Poetic Justice

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my passions is related to what happens when two of my passions fuse together:  art and social justice.  I thought I’d share some justice-related poems, and ask you to share some of yours – artists (whether poets, musicians, painters, actors, dancers, or others) that inspire you, or movements for change you know of, in a social-justice-kind-of-way.

February is Black History Month, so I’ll share two poems of the great  Langston Hughes (b. February 1, 1902 – d. May 22, 1967).  A  poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and columnist,  Hughes was one of the earliest innovators of a new literary art form: jazz poetry. The poems that follow reflect justice issues of his day.

In this first poem, “Justice”, comments upon injustices blacks experienced in the early 20th century:


That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Hughes created this poem, “Colored Child At Carnival” because of the effect Jim Crow had on him as a child.  Jim Crow was a legally enforced system of racial segregation, from the 1880s into the 1960s, where the majority of Americans could impose legal punishments on people for consorting with members of another race. (Some examples of Jim Crow laws are here.) When Hughes was in the 7th grade his teacher moved him, along with the other black students, to the back of the class. He became angry at this injustice and  put cards that read “JIM CROW ROW” on the black kids’ desks.  The teacher became furious, and Hughes was expelled. When parents started protesting, his expulsion was called off and he returned to school.



Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

Poets and artists of all kinds inspire, provoke and reflect who we are at our best and at our worst. I am thankful today for artists of all kinds who bring their hearts to stare wickedness and oppression in the eyes and bring forth an expression that yields light or beauty.   If there can be no justice without love, then there can be no love without truth telling, then there can be no truth telling without our poets.

What are some artists/works of art that have inspired you or social movements in the work and art of justice seeking?

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  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Melinda. Here are a few of my favorites…
    Ella’s Song by Sweet Honey in the Rock

    Before I Start This Poem by Emmanuel Ortiz

    Vaclav Havel on the definition of hope

    The Gift (I will not die an unlived life)by Donna Markova

  • Curtis says:

    Just recently came across this poem, and I have filed it under favorites:

    “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo

    The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what,
    we must eat to live.

    The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the
    table so it has been since creation, and it will go on.

    We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe
    at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

    It is here that children are given instructions on what
    it means to be human. We make men at it,
    we make women.

    At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts
    of lovers.

    Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms
    around our children. They laugh with us at our poor
    falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back
    together once again at the table.

    This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella
    in the sun.

    Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place
    to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate
    the terrible victory.

    We have given birth on this table, and have prepared
    our parents for burial here.

    At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow.
    We pray of suffering and remorse.
    We give thanks.

    Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table,
    while we are laughing and crying,
    eating of the last sweet bite.

    Reinventing the Enemy’s Language.
    Edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird.
    New York: Norton, 1997.

  • WOW! Thanks @Curtis and @Cynthia, for sharing so generously. I think we’re on to something….readers — please continue to share! We need to be inspired about justice poetically. Do share!

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