2020 Robert L. Giron Global Humanities Lecture
Montgomery College, Takoma Park, Maryland
Literature Consoles & Confronts:
Poetry Making a Way for Justice
A reading from Raising King
November 18, 2020
I am very happy to join you today. I want to thanks Professors Cinder Cooper Barnes and Carol Moore for their kind invitation. I am also grateful to Robert Giron, for whom this lecture series is named. I know Robert as part of the DC Poetry Community. Robert is a talented poet and a passionate advocate for poetry. His work with Gival Press, Sligo, the literary journal here at Montgomery College, and of course his decades teaching here have made a beautiful mark on the DC poetry world and I’m glad to be part of it and to know him in it.
And I am thrilled to be back at Montgomery College!
One of my best teaching experiences took place here about ten years ago. I was an adjunct instructor teaching an introductory composition class and in that class I met the hardest working students I have ever taught. The class met in one of the pavilions, and it began at 7pm. The room was full, probably twenty students, from many different countries across Africa. I remember thinking “It’s like the Africa Union in here!” There were students from Cameroon, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali. And this was the Spring Semester of 2010, which means that later that summer, the World Cup would take place in South Africa, the first time ever on the African continent. These students were giddy over it! They couldn’t wait!
I had not really followed soccer/football much but these students were so on fire about the World Cup coming to Africa they got me fired up too. They taught me about Didier Drogba, Roger Milla and the Indomitable Lions, the Black Stars of Ghana, the Eagles of Nigeria, and Senegal’s Lions of Teranga.
But what I really found impressive was the hard work these students put into the class. By the time they showed up for our class, all of them had worked a full day, yet they were on time, prepared, and eager to learn. I have taught for a long time and I don’t think I will ever see a group of students as ready and open-minded as those folks. So, I’m glad to be here among you all again.
I want to begin by telling you four stories. I’m a teacher, so stories are my thing. And I hope these stories will lead smoothly into a reading from my new book of poems, Raising King.
Story Number One:
Gwendolyn Brooks, one of America’s great poets, a Chicago poet, is probably best known for her poem “We Real Cool.” A poem about seven young guys who should have been in school but she sees them in a pool hall during school hours. Instead of writing a poem about why they weren’t in school, Brooks wondered how they might think about themselves. She wants to get inside their heads to understand them. So, she gives us this crucial lesson in empathy and writes in their voice:
We real cool. We
left school. We
lurk late. We
strike straight. We
sing sin. We
thin gin. We
jazz June. We
About fifteen years ago, I’m teaching this poem, in a predominantly Black school here in Washington, D.C., and Aaron, a very creative but indifferent student, says, “Man, that poem’s about everyone on my street. I know all kinds of guys like that.” We go on to discuss the sadness, the hopelessness that can come without seeing much of a future if you are poor and have few resources. Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem surprised Aaron, her words got him thinking that maybe this “writing thing” had something for him and he became one of my best students. A poem did that. Her poem did that. Her poem consoled him because he saw his world in it.
Story Number Two:
For the last several years, I’ve been teaching American Literature, which I love. And one great discovery I’ve made is the life, writing, and speeches of Frederick Douglass. I can tell you that in all my education, Frederick Douglass was never assigned or discussed. That’s another lecture. But here are two stories about teaching Douglass.
About nine years ago, one of my American Literature classes had just finished discussing Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This powerful, indignant, angry speech from the former slave, now abolitionist, Douglass. Most of the class had left but Alexander was still in his desk. He was an African American student, kind of a tough kid. A hard kid. He was big, a football player. I looked at him and thought something was wrong, thought he was about to cry, which was not his normal public persona. I said “Alexander you doing ok?” He looked up at me from his seat and said “I’ve just never seen words do that before.” He saw words, carefully crafted by Douglass, that spoke his experience. Douglass argued against racism in ways that Alexander wished he could. Alexander heard, in Douglass, a writer who used words to tell the truth. A truth Alexander knew. I think Douglass’ craft consoled Alexander.
Story Number Three:
Last year. Another American Literature class had just finished discussing an especially brutal part of Douglass’ first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which he describes his enslaved grandmother being sent out to die alone, probably of starvation, in the woods. Again, much of the class had packed up and was on their way when I noticed Quinn, a white student, still sitting at his desk. I said something like “Quinn, you ok?” He looked up and said “It was that bad, wasn’t it?”
Story Number Four:
Also last year, an American Literature class was discussing Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
We discussed each of the images Hughes uses for what happens when a dream keeps getting put off, by the dreamer or by the society in which a dreamer lives. When we keep making some people give up on their dreams, when we make people live small lives—what happens? Hughes wonders in the poem’s last line, “Or does it explode?”
One student, Kevin, a moody seventeen year-old, one of my Black students says, “He’s predicting the future and that last line is a threat.” The poem put words on what Kevin had felt many times, being told “no” in various ways. The poem says what Kevin wants to say to America. Hughes’ poem consoled Kevin, because it is prophetic. And Hughes’ prophecy would come true. A decade after that poem was published, in 1951, America would explode into protests demanding racial justice.
This is what poetry can do. It consoles and confronts. Aaron got some consolation seeing his neighbors in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem. Quinn was confronted by Douglass’ life story. He faced the brutality caused by people who looked like him. He was confronted by something he did not go through but he let that confrontation enter and change him. Literature confronted him in Douglass’ words. And Kevin, I think, was both consoled and confronted by Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem.” When one feels seen, when one reads a poem that says what you want to say, that consoles. And when the poem wonders about what its readers will do? Will we live the truth of the poem? Or will we just go along with the injustices around us? Will we “explode” in creativity, protest, writing, reading, deepening our sense of our country and our world and making our country more just? Hughes wants to confront us. He wants to show us we have to join in this great struggle for justice. Hughes wants to, as the late John Lewis would say, get into “some good trouble, some necessary trouble.”
Poems can do this. Words can do this. Writing can do this. And writing needs to. Writers need to.
We writers, and yes, I am going to say YOU writers, cannot sit on the sideline and write only about flowers and the beach, sunrises and sunsets. Writers, people who care about humanity, must engage the suffering and the injustice of our time. We have to tell the stories of people who suffer and thereby reveal them and console them. And, we have to confront those whose greed creates the conditions under which so many people suffer in our time. We also have to confront those whose indifference allows injustice to continue. Good writing consoles and confronts. Which means that writers must console and confront. We must do this if we love humanity.
Our country is in great need right now, of writers, people who can use their words, to console and to confront. If you watched, even for just a few seconds, the video of a Minneapolis police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, you know that we need words to console those who suffer and we need words to confront the people and the systems who cause such suffering.
I can think of one man, whose life has affected my own, who loved humanity a lot: Martin Luther King. Over his short life, he learned to both console and confront his country, our country. He wrote several books in his life but three are called his political autobiographies. Stride Toward Freedom, he writes in 1956, when he’s a young man, he’s a new pastor in Montgomery, Alabama and he writes about the bus boycott there. In his second book, Why We Can’t Wait, he is a little older and he writes about the violence of 1963. Then in his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? he writes in the last year of his life. This last book is post-Nobel Peace Prize, and he has lived with death threats for years, he’s older, wiser.
Several years ago, I was teaching a composition class at American University here in Washington, D.C. and a colleague who knew my interest in Dr. King’s life and work suggested that I create a composition class built around King’s books. I hesitated but finally did it and taught it for two years. The whole time I was teaching it, I kept thinking, these three books of King’s could really be the outline for book of poems. This began my idea for this new book, Raising King.
I literally went through the copies of those three books I’d taught and wrote down quotes that poems might reflect upon. I began to write poems on what I saw as the essential elements of Dr. King’s three essential books. So in Raising King, each poem responds to an excerpt from Dr. King’s book, and each section of the book ends with a poem in Coretta Scott King’s voice. Without her life, Dr. King could never have lived his. I had to edit many of them down but in the end, they came together creating Raising King. I hope these poems might also be a piece of literature that consoles and confronts.
I read the following poems from Raising King:
Day of Days
Coretta Scott King: Montgomery
There Is One
It Takes Time
Martin King Speaks of Ralph Abernathy
Dresses and Bows
My Brother’s Keeper
A Waning Crescent
Our Lady of Sorrows Comes to Birmingham 2
Coretta Scott King: 1963
Love and Power
The Giant Triplets
Coretta Scott King: Funeral