Tag Archives: Poetry

Daily Smiley: America Will Be!

2 Apr

Monday’s Daily Smiley comes via one of my mentors, Brooklyn-based writer Ryan Goldberg, who sent me this beautiful (and timeless) Langston Hughes poem, which Hughes wrote in 1935.  May we bring back “our mighty dream.”

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

Free Minds: Empowering Young Writers in Prison

25 Mar

Recently, I volunteered with the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization that introduces teenage boys at the DC Jail and in federal prison to the life-changing power of books and creative writing.  Free Minds inspires these young people to see their potential by organizing book clubs at the DC Jail where 16 and 17 year-olds discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing, pairing youth with a volunteer writing mentor from the community.  Free Minds mentors these 16 and 17 year-olds (who have been tried and incarcerated as adults) throughout their incarceration and beyond release, providing reentry support, life skills workshops, and education referrals for life after prison.

At the Free Minds “Write Night” we provided comments and positive feedback on poems that these youth had written.  Free Minds then takes the volunteers’ comments and gives them to the authors behind bars– the positive feedback is meant to help the authors find their voices as writers and to continue writing.  We all know it’s gratifying to have someone commend your writing (or like your Facebook status), but can you imagine the transformative power in having someone comment on your words when you are in prison?  Knowing that someone out there is actually listening, that someone is listening to you, must be truly validating and empowering.

One talented young poet had written this line in his poem, which particularly grabbed me:  “In what adult mind frame is it justified to send juveniles to an adult prison? That’s what I’m trying to see.”  We should all ask ourselves the same question.  Lawyer and equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, in an inspiring TED talk about injustice in America, notes that the United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13 year-olds to die in prison, and have life imprisonment without parole for kids.  How can we even begin to talk about justice when over 2200 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole?

Many of the poems I read at Write Night featured poignant reflections on the history of racial injustice in America, and the devastating impact of prison on the black community.  In a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in AmericaAdam Gopnik notes that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. “Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.”

As their readers on the outside, we need to not only listen to the voices of incarcerated youth, but take action so that young people are not tried and incarcerated as adults.   Our for-profit prison system, supported by racially biased stop-and-frisk policing and sentencing disparities, locks up too many young people of color (often for minor offenses like marijuana possession), inhibiting their ability to get a job or education or vote or receive social services upon release, thus perpetuating a system of racial control that Alexander likens to slavery.  I’ll close with one of the poems published in the Free Minds anthology; to read inspiring poems by incarcerated youth, post comments that will be given to the authors in jail, or learn more about volunteer opportunities, check out the Free Minds blog.

Confined as a Youth

by Antwon

When you think about childhood

You ‘posed to be able to smile

But never in my life was I taught how

I was always around anger that led to pain

I was always confined

At least that’s how it felt to my brain

The streets not only took me,  but they took my mother too

Confined as a youth, so tell me what I ‘posed to do?

Some people say they love the streets because the game is all they know

I will never label myself until I give myself time to grow

And sometimes I wonder why do it always have to be me?

Then I hear my great grandma’s voice saying

“You wasn’t the only one that wasn’t free”

It’s crazy how people put lies in our heads

Trying to get to believe this is who we are

When, for real, every living thing was meant to be a star

I hope one day we will see there’s no limit to what we all can do

But until that day comes, I’m here on earth, “confined as a youth”

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