The poetry of protests
Matching strides, we inch forward and we stagger back. We readjust and begin again. We are followers of the person in front of us and leaders of those behind. The uninterrupted balance of bodies bustling close to each other reminds me of poetry, the kind written for moments like these. There is rhythm behind the pain in our steps. There are rhymes in the chants we shout. I see the symbolism in the fists raised: a sign of solidarity and support; a salute to express the united resistance.
It’s an enduring salutation. The united resistance around me thumps like a beating heart. Underneath us it pulses. The heartbeat has revived from a movement long ago. In 1935, poet and renowned figure of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes wrote the poem “Let America Be America Again.” He focuses on the American dream and the near impossibility of many to attain it and protests the American slogan of freedom that excludes him and many others: “There’s never been equality for me / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” He identifies with all the oppressed peoples that built America and ignites the urge for them all to rise up: a united resistance. The repetition in his cries for his land and people signifies that this fight is far from over; that this heart is still beating.
“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.’” — Langston Hughes
I stand in the heart of a thousand-person crowd on one of the busiest interstates in Michigan. It’s June 6, 2020, and we’re marching for the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m close behind a young Black woman with a megaphone. In it, she shouts “When your feet hurt, remember why you’re walking! When your arms hurt from holding your sign, think of how many of us have died holding our hands up!”
Maya Angelou wrote the poem “Still I Rise” in 1978. The defiant message of the poem takes me back to the protest, to the speaker in front of me. In the poem, Angelou refuses to succumb to the oppressor’s hate: “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.” Angelou uses anaphora, the repetition of the phrase “you may” in the beginning of several verses. It reiterates the never-ending attempts of the oppressor to keep her down, and serves to amplify the inevitability of her triumph over this adversity. Both Angelou and the protest speaker remind me who we are fighting for.
“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.” — Maya Angelou
The arrangement of the individuals is like the syntax of a poem; we are each unique bodies but the organization of us all brings us together. As we march entangled together the enjambment of our rows signifies that the fight is never-ending. There is no time for rest. We have to keep moving.
The police at this protest watch from their cars. They are parked to block the road from the other side of the highway. Whenever I spot their vehicles I hear Harryette Mullen’s “We Are Not Responsible.” Written in 2002, Mullen narrates the dehumanization of the language of authority officials in this poem. The language she uses is balanced with nearly every line having the same amount of syllables. It juxtaposes the threat beneath the lines, and emphasizes the final violent line that fails to fall in order: “Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible / for what happens to you.” She protests the misuse of power and degrading standards of these officials.
“Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude. / You have no rights we are bound to respect. / Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible / for what happens to you.” — Harryette Mullen
I read signs in the air that make allusions to great activists, forcing us to address the relevant words spoken by Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Height, and to beg the question of why their words still reflect society today. Time may move forward, but history hasn’t. Racism hasn’t disappeared, it has transformed. It’s an undeniable truth I’ve learned from activists old and new. It’s a truth I’ve seen by simply opening up my eyes and ears.
Young poet Imani Cezanne is known for her spoken word poetry. Spoken word poetry is more focused on sound rather than the physical components of written poetry, like form. It is written with the audience in mind and the goal to engage them. The delivery can make the poem feel alive. Cezanne does not disappoint. I’ve listened to her performance of “Protest” from 2015 several times, and it never lessens in relevancy.
“The top of the food chain has never been in danger, but I know for a fact that they might kill my brother today. Just because he’s black. Because he’s still alive.” — Imani Cezanne
We march forward inch by inch. We step back. We stop. We move again, faster. We are dripping with sweat, with tears, with helpless anger for justice. I know the pain we feel is not equal, but the unequal pain still synchronizes as we march.
In 2017, poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor wrote a poem about the death of Martin Luther King Jr. She describes the aftermath in “Devouring the Light, 1968,” and paints a picture of the upside down world: “streets blazed with suffering in that small / Alabama town” and it reads like an echo of the world now.
“in the dull shroud of morning / the whole world went crazy / devouring whatever light / that lit our half-cracked windows.” — Cheryl Boyce-Taylor
The repetition in our words — Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! — is a metaphor for the repetitive silence of our nation. When we say his name I think of his last words. I think of all the last words we didn’t hear. I think of George Floyd’s daughter saying “Daddy changed the world!”
Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” So were Eric Garner’s. When I shout his name, I remember the poem I read only three months ago in Jessica Care Moore’s recently released book of poems “We Want Our Bodies Back” — it’s titled “I Can’t Breathe.” She dedicates it to Garner and Michael Brown, the latter whom Moore starts the poem with. She wrote it after protesting in Ferguson after Brown’s death, and begins the poem by bringing us there. Soon she tells about her son, about her life and the time she spends not being able to breathe. Care Moore highlights this by only repeating the phrase “i can’t breathe” in the free verse poem. Otherwise, there is no meter, no pattern. There are no rules to free verse. There is only artistic expression.
“I will inhale God & blow my last wind into your body / your exhale be the holy ghost / for this land. / i can’t breathe” — Jessica Care Moore
Poetry has long been fuel for resistance. It can be used as a tool for political activism and social change. In the words of poet Malcom London, “Art brings something else to our understanding of politics. It makes politics more tangible. It is often hard to have honest conversations about political struggles in the absence of art.”
In the book “How Poetry Can Change Your Heart,” poets Andrea Gibson and Megan Falley write that “even when the truth isn’t hopeful, the telling of it is.” All the aforementioned Black poets write the truth of the reality they live and the adversity they face. Poetry has the unique power to express these truths of political struggles and social justice in a relatively limited amount of time and space.
It offers one the experience to witness the struggles of another, and this opportunity is known to “expand our own capacity for empathy and compassion,” Gibson and Falley write. Poetry can expand our insight into others’ struggles by embracing and exposing aspects of the human experience.
When we march for Black lives, we are doing that. We are expanding our capacity to feel outside ourselves by diving into the pain of another. While neither poetry nor protesting may be enough to change the world, both have the power to change our hearts, and to Gibson and Falley, “therein lies the power of poetry to change the world. Poetry changes the heart, and in time the mind follows suit.”
But the fight is not over. The inhumane voices that terrorize from above remain. Ignorance persists and hate thrives. Destruction to people’s human rights continues.
Yet, let Gibson and Falley remind us: “In a world where there is so much destruction, creation itself is medicine.”
To feel is to heal. For these poets to share their experiences so intimately emphasizes the uniqueness of poetry. Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Harryette Mullen, Jessica Care Moore and Imani Cezanne share with us their human experiences, so sacred and relevant that they must not be ignored. Their poems are protests.
I look around. I cannot see the end to this march or the beginning. Then, like a tide rolling in, everyone begins to kneel. The wave reaches me and I step down. Arms emerge and fists raise toward the sky. This protest is poetry.
“Because the world is at the window / we cannot wonder very long.” — Gwendolyn Brooks