The Face of Home

Thinking about the Baldwin story I posted the other day and about doing research at the American Library in Paris.  I had an interesting  surprise as I looked at a collection of Gordon Parks’ photos.  I remember turning slowly through the pages, just admiring the images.  Then I turned a page and saw a group of middle-aged black men gathered in a room.  In my hazy memory, they are in a tai chi pose, but I’m sure the reality of that photo is a little different.  Maybe a military pose, maybe a prayer pose.

I remember seeing that picture and stopping.  Stopping and staring and staring and staring at those men’s faces.  I remember almost starting to cry and not knowing what was wrong with me, what was going on.  I closed the book and stared at nothing for a while.  I went back to the photos and stared some more.  And I remember being struck by two things in the same moment: I missed black people — black American people — and those men were so beautiful in a way I hadn’t ever consciously thought about black people being beautiful.

I stared at each of their faces and confirmed again and again that each was beautiful, each was so different from the black people I was meeting in Europe, that there was something so “home” about them, something that made it clear that they were my people, they were connected to me in a way that the Africans I was meeting in Paris and the rest of Europe couldn’t be.

A longing for home, for the chance to see those faces, hit me so powerfully, I did cry.

I spend a lot of time looking at people’s faces.  And in my current neighborhood, I get to see a lot of black faces.  I still sometimes get a mini-jolt of recognition, but never anything as grounding and soul-filling as that moment with Parks’ photo.


The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

— Langston Hughes


Unhand that poem!

It’s Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!  As always, I had several poems in my  pockets.  I’ve been telling my students about this for weeks now.  Yesterday, to make sure they were prepared for the day, I brought a bunch of poems to class so that students could choose one for their pockets.

And choose they did.  I hadn’t expected them to be quite so excited and excitable about it, though, I have to admit.  I had to back away from the table where I’d laid out the poems, give them more space.  One student actually copied out a Shelley poem for me (“Not for your pocket, I just thought you’d like it.”), and I had students arguing over who Hughes’ “Harlem Night Song” and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “I Want to Die While You Love Me” belonged to.  I finally had to go make extra copies of both poems to avert a crisis!

And today marks the end of my tanka-a-day challenge:

Langston’s words pull me
swing me, laugh and dance with me
settle inside me
I love so many poets
but always hear his voice first

Thanks, everyone, for all your tanka encouragement.  Even those of you (who shall remain nameless) who were over my all-tanka-all-the-time stance pretty quickly … even you inspired me to keep finding and writing another and another still!  I’ve actually written thirty-five tanka this month!


I am the darker brother.

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month, but I am still very much at the beginning of working through the awfulness of last week’s acquittal of the police officers who killed Sean Bell.

Can I just ask, how can everyone say over and over again that he died ‘in a hail of police bullets‘ and yet those cops are back on the job this week?  Even if they somehow did nothing wrong in killing and unarmed man, how is it ok that they fired so many times?  How is it ok that Michael Oliver emptied his pistol, reloaded and kept firing?  He is single-handedly responsible for the ‘hail’ in that ‘hail of police bullets,’ firing three times as many shots as Officer Isnora, almost eight times as many as Officer Cooper.  Help me understand.  I feel like the androids in that old Star Trek episode who self-destruct when they try to process things that don’t make sense.  I really don’t want to self-destruct, but my brain is having such a hard time here.

But I want a little optimism, a little something not-so-jagged to hold onto.  And that brings me back to Hughes.  Even when he’s angry, he hums like the liquid sound of a well-played saxophone.


I, Too
Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh.
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —

I, too, am America.

Seems a good way to close this month of poems. 

Hughes in my head

I had planned to post a different poem tonight, but it seems that Langston is my soundtrack for another day.  Here’s another one of those “I’ve always loved this poem” poems.  It’s one that has feels melancholy, and that’s more than fitting.

Langston Hughes

Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given.
To others
Only heaven.


Of course, I want this wave of sadness to pass. At the same time, I don’t want to hurry it on its way.  I want it to burn some clarity into my brain, give me an idea of something I can actually do in the wake of this.  Not that I’ve never done anything in the past.  I marched for Diallo, out in the street with thousands of others (“How many shots? Forty-one! Should have been none!).  I’ve written letters and stood outside courthouses and City Hall in support.    When the verdicts came for the officers in the Diallo shooting, I wasn’t surprised, but neither was I as deflated and sick at heart as I’m feeling now.  And I want my frustrated sorrow to be productive, to elucidate, to point me in a clear direction.  So I wait.

Poetry for this day

I’m still struggling with this day, with the Bell verdict, with the desire to just sit down and cry … which I managed not to do all day at work, but gave into as soon as I walked in the door tonight (and then had to push it back because my friend from the pet store was on his way over to deliver next month’s supplies for the boys).  I’m really not sure what to do with the despair I’m feeling right now, what to do that will make me feel less impotent, less marginalized, less erased and disenfranchised.

I’ve gotten interested in the tanka form after my week of poetry, and have been trying to work with it a little.  On the way home, I tried and came up with:

Tanka for Sean Bell

The verdict came down
my heart so full I lost speech.
Around me, people:
laughing, talking, their hearts free
I sink into my sadness.

I wish it was a little more … something. Yes, a little more good, but I’m giving myself a pass in the quality department today.

Then I remembered Langston Hughes’ “Puzzled,” a poem that touches a little on the frustration and anger I’m feeling tonight, on the sadness and hopelessness and confusion.


Here on the edge of hell
Stands Harlem —
Remembering the old lies,
The old kicks in the back,
The old be patient,
They told us before.

Sure, we remember.
Now, when the man at the corner store
Says sugar’s gone up another two cents,
And bread one,
And there’s a new tax on cigarettes —
We remember the job we never had,
Never could get,
And can’t have now
Because we’re colored.

So we stand here
On the edge of hell
In Harlem
And look out on the world
And wonder
What we’re gonna do
In the face of
What we remember.

He’s always going to be more articulate that I am.  The poem isn’t exactly where I’m feeling … but it is, too. And then you get to the end and it’s all right there.  Thank you, Langston, for having the words I wasn’t finding.