There are some Americans who believe that the #blacklivesmatter movement, the protests and the police brutality are new phenomena, that ‘these things’ have just ‘started happening’. The reality, of course, is that the chain between slavery, the race riots of the 60s and the protests of today is, and always has been, unbroken. These deaths at the hands of police are not new or news–they are painfully familiar to black people and black communities. The only difference today is social media and the visibility it has provided to these crimes and the ingrained racism in our country.
So, to those aware of the legacy of racism in America, it only makes sense that the words of poets and activists from our history would still carry weight in today’s climate of unrest, fear and change. It isn’t shocking to find stark parallels between the poetry of Langston Hughes and trending news. But it is disappointing and devastating to see how little the landscape has really changed. There is a hypocrisy between the U.S. history textbooks we all read as students which denounced the crimes against slaves and freed black people and the reality of continued racism and violence in the streets, homes and jail cells of America. That hypocrisy is made painfully obvious when reading these words from the past that are still chillingly relevant to #blacklivesmatter.
“Lynch Law in All Its Phases”
Ida B. Wells gave this speech at Boston’s Tremont Temple in 1893, addressing the infamy of lynch law. Many excerpts from the piece are still shockingly on-point, addressing the stereotyping of race and the power of the police.
“Those who commit the murders write the reports, and hence these blots upon the honor of a nation cause but a faint ripple on the outside world. They arouse no great indignation and call forth no adequate demand for justice. The victims were black, and the reports are so written as to make it appear that the helpless creatures deserved the fate which overtook them.”
“Times without number, since invested with citizenship, the race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worthlessness declared guilty and executed by its self-constituted judges… As excuse for the [lynchings], a new cry, as false as it is foul, is raised in an effort to blast race character, a cry which has proclaimed to the world that virtue and innocence are violated by Afro-Americans.”
“Still I Rise”
Maya Angelou wrote “Still I Rise” in 1978, but her words mirror the stereotypes and oppression black women still face today in American culture. Many people have responded to the death of Sandra Bland with comments about respecting authority and ‘attitude.’ Angelou’s words question why black women are expected to act like they are unworthy of respect, stereotyped as “sassy,” ugly and less-than.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
“What the Black Man Wants”
This excerpt is from Frederick Douglass‘ 1865 speech at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston.
“I am for the “immediate, unconditional, and universal” enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the Union. Without this, his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition; for in fact, if he is not the slave of the individual master, he is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right. He is at the mercy of the mob, and has no means of protecting himself.”
“The Other America”
Martin Luther King Jr. gave this speech in 1968, but his observations on rioting could have easily been spoken in the aftermath of #Ferguson. It offers a reminder of what really matters; not a maintenance of order and comfort, but a widespread transformation and an honoring of lives lost.
“I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
“Kids Who Die”
Langston Hughes’ “Kids Who Die” mourns the children lost to racist violence. The criminalization of children of color and the wrongful deaths of many children in the past few years make it obvious why this piece is still vital. This spoken rendition of the poem is narrated by Daniel Glover and produced by Frank Chi and Terrance Green. Some graphic images are used in the film.
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