Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem that Remembers (Black) History

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were 

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

—Lucille Clifton


If there is anyone out there who still questions the importance of Black History Month, I encourage you to read this poem by Lucille Clifton. Clifton was inspired to write the poem after taking a trip to Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina and noticing that there was no mention of slaves. “Be serious!” she said in a 1995 interview, a two thousand acre plantation in early nineteenth century South Carolina definitely had slaves.

She suggested that the tour guide check the inventory—since slaves were considered property—and they discovered there were ten slaves; however, this number did not include women, who apparently weren’t even valuable enough be considered part of the inventory. This struck a chord within Clifton, and she found her poem.

Just as in Walnut Grove Plantation, many labors, accomplishments, etc. of blacks go unnoticed, overshadowed by that of whites. For example, Thomas Edison is credited for the invention of the light bulb, but how many people know that it was a black man who actually made it work? Or that Deputy U.S. Marshall, Bass Reeves, a black man, was the inspiration behind the Lone Ranger series. Black women rarely receive the recognition they deserve either, often fading into the background. We see it politics, Hollywood, at home. Sometimes, black women even do it to themselves. I read in a book once that you can always measure the racial progress of the country by looking at the status of black women because they are usually the last to receive their “freedoms.”


This is why that last line in Clifton’s poem is so important. “Hear.” We’ve got to stop being ignorant to our history, to the struggles of people less fortunate than us. I think we all “know” what happens outside our little worlds we close ourselves in, but we choose to remain blind and use the excuse, “Nobody told me.” Listen, racism isn’t as covert as you think. Injustice happens in plain sight every day, and too many people write it off as “shit happens.” No, shit like this shouldn’t happen. Not if we know our history. Not if we understand the struggles of others.

You see, we cannot ignore history. History doesn’t go away. The past isn’t back there, the past is here too.

—Lucille Clifton fromThe Language of Life: A festival of Poets. By Bill Moyers

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that remembers history. Too many voices of our black foremothers and forefathers go unheard. They have a place in our story too. And although it may feel embarrassing or uncomfortable, it needs to be heard. Force your readers to open their ears and listen.


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