Sunday, April 24, 2005

Poems: Hughes + Knight

Here are two of the better known works in the African American and American literary canons, Langston Hughes's (1902-1967) poem "Dream Deferred," and Etheridge Knight's (1931-1991) "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane."

I thought of posting them after skimming an early-posted New York Times April 25, 2005 article, Nation's Inmate Population Increased 2.3 Percent Last Year. According to the AP, despite the drop in crime over the past decade, the number of people being incarcerated is still outpacing the number released. What the article doesn't mention, but what Frederick Douglass pointed out over 125 years ago, is that Black people are disproportionately affected. (One figure I recall is that at any given moment nowadays, 1 out of every 4 African American men are somehow involved in or touched by some aspect of the penal system.)

Although Hughes's poem doesn't refer directly this crisis, it does aptly capture, in its unforgettable lyric the psychic and spiritual condition of so many who've passed through the defunct public educational system, who are politically, economically and socially marginalized, and who've been subjected to American in-justice through the prison industrial complex. In turn Knight, who actually was imprisoned for a while, writes directly from the inside, from this imprisoned interior space, in many of his works, especially the Hard Rock poems. Angela Davis and numerous other intellectuals and activists have called attention to the need for reforming the justice system in this country, and these two poems contribute to that vitally important appeal.


by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Copyright © Estate of Langston Hughes.


by Etheridge Knight

Hard Rock / was / "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.

The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn't a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.

As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: "Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole." "Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?" "He set
The record for time in the Hole--67 straight days!"
"Ol Hard Rock! man, that's one crazy nigger."
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn't lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
From before shook him down and barked in his face.
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.

And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

Copyright © Estate of Etheridge Knight.

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