Social Justice Poetry Capstone

This video is a collection of three poems by social justice writers on the topic of race in America. The pictures connected with the audio are meant to further attach words to their images in the mind, to depict more easily the comparisons from the poet’s method to our own thoughts.


Listen to It

Many things can be learned from the reading of a poet’s work.  Their style, their purpose, their form, and their word choice all fall into a distinctive voice that is left caught in your mind seconds after the last word of the last line leaves your lips.  That is when social justice poetry has the most power.  When it is spoken.  You can read a poem out loud and feel the frustrations of the author channelled into these letters.  You have to work to get it out, and they form their poems in a way that make you think about what you’re saying as you speak it.  That is when the issue comes alive.  When you speak it aloud, when it can not be hidden or ignored.  And that is how changes are made.  Someone hears the words and takes steps to make fight the problems the voice is speaking against.  Reading social justice poetry has helped me make a connection not just with a poet and their work, but a society and its problems.  Reading social justice poetry has helped me reach back into the dark past of this country and understand the influence of one man’s work. Reading social justice poetry has helped me better comprehend the importance of form and given me further insights into the craft of writing.  Next time you see a poem regarding a social issue, read it aloud.  You might be doing a favor to more than just yourself.  Let other people listen.  Let them understand.  Let them help.

Where Does it all Lead?

In the end, we see how social justice poetry has grown from a history of speaking out and seizing an identity. Now, it is all around us, flowing through poems and voices, stretching from the page to the voice to the ear. We are the audience and the speaker. Rachel Rostad is a young poet, carrying on the legacy. But she is also a college student, a person. An individual with words and experience, bringing back the history of social justice to the public sphere.


Five Things to Know About Social Justice Poetry

To Summarize Social Justice Poetry:

  1. This genre focuses on the marginalized people in society.
  2. Major themes include freedom and identity.
  3. The Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance are two of the most productive eras for literature, especially for social justice poetry. Notable poets from these periods include Robert Hayden and Langston Hughes.
  4. Slam is a medium for social justice poetry. Notable poets in this category include Sarah Kay and Patrick Rosal.
  5.  Social justice poetry is a pervasive catalyst for action that can change the world.

Word Art

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 8.27.46 PM

This Wordle ( depicts the words that occur most frequently in the following social justice poems:
By Patrick Rosal: “About the White Boys who Drove by a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me”
By Sarah Kay: “The Type”
By Robert Hayden: “Night, Death, Mississippi” and “Words in Mourning Time”
By Langston Hughes: “I, Too” and “Christ in Alabama” and “The Landlord”

Speaking Circles: A Look at Patrick Rosal’s Poem “About the White Boys who Drove by a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me”

By Patrick Rosal


…there shall never be rest
’til the last moon droop and the last tide fall…
– Arthur Symons


The first time they merely spat on me and drove off
I stood there a while staring down the road
after them as if I were looking for myself
I even shouted my own name
But when they cruised past again
to toss a full bucket of water
(and who knows what else) on me
I charged–sopping wet–after their car


and though they were quickly gone I kept
running Maybe it was hot that August afternoon
but I ran the whole length of Main Street past
the five-and-dime where I stole Spaldeens
and rabbits’ feet past the Raritan bus depot
and Bo’s Den and the projects where Derek and them
scared the shit out of that girl I pumped
the thin pistons of my legs all the way home


Let’s get real: It’s been twenty-five years
and I haven’t stopped chasing them
through those side streets in Metuchen
each pickup b-ball game every
swanky mid-town bar I’ve looked for them
in every white voice that slurred and cursed me
within earshot in every pink and pretty
body whose lights I wanted to punch out


–and did to be honest I looked for them
in every set of thin lips I schemed to kiss
and this is how my impossible fury
rose: like stone in water I ran
all seven miles home that day and I’ve been
running ever since arriving finally
here and goddammit I’m gonna set things straight


The moment they drove by laughing
at a slant-eyed yellowback gook
they must have seen a boy
who would never become a man We could say
they were dead wrong but instead let’s say
this: Their fathers gave them their rage
as my father gave me mine

and from that summer day on we managed
to savor every bloody thing
that belonged to us It was a meal
constantly replenished–a rich
bitterness we’ve learned to live on for so long
we forget how–like brothers–
we put the first bite in one another’s mouths

Here is a link where you can listen to Patrick Rosal read this poem live. There are other poems which you can listen to by Patrick Rosal.

In this poem, the idea that prejudice and the anger that arises from prejudices is cyclic in its patterns. The end of the poem grows to this idea of feeding; the speaker is fed by the actions of the white boys. Yet, the speaker asserts that the food is also something that grows from tradition and what parents think. Therefore, the poem ties into the epigraph’s assertion that there is no rest. There is no break from the prejudice. This is emphasized by the poem’s lack of punctuation, especially periods which would give the poem a complete stop. As a spoken word poem, the rise and fall of the speaker’s voice brings back this idea of reaction. The poem is a reaction to something that happened, but it is also a call for change because it points out that which is absurd. By pointing out the cyclical sensation of this prejudice, the poem stands as a call for justice, for an awakening to the source of all the prejudice that goes on in the world. Thus, the poem stands as an interaction between audience and poet that calls awareness to the current situation in hope of change.


More Than Just Whitman

“I, Too”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

This poem by Langston Hughes comes as a response to the Walt Whitman poem “I Hear America Singing.” Whitman writes of a number of different occupations and how the sound of them working creates the harmonious orchestra of America. The speaker in the”I, Too” establishes that he too sings America with poem’s first line.  The stanza that follows begins a separate experience from the one Whitman penned.  Establishing himself as “the darker brother” the narrator submits that he is hidden in the kitchen when company comes.  This is a reference to the black identity being hidden in the work force, the kitchen a site of most indoor housework.  However, the speaker laughs and builds strength, this referencing the growth of the black community.  In the third stanza, we see a promise.  The speaker says on the next day he’ll sit at the table and no one will tell him to hide as he eats again.  The “Tomorrow” in this poem is a distant future when blacks attain equal rights and status,  While the tone of the third stanza reads fierce and threatening (“Nobody’ll dare”), the second to last stanza shares a more vulnerable hope.  The speaker claims those who once hid him will recognize his beauty and feel shame.  This again references the future, not in law alone, but belief as well.  The poem ends with a variation on the first line “I, too, am America.”  It comes as a reminder to the audience that the history and future of black culture is tired to the culture of America as much as any other.  This is an example of social justice poetry because it touches on the prejudice of a race through the metaphor of a household, and in reference to a renowned poem. Whitman wrote that poem in a period when black people were still no considered people.  “I Hear America Singing” is fairly ageless, but when Hughes wrote his response it was to remind the audience that Black culture helped build the country as well.  Hughes is fighting against a deeper sewn prejudice: the American history of ignorance.  But the poem also offers something seen in many works of social justice: hope for better times to come.