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Posts Tagged ‘George Floyd’

Day five of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life—

 

 

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

song by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas

 

 

I wish I knew how

It would feel to be free

I wish I could break

All the chains holding me

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

I wish I could share

All the love that’s in my heart

Remove all the bars

That keep us apart

I wish you could know

Well I wish I could be

Like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be

If I found I could fly

Oh I’d soar to the sun

And look down at the sea

 

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know

I’d know how it feels

Oh I know how it feels to be free

Yea yea! Oh, I know how it feels

 

Yes I know, oh, I know

How it feels

How it feels

To be free, Lord, Lord, Lord

 

What it means to be me

Then you’d see and agree

That every man should be free

 

I wish I could give

All I’m longin’ to give

I wish I could live

Like I’m longin’ to live

I wish I could do

All the things that I can do

And though I’m way over due

I’d be starting anew

 

 

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a song not a poem, but who doesn’t need some music right now? And this is one great song. Reading the lyrics, listening to it sung by the incomparable Nina Simone, I think about how I’ve always been allowed to feel free . . . and how others have not, others who have to keep their guard up, modulate their voices, change their hair texture, restrain their anger at authorities who don’t respect them, train their children to keep safe in ways white parents don’t have to.

 

Maybe this moment is here—

 

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

*

Among the many things I never knew about the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was that “I Wish I Knew How” was one of its anthems. The song’s history mirrors the arc of the song itself—it begins sweet and swinging and builds to soul-moving power. Jazz composer Billy Taylor originally wrote it as an instrumental in 1952, inspired when his daughter came home from school singing a spiritual, but he didn’t record it till 1963. The lyrics came later, written in collaboration with Dick Dallas. The instrumental version was used for a British television show that reviewed movies, and a modified version was eventually used for, yes, you guessed it, a Coke commercial.

 

The song found its audience when Nina Simone recorded it in 1967. Simone’s earliest musical training was in church (she played her first piano solo in church at age 2 1/2, surprising even her mother, a Methodist preacher) and she brings out the gospel flavor of the song, sometimes even adding call-and-response. The song comes alive in her styling in a way no subsequent cover does. And there are a lot of covers, from John Denver’s anodyne version (and I like Denver, but boy, this isn’t good) to John Legend’s.

 

Here’s Simone’s recorded version

 

 

Here’s a jazzier version she sang at Montreux in 1976. Watch through to the end—her performance is so emotional—see how she hits those piano keys—you’ll get the shivers.

 

There’s one more version to watch and listen to. This one is from her performance in a documentary short called Nina. Link here, and scroll down to the video. Her improvised lyrics, her unexpected and fabulous dancing, her white pantsuit. . . this is one for the ages.

 

Note:  as of last night, poems for minutes two, three and four are still hanging in there.

minutes three and four aligned

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Day three of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

4/30/92 for Rodney King

by Lucille Clifton

 

so

the body

of one black man

is rag and stone

is mud

and blood

the body of one

black man

contains no life

worth loving

so the body

of one black man

is nobody

mama

mama

mamacita

is there no value

in this skin

mama

mama

if we are nothing

why

should we spare

the neighborhood

mama

mama

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

 

Lucille Clifton’s “4/30/92 for Rodney King” looks like someone kicked it in at the sides, pounded it to thinness like a piece of meat. The dehumanizing of the black body in the poem’s form and imagery (the body/of one black man/ is rag and stone/is mud and blood) is broken up by a most human response to distress—mama/mama/mamacita. Seven times that voice cries out for help.

 

Rodney King, for those too young to remember or who may not even have been born yet, was beaten by police following a car chase in Los Angeles in March 1991. For fifteen minutes the unarmed King was kicked, stomped on, beaten with batons and tasered by four police officers. The beating only came to light because a man happened to film it from a nearby balcony. The tape was sent to a news station after the LAPD showed no interest in it.

 

In April of 1992, when the four offending officers were acquitted of using excessive force, a five-day riot broke out in the city. Fifty people were killed, 2,000 injured, and over one billion was lost in property. Rodney King was both ridiculed and hailed for a statement he made on television asking for calm during the riots: “I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?”

 

For a more complete account of the beating and riots, link here.

 

If you have the stomach for it after all the violence we’ve witnessed over the past few days, watch the video of the beating here. Low-quality and grainy as it is, the film shows Rodney King attempt to rise, get beaten down, roll over in pain, get rolled back by the police for more beating, then lie still as the beating continues. Just a body to those police officers. A man to anyone with eyes.

 

Clifton’s closing questions, unfortunately, have the ring of prophecy.

 

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

*

 

A brief biography of Clifton from a previous post:

 

Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.

 

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

*

Note:  The “Minute Two” poem I put up yesterday is still taped to its marble orb in the park—

 

 

 

 

 

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Day two, commemorating the second minute of the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

Let Them Not Say

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Let them not say:   we did not see it.

We saw.

 

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.

We heard.

 

Let them not say:    they did not taste it.

We ate, we trembled.

 

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.

We spoke,

we witnessed with voices and hands.

 

Let them not say:    they did nothing.

We did not-enough.

 

Let them say, as they must say something:

 

A kerosene beauty.

It burned.

 

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,

read by its light, praised,

and it burned.

 

 

Instead of we came, we saw, we conquered, poet Jane Hirshfield posits a different course:  we saw, we heard, we tasted, we witnessed, and we did not-enough. Admitting failure instead of bragging about conquest. That’s the way forward.

 

Today at the square the poem I left yesterday had been removed. And it rained last night so today’s poem is probably gone as well. But I hope at least some of the people in the park wondered what I was doing and read the poems after I left.

 

 

 

A brief biography of Hirshfield from an earlier post:

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

 

 

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To Christine, Catherine, Yen-Fang, Megan, Donny and Molly:  I love your submissions and can’t wait to WE INTERRUPT YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING something’s come up TO BRING YOU THIS BREAKING NEWS

 

[breaking your heart news]

 

So I can’t post them right now.

 

Just doesn’t feel right.

 

Give me nine days. Nine days, one for each of George Floyd’s last moments. Nine days and I’ll post all the wonderful poems and creative commentary you sent.

 

Nine days, and I pray our nation will be in a better spot.

 

Each of those nine days I’ll be posting a poem. I’m going to put all of them in a downtown square of my little town in suburban Detroit. A peaceable downtown square where there are no protests and probably never will be.

 

*

Day one, minute one . . .

 

 

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

 

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 

(America never was America to me.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

*  * *  *  *

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

 

The first poem I left at the square was Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” I cut out the middle section (the complete poem is at the end of this post) because people are more apt to read a shorter than longer poem and this needs to be read—

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

 

 

and this—

 

 

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

 

The poem holds together outrage and hope, and Hughes keeps them in equal balance, a feat in the face of grave injustice.

 

 

Here’s a bio of Langston Hughes from an earlier post:

 

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners.  His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike.  Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

 

Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer.  He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

  

He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.  He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.

 

*

 

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

 

 

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 

(America never was America to me.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

 

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

 

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

 

The free?

 

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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