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”

Night, Death, Mississippi

“Night, Death, Mississippi”

By Robert Hayden

A quavering cry. Screech-owl?
Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs —

One of them, I bet —
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night.

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

Time was. A cry?
A cry all right.
He hawks and spits,
fevered as by groinfire.

Have us a bottle,
Boy and me —
he’s earned him a bottle —
when he gets home.

Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don’t know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night 

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so’s he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

From Pontheolla T. Williams' Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry:

“The poem is Hayden’s most devastating attack on lynching as what was, even in the sixties, an integral part of southern society. The poem reveals how the neo-chivalric elements in southern society and the deep-seated theoretical and pragmatic aspects of lynching have become pervasive – a way of life – at the level of the common redneck who participates in a treasured spectacle that relieves the monotony of his dull and empty life.”

Video Clip from the Movie “Mississippi Burning”:

On the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s Assassination

Today we remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President and poetry advocate. Less than one month before his death, he gave a speech at Amherst College to honor poet Robert Frost. The following quotations are excerpts from his speech.

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers …

The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us …

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”

A Poem on Death, Grief, and Social Injustice:
From Robert Hayden’s “Words in Mourning Time”

For King, for Robert Kennedy,
destroyed by those they could not save,
for King for Kennedy I mourn.
And for America, self destructive, self-betrayed.

I grieve. Yet know the vanity
of grief – through power of
The Blessed Exile’s
transilluminating word

aware of how these deaths, how all
the agonies of our deathbed childbed age
are process, major means whereby,
oh dreadfully, our humanness must be achieved.


“The Confines of Labels”: Hayden’s Rejection of the “Black Poet”

Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4th, 1913. He was raised by poor and uneducated foster parents. Extreme nearsightedness limited his participation in athletics, so he turned to literature.

“He loved books because they took him out of his environment, partly because they fed his imagination with experiences he had never know, but mostly, perhaps, because he was beginning to love the words themselves” (Hatcher 8-9).

Family relationships during his childhood were difficult due to the tension that he was not his adoptive parents’ real son, and that his artistic desires challenged their views of his masculinity. Later, as an adult and a poet, Hayden would reflect on how these experiences shaped his life.

Hayden enjoyed, studied, and was inspired by Countee Cullen, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Langston Hughes, as well as other aspiring poets of the time. He studied under the direction of W. H. Auden while pursuing his master’s degree.

Hayden was a professor of creative writing and English literature at Fisk University (Nashville, Tennessee) for 23 years, and then taught at the University of Michigan for 11 years.

Though often writing in poetic form, Hayden still managed to remain original. He employed many personas and voices, such as “black folk speech” and sparse yet brash diction, for an overarching chilling effect. His poetry is not considered confessional because it explores the larger implications of personal events.

Robert Hayden began associating with social justice writers in the late 1930s; during this time, he also began in-depth research on American and black history.

Even though most of his poetry relates to or draws from African American history and the black experience, Hayden distanced himself from the label of a “black poet,” which led to accusations that he was rejecting his racial heritage during the tumultuous 1960s. Hayden “became convinced that he could not work easily within the confines of labels” (Hatcher 13).

He fiercely believed that “the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks” (

Hayden felt that the label of “black poet” confined his poetry and restricted his identity. He wanted readers, critics, and the general public to think of him instead as an American poet.

Poetry “In Times Like These”

“We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”  – Adrienne Rich, Social Justice Poet

Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

Quick Facts About Robert Hayden

1. Born on August 4th, 1913 and died on February 25th, 1980.
2. Raised by foster parents in Detroit, Michigan.
3. Extremely nearsighted.
4. The first African American appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
5. Deeply religious; belonged to the Baha’i faith (an Eastern religion that believes in a coming world civilization).
6. Rejected label of “black poet” although his poetry focuses on the black experience.

Robert Hayden, American Poet