I am a big fan of children’s literature. So for our celebration of National Poetry Month, I wanted to recommend a wonderful book, a story told in poems. Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir through a child’s eyes of growing up in the South, moving to Brooklyn as a young teenager from the 60’s into the 70’s.
Most of the poems are short, and they convey a deep sense of place, of history unfolding and childhood skipping away and staying. They are poems I found myself wanting to savor and reread.
Here is a short quote from Jacqueline Woodson about Brown Girl Dreaming:
Raised in South Carolina and New York, I always felt halfway home in each place. In these poems, I share what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.
It also reflects the joy of finding my voice through writing stories, despite the fact that I struggled with reading as a child. My love of stories inspired and stayed with me, creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.
Below are three selections from the book, I hope they inspire you to get a copy.
When my mother’s older cousin
and best friend, Dorothy,
comes with her children, they run off
saying they can’t understand
the way Hope, Dell and I speak.
Y’all go too fast, they say.And the words get all pushed together.They say they don’t feel like playing with us little kids. So they leave us
to walk the streets of Nicholtown when we can’t
leave the porch.
We watch them go, her
Cousin Dorothy say, Don’t you knuckleheads
get into trouble out there.
They we stay close to Cousin Dorothy, make believe
we’re not listening when she knows we are.
Laughing when she laughs, shaking our own heads
when she shakes
hers. You know how you have to get those trainings,
she says, and our mother nods. They
won’t let you sit at the counterswithout them. Have to know what to dowhen those people come at you.She has a small space between her teethlike my mother’s space, and Hope’s and Dell’s, too.
She is tall and dark-skinned,
beautiful and broad shouldered.
She wears gloves and dark-colored dresses made for her
by a seamstress in Charleston.
The trainings take place in the basements of churches
and the back rooms of stores,
on long car trips and anywhere else where people can
gather. They learn
how to change the South without violence,
how to not be moved
by the evil actions of others, how to walk slowly but
with deliberate steps.
How to sit at counters and be cursed at
without cursing back, have food and drinks poured
over them without standing up and hurting someone.
Even the teenagers
get trained to sit tall, not cry, swallow back fear.
But Lord, Cousin Dorothy says. Everybody has a line.
When I’m walking
up to that lunch counter and taking my seat,
I pray to God, don’t let
anybody spit on me.
I can be Sweet Dorothy
seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day
as long as nobody crosses that line. Because if they do,
this nonviolent movement
how to listen #7
Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.
say it loud
My mother tells us the Black Panthers are doing
all kinds of stuff
to make the world a better place for Black children.
In Oakland, they started a free breakfast program
so that poor kids can have a meal
before starting their school day. Pancakes,
toast, eggs, fruit: we watch the kids eat happily,
sing songs about how proud they are
to be Black. We sing the song along with them
stand on the bases of lampposts and scream,
Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud untilmy mother hollers from the window,
Get down before you break your neck.
I don’t understand the revolution.
In Bushwick, there’s a street we can’t cross called
Wyckoff Avenue. White people live on the other side.
Once a boy from my block got beat up for walking
Once there were four white families on our block
but they all moved away except for the old lady
who lives by the tree. Some days, she brings out cookies
tells us stories of the old neighborhood when everyone
was German or Irish and even some Italians
down by Wilson Avenue.
All kinds of people, she says. And the cookies are too good for me to say,
Everyone knows where they belong here.
It’s not Greenville
but it’s not diamond sidewalks either.
I still don’t know what it is
that would make people want to get along.
Maybe no one does.
Angela Davis smiles, gap-toothed and beautiful,
raises her fist in the air
says, Power to the people, looks out from the television
directly into my eyes.
National Poetry Month
At Politics for the People
Do you have a favorite political poem that you would like to share? Is there an original poem you have written? Please email me at email@example.com with your suggestions for consideration.