Black Poetry Bears Witness

[By: Dr. Shauna Morgan Kirlew]

The students in my “Literature as History” freshman writing seminar recently read and analyzed Audre Lorde’s “Power“. The story of a young black boy gunned down in the streets resonated powerfully with the students, even though none of them had heard of Clifford Glover, whose life inspired Lorde’s poem. They found the subject matter so relevant to their 21st-century reality that it opened the door to further analysis of the metaphors and imagery in the text.

“I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds” begins the second stanza. One student noted that the desert, and the “whiteness/of the desert” represented the United States social and political landscape where there is no justice for murdered black children. I was struck by the sense of powerlessness that emerged from, what seemed to be, a new cognizance of their vulnerability to violence and injustice. However, it was the long, sustained history of brutality against black children that troubled them. The reality that their society resembled that of their parents and grandparents in its disregard for their bodies and lives left them feeling defeated. 

I offered a short list of additional poets and titles that bear witness to this history of white brutalization of black children, including work from Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, Nikki Giovanni, Jerry Ward, Sonia Sanchez, and Frank X Walker. Shortly after, issue ten of Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture arrived, and this deeply moving tribute to Trayvon Martin, which opens with “Autopsy” by Patricia Smith, was received with immediacy as a literary and historical marker.

One student, noting Smith’s signifying and references to slavery, suggested that the poem also functioned as an autopsy of the white-washed history of white violence and the criminal justice system that would have society believe that “Black boys fold their bodies around bullets.”

Black poetry paints and writes our stories– records our histories and reveals truths. This art, even when it turns around stories of loss and brutality, is the evidence of black life in America. With good cause, and with brilliant clarity, it continues to resonate between and within generations of our people.