Kwame Alexander Offers New Poems On Race And Hope As 'Psalms And Balms' For The Soul
With his new book of poetry about race in America, Morning Edition poet-in-residence Kwame Alexander hopes to "shine a little light for the world."
In the book, Light For The World To See: A Thousand Words On Race And Hope, Alexander writes three poems on three events: the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protests before NFL games, and the election of Barack Obama as president.
"I think that through the listening of a poem or the reading of a poem about the woes of the world — and we've got a lot of woes right now — we can be inspired to find the wonderful in ourselves and in each other," he tells NPR.
[You can hear Alexander read the poem "The Undefeated" from the book in the audio version of the interview or watch a video of the poem here. He also created a community poem, "Running For Your Life," based on submissions to NPR about what it means to be Black and safe in America today that you can read here.]
On why he wrote this book of poems
I think the weight of being Black was too much to carry for me for a long time. I didn't know how to find answers to assert myself to do something. And then a friend of mine sent me a quote by Toni Morrison that said this is precisely the time when artists go to work. There's no time for despair. No place for self pity. No need for silence. No room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language, that is how civilizations heal. And so I wrote. I used my words to scream, to shout, to sort of lift up my voice to shine a little light for the world.
I wanted to write this as a reminder to Black children and families to remember their humanity. I wanted to write it as sort of a wake-up call to white Americans to acknowledge and know the truth, to fight against a proclivity to maintain the hierarchy, whether conscious or not. I think of these poems as sort of negro spirituals in a way — which are timeless in their comfort and their guidance and their roots in praise houses and ring shouts and other informal gatherings of enslaved Africans who needed to express their sorrows and their hopes, wading in the water. Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Steal away to Jesus. That's what these poems are for me. They are psalms and balms for my soul and hopefully for our souls so that we can get on with the business of making the world a better place.
On the parallels he sees in James Baldwin's A Report From Occupied Territory, an essay written in 1966 about police brutality, and what the nation is going through today — and on his own writing in this trandition
I think [it's] in the sense that Baldwin was crying out. It was a plea for our humanity, for the humanity of Black people in particular, of oppressed people in general, to be recognized. I don't know if I'm writing a plea more so that I'm making a demand and that I'm saying we've got to reclaim our own humanity and cannot allow ourselves to be defined by other people.
The wound, the wound has been here. The wound has been here since Africans first arrived on these shores. These episodes of police killings and brutality — they've existed for 400 years. I wrote this to remind us of the tragedy, Rachel, while also showcasing the triumph. The only way for us to do things better in the future is to understand what we did wrong in the past. I do think that we are at a critical boiling point of resistance in America and you see whites and Blacks and all Americans coming together to stand up for what's right. We've got to all say that we are fired up and we can't take no more and I think that's what's happening.
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