MLK Poetry Tribute – Race in America
Journey of the Black Male
Have you ever seen a black man walk straight?
Not shucking nor jiving, not strutting – but straight!
It’s a long time coming, this regal gait
Takes a lot of shedding, of self loving, forgiving
It’s like an awakening, to come into this trait.
‘Cause you can walk, like you own the street
Or sway, like you’ve got music in your feet
You can square your shoulders, but the fear is still there
You can put on a tie, Africanize your hair
In a million ways, you can loudly declare
Your existence! With insistence!
But the wound on the face of the earth is so deep
It will weep just ‘cause the morning has come.
And your ears can be listening ever so long
For the whispering sound of a blessing
And an oath that forgives its own listening.
And in all the world over it will be denied
As if a pitiless mother ignored your cries
This would tell, though with shoulders square
And this would weigh though your hands were bare.
But every once in awhile, when smoke clears
The horizon yields in the sun’s bleeding gold
The form of a man that walks so straight
you know it’s a rare sight to behold
He has reached deep within
And found he has treasure to share.
He has known his own soul
And found God standing there
He begs no admission, yet is not blustering
He commands while whispering.
Reveals secrets hidden from the collective
Honors the insights insisting
on springing from the heart’s wellspring
He knows from where he has come,
Can measure the distance between,
and in one breath
forgives all they have done.
Yet has his sights on where to go.
That’s why I say that if you had ever seen
a Black man walk straight, unbowed
you would not have forgotten.
Because the seas would have parted to let him through.
You would say, “he heads for the mountain,
And I go with him. We are kindred true.”
He would have a mind that was noble,
A heart of pure gold. He would light up
His eyes, and at once be humble and bold.
Ah, it’s a thing that is hard to explain
This elusive coming into one’s own
That makes a man conscious of race
Not as a brand but a gift of grace,
It is a treasure we all chase, young or old
It eludes most, this heavenly gait.
The change from the furrowed brow
To walking unbent, not cowed, straight.
Few can breathe easy in the smoke filled now
Or lay claim to a mantle and crown.
But it is truly a sight to behold.
This poem appears at the back end of my new novel INTERMARRY, together with Journey of the White Male. I had posted it here on my website once before when I was moved by historical events. It seemed like a good day to re-posted, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.
Because of our society’s racial classifications, we each feel a sense of burden for the colonial, imperial, oppressive movements in history. It doesn’t matter where we are, whether in Europe, America, Latin America or Asia. A German youth still feels the sting of being from the country that gave rise to Nazism. An American one knows he is a despised “gringo,” in many places. A black man is still treated as an alien in many countries where he is born.
I wrote Journey of the Black Male because I have seen the vestiges of this sense of burden in my father, brothers, and other good men in my life. I have seen how they valiantly struggle against this legacy of the past. Sometimes with elegance, sometimes with despair. Sometimes they are wholly unaware of the burden they are carrying and blame themselves for this sense of unease.
In the novel INTERMARRY, where two of the main characters, Jack and Otis, have this transcendental, almost cosmic conversation on race, Otis represents this struggle. He is always trying to “walk with a royal gait” even when he feels he is a casualty of a racist capitalist working class segregation. “Not shucking, nor jiving, but straight.” Otis wonders “What would enable you to get rid of the last shackles, so that you could breathe peace, where resentment and mistrust had taken such a heavy toll? Where it had literally corroded your soul, so that you lived looking over your shoulder, feeling like a beggar, unwanted by your own motherland. What would give blacks their dignity back?”
The various conversations in the novel explore the answers. Otis’ daughter Fiona tries to get him to see things from another perspective. That of the young, who would explore new horizons, unworried about the cost and unafraid of the past. Rebelling against her protective father she says, “I’m the one Frost is talking about. I want to take the road less traveled. I want to make a difference! I wasn’t born to be protected, sheltered and kept away from the fight!”
Towana Jackson, a single mother whose share of happiness has been meager, tries to convince Otis that happiness is worth it, no matter what the colors of the skins. “Your grandchildren would be a little lighter than you expected. But that’s okay. I expect you wouldn’t have no trouble loving them.”
But it is Jack Wolinski, his white boss, that shakes all of Otis’ moorings in this exchange,
“You know, Otis, I always thought those who have the moral high ground, it’s up to them to reach out a hand to those who are down in the pit of degradation.”
Otis couldn’t quite grasp his meaning. Black people, some black people, were in the pit of degradation, but he wouldn’t concede that white people had the moral high ground. “Whose is the moral high ground?” he asked, squinting.
“In a game where one party is oppressed and the other the oppressor, who do you think holds the moral high ground? Whose hands are clean? I’m talking about black people reaching out to white people.”
Otis felt the sands shift under his feet. “Now who’s crazy? For blacks to reach out a hand to whites who’ve exploited and oppressed them for centuries would be like putting your head in the mouth of the lion, waiting for it to bite.”
Otis continued, “No–. It’s up to the white man to reach out and to clean up his act!”
“I agree,” Jack said. “And when he does, what are you going to do?”