Not many writers compose laments or lamentations in 2015. Perhaps we need some. There is no specific metrical form for a lament, no rhyme scheme; there are no rules. How would one know when one has written one? A lament is meant to be sung or declaimed, and even though we listen to many singers and even though we hear too many speech-makers, the poetry that most of us encounter is read silently, nodded at, and then forgotten after the encounter. Too often, Americans seem to think of poetry as bloodless, intellectual.
A lament is an expression of grief captured in the moment or as close to the moment as it can be caught. Those who were left behind, those who do not want to imagine one more moment continuing to live on as someone left behind, they sing laments. As non-subtle as our culture can often be, “get over it” is just as often a guiding outlook. For most of us, life rarely if ever brings us to experiences so sad we proclaim we will never cease mourning, and when we do, we try to cheer each other up. Lamentations present meaning in mourning. We don’t often linger there long enough for meaning to germinate.
Langston Hughes was frustrated. In the 1930s, he was a professional success, but the America he was a part of was continuously frustrating whatever optimism that kept him putting pen to paper, frustrating him finding a glimpse of meaning. He was the country’s most famous black writer, and most days, that title meant he received more respect in other countries.
In his four-decade writing career, Langston Hughes published continuously: 15 volumes of poetry in his lifetime, two novels and several volumes of short stories, almost three dozen plays and radio scripts, three autobiographies, and essays and articles and introductions in periodicals almost every week for all 40 years. He was much honored, and rightly so, but the fight he was born into, born into by being born black and American and in 1902, the Jim Crow era, it was frustrating finding meaning inside that fight.
The country was segregated, and segregation was never a bloodless, intellectual exercise. Those who beat back black Americans fighting for equality thought that they were being forced into violence, pushed into the bad guy role. The ugly self-rationalization behind the violence went something like, “If only they didn’t push us” for equality. The ugly self-rationalizing racists were fighting to defend an evil system that denied other human beings their humanity. They were violent because violence is its own justification in a system that does not have morality backing it.
In 1938, Hughes wrote “Kids Who Die,” a poem that is as close to a lamentation as a major American poet has composed.
Kids Who Die
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.
Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together
Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.—Langston Hughes, 1938
Yesterday, Color of Change, a great activist community, published a video of Danny Glover reading “Kids Who Die,” but the imagery is not from that deep past of the 1930s, with references that need to be highlighted and linked to informative Wikipedia entries. The imagery is from this week, this month, this year.
On its website, Color of Change writes, “In 1938 civil rights activist and poet Langston Hughes wrote his chilling poem ‘Kids Who Die’ which illuminates the horrors of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. Now, Hughes’ vivid poetry is being featured in a three minute video created by Frank Chi and Terrance Green. It is a startling reminder that the assault on Black lives did not end with the Jim Crow era.”
#BlackLivesMatter. And black lives are being snuffed out in America in a dervish of frantic, self-rationalizing, racist violence. More so in 2015 than in 2014, and more then than in years before.
When the grief once lamented over becomes historical, the lamentations are forgotten. Grass grows over the gravestones. This lament is not historical. It just never ends. It never ends.
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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 7 asks us to reflect on the word, “Protest.”
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