In recognition of Martin Luther King Day, we are sharing two pieces that reflect on our current socio-political landscape. Read Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges’ essay “American Without Prefix” and Solstice Magazine’s Nonfiction Editor Richard Hoffman’s poem STATE OF THE UNION.
Remarks made on Monday, January 19, 2015, at Faneuil Hall in Boston for A Day of Service and Celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presented by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Intensive Community Program, and the Museum of African American History
American Without Prefix
by Danielle Legros Georges
Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here with you as part of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Celebration.
I am also pleased to be the second poet laureate of the city of Boston. My role as the PL (if you will) is to the raise the status of poetry in the consciousness of Bostonians—that would be you. I plan to do so, particularly today with the sharing of remarks and a few poems in this great space.
I want to begin, however, with a story. It’s a story about my mother, whose name I call now, Edmonde Legros Georges Martineau, so she can be with us. She died last year.
My family moved to the States when I was a young person. We settled in Mattapan, and my mother worked for 18 years at the Federal Reserve Bank (not far from here, near South Station). There she made good friends, and retired from the Bank with fond memories of her time there. It was also there she engaged in a small, quiet annual act; an act that has stayed with me.
Every year she chose not to work on January 15—taking the day off as a personal or vacation day, and letting her colleagues know she was doing this in recognition of the birthday of Dr. King. She did this for many years before 1986, which as you know, was the year MLK Day became a federal holiday and began to be observed by workplaces in the States.
That quiet act of my mother’s crystallized for me the connections between Haiti and the United States, and the histories and the cultures I was negotiating as an immigrant kid. What I saw, through her gesture, was a Haitian woman talking to an American event and experience in a very personal and at the same time political way.
Her gesture allowed a linking for me of the Haitian history I learned from her, my father, our elders—and the history of our new home. It underscored for me the connections between the women and men who made the 1804 Haitian Revolution, which served as a global beacon for struggles against slavery and colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries—and the women and men here in the United states who sought independence, and those struggled against slavery and who fought fiercely for their own and others’ civil and human rights. It allowed me an entrée into a discussion of African-American and American history, politics, and culture.
I believe my mother, like others, identified with and felt the need to honor Dr. King because his philosophy was neither foreign to her, nor antithetical to her own vision of the world. The ideas of the movement, or movements, he was deeply rooted in were familiar to her.
I want to note that my mother did not identify as African-American. She identified deeply as a Haitian and as a Black woman. I believe she didn’t identify as an African-American simply because it didn’t occur to her, and because she did not grow up with an African-American experience.
I say this less to be provocative than to highlight a transnational or universal aspect of Dr. King’s work, and the work of the U.S. Civil Rights movement—both in its formulation and in its articulation. You will recall that Dr. King, for example, honed his ideas on nonviolent resistance in civil disobedience after a 1959 visit to India, and a bearing witness to the strategies and teachings of the Mahatma Ghandi. You’ll note too that participants and leaders of 20th century decolonization, anti-apartheid, and freedom movements around the world, in Africa, Asia, the United Kingdom, referenced and were inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr. In other words, Dr. King’s impact was global.
Now back to my mother, who called herself a Black woman. Like her, I call myself a Black woman. I also consider myself an African-American, a Haitian-American, a plain ol’ American, an industrial strength American, an American without prefix, a global citizen, a human being in the 21st century. And isn’t that what this is ultimately about?
Being able to live in a society, in a country (in a world even) that allows you the freedom to self-identify, to make yourself, to realize your dreams. Being able to live in an environment that does not ignore difference—your skin color, gender, religion, choice of partner—but does not limit you because of it.
Isn’t this about being able to live in a society in which your difference or identity does not automatically make you a target for less than, for lack of due process, a target for limited access to decent housing and jobs, or enough to eat, or safe streets. Isn’t this about the ability of all peoples, as Dr. King wrote, to have education and culture. Isn’t this about the freedom to express one’s full humanity?
Such freedom is not easily achieved, as we know, and have seen. It is hard won. It requires courage in its pursuit. Dr. King’s work and life bear witness to this.
* * *
I want to share now a few poems I feel, while not written about Dr. King, in some way or another, address the great continuum of which Dr. King has been an extraordinary leader.
These first two are written by Sam Cornish, Boston’s first Poet Laureate. They take us back in time to Harriet Tubman, American abolitionist, humanitarian, who
through the 1800s took on the dangerous work of leading colleagues and family members out of slaveholding states through a network of safe houses and activists we know as the Underground Railroad.
HARRIET TUBMAN IS MOSES*
Harriet Tubman is General Moses
Moses is coming
Let the moon rise
For the Lord
Moses is coming and I
Have been waiting
Moses is coming
Heard stomping the darkness
Coming to set her children free
HARRIET BRINGS RUNAWAYS NORTH*
Harriet Tubman trampin’ out
of the wilderness
Leaning on the Lord
Get ready for Harriet she
Comes in the night
Harriet sings only twice
Harriet takes you
Where the rain can’t wet you
No sun to burn you
When Harriet sings
Runaway it’s safe
We will follow you
To the grave
Walk them easy
Don’t leave them
In 1935, writer Langston Hughes published a poem that explored not the journey from south to the north, but the distance between the American Dream and poor Americans; whether white, black, Native American, immigrant, farmer or worker. The poem “Let America Be America Again” firmly holds up a mirror to American inequality, all the while maintaining the idea or possibility of a great country, of an America that can live up to its expressed principles, including social justice. I’ll read you some portions of it:
Writing later in the 20th century was Maya Angelou, a poet, renaissance woman, and contemporary and supporter of Dr. King’s. In 1960 she served in the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the African-American civil rights organization for which Dr. King served as first president. “Still I Rise” is a poem you may know. I like it for the sense of personal power and resilience it conveys. Here are some portions:
I’ll close with a poem by Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran journalist, and a much-appreciated Latin American poet. He addresses connection, community, struggle, and poetry in “Como Tú,” written in 1975. I’ll read you an English translation of the poem made by Jack Hirschman.
Reprinted with permission from the Women’s Review of Books
STATE OF THE UNION
The pure products of America
are already long crazy, and
hope is a feather with things
as they are here, quill
of a bird by now flown far
from his rippling rest,
and now is not the time, not
with the blue guitar
marked down on eBay,
free shipping from a pretty
how town, for the sorry verities.
No matter what ol’
Mr. Bones says nor
which ragged shingles
the poet yawps across,
the roller of big cigars,
dispensing with syntax,
fires off another round
of semi-automatic racist vitriole
from his watersmooth-silver
smartphone. His mind’s not right.
And how do you like
your orange-haired boy now,