National Poetry Month Selections: Black Quaker Lives Matter!
In recognition of National Poetry Month, the BlackQuaker Project is celebrating the published work of African American Quaker poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. Below are selected, published works of beloved preacher, theologian, and civil rights mentor Howard Thurman; distinguished poet, educator, and Quaker governance member Helen Morgan Brooks; and fearless Quaker leader, social critic, and human rights movement organizer Bayard Rustin in Harold D. Weaver, Jr., Paul Kriese, and Stephen W. Angell, eds., Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2011). Additionally included is the poetry of pioneering Harlem Renaissance poet, author, essayist, and fellow Black Fire (2011) feature, Jean Toomer, whose poem is excerpted from another source. While not included in Black Fire (2011), we recently discovered the poetry of African American Quaker and Mississippi-born Anthony Walton, an acclaimed non-fiction writer and educator, currently teaching writing at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. We have included one of his poems below, his personal response to the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.
“Prayer and Silence” by Howard Thurman from Black Fire (2011), pp. 68-69 Meditation -- Excerpt Only Whither shall I go from Thy Presence? From Thee is there some hiding place? The deed is a thing so private So inside the perfect working of desire That its inward part seems known to me, To me alone. The ebb and flow of thoughts Within my hidden sea, The forms that stir within the channels of my mind, Keep tryst with all my intimate hopes and fears. The ties that hold me fast to those whose Life with mine makes one, The tangled twine that binds my life With things I claim as mine Seem cut off from all else but My embrace. The great stillness that walls around The heartaches and the pain Is sealed against aught else that would invade. The awe-filled contrition emptied of all violence and all sin Keeps watch with the spent loneliness Of my deserted soul. The joy crowding to the quivering brim the heights and uppermost reaches of vast delight Gives room to nothing but itself alone. And yet, Always I know Another Sees and understands-- Every vigil with me keeps watch-- The door through which He comes no man Can shut-- He is the Door! I cannot go from Thy Presence. There is no hiding place from Thee.
“The City” by Helen Morgan Brooks from Black Fire (2011), p. 147 You may not find On the streets of this city, One barren fig tree in full leaf, That you will curse into forever withering. Nor will you be so sure Of a furnished room, That you can single just one out, Prepared and waiting For you and your friends, To take over for a quiet supper. People require references. You may never find Two brothers mending nets Beside our river’s edge, Or a Publican free to follow you, To leave the business of our custom house, It's against the law. Do not be discouraged, Walk on among us Through littered streets, Past graffiti-covered walls, Call out to us, Whenever, wherever you see us, In the suburbs, on the beaches. Be careful of large gatherings, Parades need permits. Palms will not be tolerated Strewn upon our macadam roads. You keep walking, Call out to us, Some of us, perhaps some of us Will hear and follow you.
“You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow” (Composed by Bayard Rustin, Johnny Carr, Donald Coan, Coreen Curtis, and A.C. Thompson at the Interfaith Workshop, 7 July 1947, to be sung to the familiar Negro tune “There’s No Hidin’ Place Down Here.”) from Black Fire (2011), p. 157 1. (chorus) You don't have to ride Jim Crow You don’t have to ride Jim Crow On June the third, the high court said If you ride, Jim Crow is dead You don’t have to ride Jim Crow. 2. And when you get on the bus And when you get on the bus Get on the bus, set any place, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case You don’t have to ride Jim Crow. 3. Now you can set anywhere Now you can set anywhere Set anywhere, don’t raise no fuss, Keep cool, but firm, your cause is just You don’t have to ride Jim Crow. 4. And if the driver man say “move” And if the drive says “move” If he says “move,” speak up polite, But set there tight, your in the right You don’t have to ride Jim Crow. 5. You don’t have to ride Jim Crow You don’t have to ride Jim Crow Go quiet-like, if you face arrest; NAACP will make a test You don’t have to ride Jim Crow. 6. But someday we’ll all be free But someday we’ll all be free When good will action turns the tide And black and white sit side by side Yes someday we’ll all be free. Repeat verse 1 (chorus)
“As the Eagle Soars” by Jean Toomer
It takes a well-spent lifetime, and perhaps more, to crystallize in us that for which we exist. Let your doing be an exercise, not an exhibition. Man is a nerve of the cosmos, dislocated, trying to quiver into place. A true individual is not conformative but formative. We move and hustle but lack rhythm. We should have a living spirit and the ability to spiritualize experience. We do not suffer: seldom does our essence suffer, but pride, vanity, egotism suffer in us. My breathing is the Great Breath into nostrils. Whatever is, is sacred.
Jean Toomer, “As the Eagle Soars” in Nikki Grimes, ed., One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2020).
“The Lovesong of Emmett Till” by Anthony Walton
More than likely she was Irish or Italian, a sweet child who knew him only as a shy clown. Colleen, Jenny or Marie, she probably didn't even know he had her picture, that he had traded her cousin for baseball cards or a pocketknife, that her routine visage sat smoldering in his wallet beyond any price. He carried his love like a burden, and devotion always has to tell. Hell, he was just flirting with that lady in the store, he already had his white woman back up in Chicago. He wasn't greedy, just showing off, showing the rustics how it was done. He had an eye, all right, and he was free with it, he knew they loved it. Hey baby, was all he said, and he meant it as a compliment, when he said it in Chicago the white girls laughed. So when they came to get him, he thought it was a joke, he proclaimed himself guilty of love, he showed them the picture and paid the price of not innocence, but affection, affection for a little black-haired, blue-eyed girl who must by now be an older woman in Chicago, a woman who will never know she was to die for, that he died refusing to take back her name, his right to claim he loved her.
Anthony Walton, “The Lovesong of Emmett Till” in Anthony Walton, Mississippi: An American Journey (New York: Knopf, 1996), p. 267
What thoughts or feelings of these African American Quaker poets--if any--have inspired you? Please submit or suggest to us the authors and published poems of other Quakers of Color in the USA and abroad.
To learn more about Howard Thurman, Helen Morgan Brooks, Bayard Rustin, and Jean Toomer, and to read their selected works, please see Harold D. Weaver Jr., Paul Kriese, and Stephen W. Angell, eds.,Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2011). To read more of Anthony Walton, please see his Mississippi: An American Journey (New York: Knopf, 1996).
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