgent witness,
Brother after luckless brother is consigned to runaway gunfire,
Though they claim this purblind, punch-clock carnage,
This jeopardy (our children turned to carrion in Ferguson, our water turned poison in Flint) is not a form of broadcast war.
Booker, you died in 1915—in a cat’s-cradle of malignant war,
Human beacon, slave-no-more, captain of perpetual vision,
In a roiling era of gas masks and carnage,
Each battle-lost son a poppy blooming on a black lapel, or pressed into a gilt-edged book,
Each staunch fusilier surrendered to the incessant gunfire
Of Flanders Fields—conveyed in soldier-poets’ verses of keen witness—
Dear Mr. Washington, you were, time after time, an industrious seer, a stalwart witness
To everyday injustice, meaning the petty, unrelenting wars
Designed to keep a sharecropper under thumb, under constant fire—
Bolstered by your earthbound grit and reformer’s vision;
There was no block, no Dixieland hurdle that could stymie you, Booker,
Deter you from battling bigotry’s around-the-clock carnage,
Knowing prayer alone couldn’t rout the Klan’s galloping, pale-hooded riders, sowing fly-by-night carnage.
In Baptist pews and banquet halls, you were always an unstinting witness
To lynching. As a once-upon-time slave, you found sanctuary, sanity, and probity in books,
Culling strategies to stop this heinous war
Against Black progress—bolstering us with a stirring vision
Able to spur a dispossessed people past torched crops, bigots’ arson, or the bullying fire
Of a burning wolf’s hour cross. No revolution ignites, without the match-burst of human fire,
You remind us—in your ardent refusal to acquiesce to Jim Crow’s carnage;
No liberation takes hold sans determination, a dogged vision:
Gallantry and action linked to unfailing witness,
A workaday prayer to cleanse our divided country of bigotry and break-spirit war
By blessing the progeny of slaves, the first students at Tuskegee, with books, a plethora of books,
By proclaiming to former “birds of the iron feather,” once forbidden to read, the holiness, the sacramental probity of books,
Fashioning your own fabled book as an anti-venom to gunfire,
Fashioning a remedy for iron-eyed ghosts of slavery and inglorious civil war.
Booker, a century has passed and still, this numbing, nonstop carnage
Disclosed to us in pitiless footage, Dashcam witness:
No matter what verdict any rigged grand jury proclaims, we can never un-see these calamities, these appalling visions—
Intrepid man without a birthdate, from a chapter in your book of victories, send us an epiphany, some emboldening vision;
In this denigrating war against Black bodies, we crave the beacon-flash of your colossal witness:
Lead us, urge us past up-to-the-minute lynch mobs and teeming Jim Crow jails, the rash cops’ ready gunfire and all-too-daily carnage.