Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’

2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act (1964). As part of a series of stories on this subject, NPR has run several stories and videos.

Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’.

In this one, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Jeffrey Brown recently traveled from Mississippi to Alabama on a pilgrimage to witness the historical struggles and sorrows people faced during the civil rights movement. On their 100-mile journey, they examine the role of poetry in advancing the movement’s message for justice and freedom.

The video is about eight minutes long, and Ms. Trethewey only recites part of her moving and calmly horrifying poem “Incident,” about a black family looking through their living room curtains at a cross burning in their neighborhood. Here is the poem in its entirety. The form may be recognizable to some of you; it is a special stanza form called a pantoum.

I hope you’ll agree, as is mentioned in the video, that poetry is a form of sacred language, a way to speak (and sing) when you are afraid to speak.

Incident

By Natasha Trethewey

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shade drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our room and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

Gentle reader, you might find interesting another poem, by an African American poet, Countee Cullen, also named “Incident.” Poets like to do this, comment and copy and call out after one another.

Incident

By Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

waltersk002

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