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.


Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the “Don’t-Care Negro”

The Don’t-Care Negro

Neber min’ what’s in your cran’um
So your collar’s high an’ true.
Neber min’ what’s in your pocket
So de blackin’s on your shoe.

Neber min’ who keeps you comp’ny
So he halfs up what he’s tuk.
Neber min’ what way you’s gwine.
So you’s gwine away from wuk.

Neber min’ de race’s troubles
So you profits by dem all.
Neber min’ your leaders’ stumblin’
So you he’ps to mak’ dem fall.

Neber min’ what’s true tomorrow
So you libes a dream today.
Neber min’ what tax is levied
So it’s not on craps or play.

Neber min’ how hard you labors
So you does it to de en’
Dat de judge is boun’ to sen’ you
An’ your record to de “pen.”

Neber min’ your manhood’s risin’
So you habe a way to stay it.
Neber min’ folks’ good opinion
So you habe a way to slay it.

Neber min’ man’s why an’ wharfo’
So de world is big an’ roun’.
Neber min’ whar next you’s gwine to
So you’s six foot under groun’.

—Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr.


Despite our best efforts, injustice still occurs in our society. We are far from living in a post-racial world where we can see past someone’s skin complexion. I still have hope that we can get there; however, most damaging to our progress are the people who choose to remain ignorant. For whatever reason, they’d rather not know that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately incarcerated, that private prisons are a new form of slavery, that too many unarmed black kids are being killed by police, that thousands of families live at or below the poverty line because of job or housing discrimination, misuse of government funds, etc. Contrary to what they may think, we are not better off not knowing. In fact, being ignorant to the realities of this world is the quickest way into land us in jail or six feet under, as Cotter writes in his poem.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 15: Rapper Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS)
LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Rapper Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS)

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that admonishes the willfully ignorant bystanders. Ask them why they turn their heads when artists like Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar make power indictments against racism on big stages like the Super Bowl or the Grammy’s. Teach them that caring is important, whether the issue directly affects them or not. No one wants to live in a world where “legalized” hatred still exists. Let’s abolish it with love; we are a much stronger force when we stand together.