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Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset

Oriflamme

About this Poem 

“Oriflamme” appeared in the January 1920 issue of the magazine The Crisis

Oriflamme

“I can remember when I was a little, young girl, how my old mammy would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and groan, and I would say, ‘Mammy, what makes you groan so?’ And she would say, ‘I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not know where I be and I don’t know where they be. I look up at the stars and they look up at the stars!’” 
—Sojourner Truth.
 
 
I think I see her sitting bowed and black,	
   Stricken and seared with slavery’s mortal scars,	
Reft of her children, lonely, anguished, yet	
   Still looking at the stars.	
 
Symbolic mother, we thy myriad sons,	       
   Pounding our stubborn hearts on Freedom’s bars,	
Clutching our birthright, fight with faces set,	
   Still visioning the stars!

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 24, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 24, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

National Poetry Month 2018 Poster
poem

Praise Song for the Day

A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues. 

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, 
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
 
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, 

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, 
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

Elizabeth Alexander
2009
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Bryce Canyon National Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
poem

Watch Us Elocute

June 18, 2015
 
So I’m at this party, right. Low lights, champagne, Michael
Bublé & a gang of loafers I’m forever dancing around
 
in unduly charged conversations, your favorite
accompanist—Bill Evans behind Miles, ever present
 
in few strokes—when, into the room walks
this potentially well-meaning Waspy woman obviously
 
from Connecticut-money, boasting an extensive background
in nonprofit arts management. & without much coaxing
 
from me, really, none at all, she whoops, Gosh, you’re just
so well spoken! & I’m like, Duh, Son. So then we both
 
clink glasses, drink to whatever that was. Naturally,
not till the next morning & from under a scalding
 
shower do I shout: Yes, ma’am. Some of us does talk good!
to no one in particular but the drain holes. No one
 
but the off-white tile grout, the loofah’s yellow pores.
Because I come from a long braid of dangerous men
 
who learned to talk their way out of small compartments.
My own Spartan walls lined with their faces—Ellison
 
& Ellington. Langston, Robeson. Frederick Douglass
above the bench press in the gym, but to no avail—
 
Without fail, when I’m at the Cross Eyed Cricket
(That’s a real diner. It’s in Indiana.) & some pimple-
 
face ginger waiter lingers nervous & doth protest
too much, it’s always Sir, you ever been told you sound like
 
Bryant Gumbel? Which is cute. Because he’s probably
ten. But then sometimes I sit in his twin’s section, & he
 
once predicted I could do a really wicked impression
of Wayne Brady. I know for a fact his name is Jim.
 
I’ve got Jim’s eighteenth birthday blazed on my bedside
calendar. It reads: Ass whippin’. Twelve a.m.—& like
 
actually, that woman from the bimonthly
CV-building gala can kick rocks. Because she’s old
 
enough to be my mother, & educated, if only
by her own appraisal, but boy. Dear boys. Sweet
 
freckled What’s-His-Face & Dipshit Jim,
we can still be play friends. Your folks didn’t explain
 
I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade—
a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath
 
my skin. Little buddies, that sore’s on me.
I know what you mean. That I must seem, “safe.”
 
But let’s get this straight. Let’s call a spade a—
Poor choice of words. Ali, I might not
 
be. Though, at the very least, a heavyweight
throwback: Nat King Cole singing silky
 
& subliminal about the unforgettable model
minority. NBC believed N at & his eloquence
 
could single-handedly defeat Jim Crow.
Fact: They were wrong. Of this I know
 
& not because they canceled his show
in ’57 after one season, citing insufficient
 
sponsorship. Or because, in 1948,
the KKK flamed a cross on his LA lawn.
 
But because yesterday, literally yesterday,
some simple American citizen—throwback
 
supremacist Straight Outta Birmingham, 1963—
aimed his .45 & emptied the life from nine
 
black believers at an AME church in Charleston.
Among them a pastor-senator, an elderly tenor,
 
beloved librarian, a barber with a business degree
who adored his mom & wrote poems about
 
the same age as me. I’m sorry. No, friends.
None of us is safe.
 
Marcus Wicker
2017
collection

Gwendolyn Brooks: A Centennial Celebration

A Pulitzer Prize winner, an Academy Fellowship winner, and the first black woman appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, Gwendolyn Brooks was—and continues to be—an outstanding voice in the world of contemporary American poetry. Brooks, who was awarded countless literary honors in her lifetime, was known for writing poems that captured a cross-section of everyday life in her hometown of Chicago. In sonnets, ballads, epic poems, and more, Brooks captured the lives, speech, and perspectives of people as varied as those she encountered in her city, and was particularly known for her interrogation of race relations and class.

This year marks Brooks’s centennial, and to celebrate, we’ve created this new collection of essays, audio, and poems by and about Brooks.

collection

A Poet's Glossary

Read about poetic terms and forms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014), a book ten years in the making that defines the art form of poetry.  

poem

O Black and Unknown Bards

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song? 
  
Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As "Steal away to Jesus"? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great "Jordan roll"? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot "swing low"? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
"Nobody knows de trouble I see"? 
  
What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears. 
  
Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than "Go down, Moses." Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young. 
  
There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine. 
  
You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. 
James Weldon Johnson
1922
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