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.

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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.

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.

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

Besides,
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.

Christ in Alabama

Langston Hughes stirred up quite a bit of controversy with the poem, due to the implications of the entire poem and allegations of blasphemy.

Christ is a nigger,

Beaten and black:

Oh, bare your back!

Mary is His mother:

Mammy of the South,

Silence your mouth.

God is His father:

White Master above

Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard

Oh the bleeding mouth,

Nigger Christ

On the cross of the South

First, this poem takes the Christian identity, the predominant religion of America’s majority white population, and draws parallels to the struggle of African Americans in history.  The comparison depicts black males as beaten, black females as voiceless, and white males as omni-potent. The poem was clearly thought out, from the important biblical figures to the symbol of the cross. In Christianity the cross represents the punishment Jesus took from the Romans for the sins of humanity. So when Hughes writes “On the cross of the South” he means “How much more punishment must we endure?” Almost as important to the allusion of redemption is the lack of Easter.  This poem has no newly risen hero, but a long suffering victim.  The poem uses simple words and structure, but opens the eyes of its audience by reminding them that the near blasphemy of the poem isn’t nearly as horrifying as the contextual history. One of the most effective blasphemies in the poem is the beginning of the last stanza “Most holy bastard of the bleeding mouth.” It reminds the audience that Jesus had no father on Earth to claim him, as no plantation owner would claim a slave child his own. The bleeding mouth is particularly jarring because it alludes to speaking and being punished for it. Hughes points at the social injustices that continue in the South through biblical comparison, and leaves the audience to wonder how long the crucifixion must last before there will be salvation.

The Voice of Harlem

The Harlem Renaissance is a large part of literary history in America.  One of the best known writers to arise from that movement is Langston Hughes.  Hughes, who grew up in a number of towns throughout the Midwest, first went to Harlem in 1920 for college and stayed until 1923.  He left to travel internationally following graduation, but returned in 1929.  In this time Langston Hughes developed his voice as a social justice poet.  Writing about the injustices in Harlem, Hughes displayed the prejudices surrounding him and other minorities.  One poem that exemplifies this is the Ballad of the Landlord:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

This poem provides unique access to the mounting frustration of a black man in the face of prejudice.  We see the speaker’s progression from frustrated, to violent, to imprisoned in a matter of eight stanzas. He covers the poor condition of housing, the overcharging, prejudiced landlords, the racially biased police, and the injustice of the law system. He does so in an almost sing-songy rhythm, with rhyming stanzas that allude to the event being seemingly formulaic and frequent.

Hughes was known for writing about the events that surrounded him daily, and his writings gave voice to the segregated and oppressed in Harlem.  This early work of Langston Hughes describing social injustice in Harlem, a local voice of outrage soon developed into a national one.  We see this in some of his later works, such as The South, Christ in Alabama, and I, Too, Sing America.

We can also see his impact on many other writers, even international ones, like Wole Soyinka in his poem “Telephone Conversation.”