Throughout American history, and even before the founding of the United States, Black poets have been proclaiming the injustices, exposing the hypocrisies, and pointing out the many blindnesses and cruelties that contradict white America’s self-understanding. They have led, and continue to lead, this country’s essential civic work of self-reckoning, whether or not we have been willing to see or hear them.
Already in 1773, even before the Declaration of Independence, in her poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” the poet Phillis Wheatley noted the bitter irony of the colonists’ complaints that they were “enslaved” by Britain. Writing of her own enslavement, Wheatley conjured the pitilessness of those who kidnapped her: “Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d / That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d.” And yet, even as she saw clearly the violent blindness of those suing for their own freedom while enslaving others—“Such, such my case. And can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrannic sway”—she was capable of compassion, and empathy. In the 19th century, writers such as George Moses Horton, Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson pioneered a poetic tradition whose most lyrical moments were nevertheless informed, and deepened, by what W.E.B. Du Bois called “second-sight”: a knowledge of America that was more penetrating, damning and—true—than white Americans would see or admit. Racism’s physical abuses are perpetuated by abuses of language: to this truth Black poets have testified on this continent since before the United States was founded.
And so in the work of 20th century poets such as Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and June Jordan, and in the work of so many writing today—Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May, Clint Smith, Joshua Bennett, Kendrick Lamar and so many others—Black American poets have continued to carry what Langston Hughes, seventy years ago, called “a heavy load”—of “dream[s] deferred” and plain truths denied. The voices we hear on the streets of our cities right now are doing as these poets have done: decrying injustice, asking for redress, but also: telling the particular stories, naming the particular names, with every city and region and neighborhood now being brought to account by its own residents. On these streets, as on the page and in songs and performances, what we are now hearing is not abstract. It is the sound of people mustering language in its highest forms for the largest civilizational ends.
Protest is the voice of the people, elevated and offered to society at large. The protests we are hearing fulfill art’s, and especially poetry’s, greatest function—which is to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain. The opposite of hearing the human voice is denying, muffling, strangling its cry: that is what we saw with deadly and literal explicitness in the murder of George Floyd, and in the appalling murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. Killings committed by deputed servants of the public good implicate the public, and they require us to reckon with the full gravity of what these acts represent. Their stain is on us all, and any institution, large or small, that endeavors to serve the public good must accept its own responsibility, and review its own past failings, in an effort to do better.
Poetry in America is a young initiative dedicated to convening conversations about poetry—whether in lecture halls or in K-12 classrooms, whether on television or online. The work of such an initiative can only be meaningful when it seeks out the most scrupulous and serious truth tellers, giving platform and visibility to those whose words demand our attention—and demand that we be honest with ourselves. We must listen to voices from every walk of life, and we must hear the dispossessed and alienated as well as the prominent and celebrated. The indispensable art and conscience of Black American poetry has informed Poetry in America’s work from the beginning, but those voices must inform our work to an even greater extent in the future. Going forward, we will strive to bring more Black professionals, contractors, and interns onto our curricular and production teams, and onto the teams of instructors who lead students and teachers through our educational programs.
Poetry in America pledges to redouble its ongoing efforts to reach the vulnerable and neglected, to educate those who are without access to education, and to provide resources wherever we can to enrich the lives of all Americans. We are dedicated to poetry as a communal activity, a civic conversation, because we believe that language is the essential medium through which we come to understand perspectives different from our own and, too, the channel by which we might come to understand what all human beings share. We commit ourselves to rethinking how we can fight against racism and inequality in this country as we continue in our mission to help learners of all ages think critically about language, and to use it for good. We commit ourselves to honoring Black lives and amplifying Black voices. I invite and welcome all those interested in helping us to grow, refine or improve the work we do to contact me with your ideas at: [email protected].