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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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.

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.

Night, Death, Mississippi

“Night, Death, Mississippi”

By Robert Hayden

I.
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.

II.
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”:

“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” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-hayden).

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.

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.”