This week on Moyers & Company…
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR:
There are literally two Americas.
Martin Luther King and the dream of a fair and just America.
Freedom from fear is a necessary freedom to get the civil rights, to get the jobs, to get work against poverty even though the odds may be against you.
If you can deal with race and the fundamental denial of common humanity through race, then it opens up possibilities.
The idea of a more perfect union. I love that because it suggests, rightfully so, that it’s not perfect now.
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Welcome. You may think you know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but there is much about the man and his message we have conveniently forgotten. He was a prophet, like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, calling kings and plutocrats to account, speaking truth to power.
Yet, he was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968. The March on Washington in ’63 and the March from Selma to Montgomery in ’65 were behind him. So were the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the last year of his life, as he moved toward Memphis and fate, he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign, a “multi-racial army” that would come to Washington, build an encampment and demand from Congress an “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans — black, white, or brown. He had long known that the fight for racial equality could not be separated from the need or economic equity – fairness for all, including working people and the poor. That’s why he was in Memphis, marching with sanitation workers on strike for a living wage when he was killed.
With me are two people steeped in King’s life and work. Taylor Branch wrote the extraordinary, three-volume history of the civil rights era, “America in the King Years.” The first of them, “Parting the Waters,” received the Pulitzer Prize. He now has distilled all that work, adding fresh material and insights to create this new book, “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Right Movement.”
James Cone, a longtime professor of theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, wrote the ground-breaking books that defined black liberation theology, interpreting Christianity through the eyes and experience of the oppressed. Among them: “Black Theology and Black Power,” “Martin and Malcolm and America,” and this most recent bestseller, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”
Before we talk, let’s listen to these words from Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken at Stanford University just a year before his assassination. It’s as if he were saying them today.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR:
There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And in a sense this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, and culture and education for their minds, and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. […] But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
Welcome to you both.
As he was trying to converge economics, race, social and political equality, what was he struggling for at that time when he, alone among his colleagues, wanted to take on the tough structure of prejudice in economics in the North?
I think he was thinking about class issues. He talked about class issues to his staff. He didn't do it primarily in speeches because of the kind of anticommunism spirit that was so deep in America at that time.
But on many occasions, he talked about the economic and about America having 40 million people who are in poverty in the richest country in the world. He was talking about restructuring everything. And if you talk about restructuring, you're talking about class too.
Yes. You have to understand that some of this class tension was also within the black community. Some of King's most stinging speeches were to the members of his own, like Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, saying, "You spend more money on liquor at your annual convention than you contribute to the NAACP.”
"This is -- we're more concerned about, I know ministers who are more concerned about the wheel base on their Cadillac than they are the spiritual base of their commitment to this world." So, King drew an awful lot of sustenance and biting challenge from the basic notion of -- I think that his favorite parable was the parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke about--
It was about the rich man who passed Lazarus begging at his door and didn't notice him and went to hell and saw Lazarus up in heaven.
And King interpreted this thing as saying the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. He went there because he didn't notice the humanity of the man he was passing at his gate. And it was about humanity.
Remember how the sanitation strike started, it started because two members of the sanitation force were crushed in the back of a garbage truck that was a cylinder, one of those compacting cylinders, in a torrential rainstorm and they were not allowed by the city to seek shelter in storms.
Because the white residents didn't like it if black garbage men stopped. All the garbage workers were black. And, so, they weren't allowed -- the only place they could get shelter in -- they wouldn't all fit in the cabin. So, the ones that could fit in the cabin and two of them had to climb in the back with the garbage and a broom fell on the lever and it compacted them with the garbage. And that is the origin of the slogan, "I am a man. I am a man, not a piece of garbage." And that connects to King's philosophy.
And the sanitation workers carried those signs, remember? "I am a man."
"I am a man." And to them, that was about Echol Cole and Robert Walker, their two friends who had been literally crushed with the garbage and nobody noticed. And King is saying, "You're going to go to hell as a nation if you don't notice the humanity of Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
And that's why justice is so central for King and why poverty became the focus of his ministry after that civil rights and voting rights. Because the civil rights and voting rights is not going to get rid of poverty. And, so, King saw that as central.
Let’s listen again to Dr. King, from the speech he made to those striking sanitation workers in Memphis just weeks before he was shot to death. What he said about poverty still rings true.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR:
Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.
Could anything be more current right now?
No. It's hard to imagine, and of course, it's chilling to think what the distribution of wealth was when he made that indictment compared to what it is now. It is much more skewed now than it was then and it was bad then.
So, you really get a sense of King's power. I would only caution that we not assume that he undertook these issues of poverty only late in his career. It was part of his message all along. Certainly, if you look at Nobel Prize lecture in 1964, he says, we are -- the world is seeing the widest liberation in human history, not just in the United States but around the world.
And we cannot lose this opportunity to apply its nonviolent power to the triple scourge of race, war, and poverty, what he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit. This was a very, very broad vision early on. It's only at the end of his career that he's making witness on that because he sees his time limited and he wants to leave that witness.
He made a wonderful quote when he was arguing with his staff about doing the Poor People's Campaign and most of them didn't want to do it. He quoted something saying, ‘At times, you must finish with what you have, even if it's only a little.’
You remind that the famous March on Washington five years earlier in 1963 wasn't called the March on Washington. It was a march for jobs--
Jobs and freedom.
--and freedom. Which goes back to his early concern, as you say.
Actually, you know, King grew up, he was a child during the Depression and he saw relief lines, even as a young man, and he was disturbed about that. He came from a middle-class family, but he was disturbed about it then. And even when he got ready to go the Crozer Theological Seminary out of Morehouse, when they asked him why he wanted to go into ministry, he connected it with helping people, helping them deal with hurt and pain.
So, it's not new for King. King has always been concerned about that. I think it becomes sharp for him at the end because he's accomplished civil rights, and the voting rights, and now he sees that it's still, he sees the cities burning.
And he wants to provide an alternative to riots.
I want to play you an excerpt of the speech he delivered, one year to the day before he was killed, at Riverside Church here in New York City.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A radical revolution of values.
The revolution in values is to see people first, to see Lazarus at the gate and not pass them by. So, I think the revolution in values is Christian and it's democratic, but it starts with people. They have equal souls and equal votes and we are very stubborn, human nature, about denying that and wanting to see anything but.
Was it theological?
Oh, yes. Because people are created in the image of God. If you're created in the image of God, you can't treat people like things. If we are interconnected with each other, we can't treat each other like things. If America is concerned with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you can't have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you're treating others as things.
So, what was the turning point that moved him from an understanding of what you're talking about to an actual agenda of trying to achieve it?
Well, I think part of it is a natural progression. If you are totally invisible, you're not even up to the level of a thing yet. The bus boycott, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, getting the right to vote, if you're not a citizen, you're not even up to the table where you can start dealing with these issues.
To me, Martin Luther King saw race as the gateway. If you can deal with race and the fundamental denial of common humanity through race, then it opens up possibilities which I think happened in history.
And finally, toward the end of his career, he said, we have an opportunity. Now that we are learning, at least the beginnings of treating each other as equal citizens to really tackle what he called the eternal scourge of racism, poverty, and war.
His fight against poverty was multiracial. He wasn't just focused with black people. Well, you can't get that multiracial fight against poverty unless first black people are regarded as persons. So, civil rights, that earlier part, is, as Taylor was saying, black people coming to the table. So, after they get to the table, if you’re going to deal with poverty, it spreads across races. So, King was concerned about a multiracial movement against poverty because that's what the Poor People's Campaign was about.
So, that would help us understand the colorblindness of that Economic and Social Bill of Rights that he and the Poor People's Campaign developed in the first, early part of 1968.
“The right of every employable citizen to a decent job, the right of every citizen to a minimum income, the right of a decent house and the free choice of neighborhood, the right to an adequate education, the right to participate in a decision-making process, the right to the full benefits of modern science in health care.” Quite a statement.
And he had a workshop, one of the more remarkable events that never made any news and is not preserved in history, in which he had representatives of Indian tribes, Appalachian white coal miners--
--Latinos of every different stripe. He had to do hurry-up education on how to tell a Chicano from the Mexicans. His rule was if they are poor, have them here. And half his staff was revolting against that, saying, "We are a black movement."
Why? Because they felt it would dilute the impact of--
It would diminish the unfinished agenda for black folks. It would diminish their expertise. Hosea Williams, who was a lovely rascal --
That's right. That's right. He was strongly against it.
He said, “You're taking my budget and giving it away to Indians and Mexicans. You can't do that."
That's right. Yeah.
But he had this incredible conclave there of people who didn't know each other. And everything and he said, “If we can't agree together that there's a poverty and a common approach that's bigger than race, then we should stop now."
But by the end of this thing, he had them all together and the rival Indian tribes were settling differences, and the Chicanos said, "Okay, well, we're going to let the Indians go first because they were here first," you know and deferring.
That's right. That's right. That's right.
It was a remarkable event.
He was growing more impatient in the last few months and more radical. Let's listen to what he told those workers we were talking about in Memphis.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.:
Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it. And you know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognize the union, and will not decree further check-off for the collection of dues, I'll tell you what you ought to do, and you're together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.
That was a genuine call to the barricades.
Yes, it was. And but you can't do that without that inner freedom that he's talking about, which is the freedom that empowers you to stop the work. It is the freedom inside that makes you do that. And for King, everybody has to claim that freedom. It's not a gift. Freedom is something that you have to demand from others, but you cannot demand it from others unless you have it internally yourself. And that's a kind of inner freedom.
In what sense was he free?
Well, King was free because death did not stop him. That is, the fear of death did not keep him from doing his actions for freedom. See, if the fear can stop you, then you are not free. So, freedom from fear was crucial. And throughout the South, having grown up there, I know what that fear is like.
And what is the most amazing thing for me is how King could inspire ordinary black people by the masses, like in Memphis, to march when white people have intimidated them for centuries. What King taught was that inner freedom that makes you confront the oppressor, even if it means risking your life. So the freedom from fear is the necessary freedom to get to civil rights, to get the jobs, to get work against poverty, even though the odds may be against you. And for black people, the odds were against them.
But here's the unfortunate thing. As you write about it, after his assassination, riots broke out across Memphis. And even though he acknowledged that, quote, "Riot is the language of the unheard," didn't this outbreak of violence in some way begin the end of the movement?
This is a very, very profound and difficult topic and I would have to say that it had already begun before. Nonviolence was already not popular. It had already become passé. Some of the most hostile language toward nonviolence came from the Left, people saying that nonviolence is kind of Sunday school and outmoded now.
And that we want to adopt the language of violence.
And King's answer to that was, “Nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. If we abandon nonviolence, it's not that we're stepping up to demand the right to be just violent, just like first-class white people. We're stepping back from a leadership doctrine in the United States." And that's what America including especially white America, does not understand.
One of the few speeches, by the way, in which a white leader acknowledged that was Johnson.
Before he said, "We shall overcome," he said “so it was at Appomattox, so it was at Concord, so it was at Selma last week, when fate and destiny met in the same moment."
So, he was putting a nonviolent black movement not only in the heart of American patriotism, but in the vanguard heart of American patriotism.
But do you admit that nonviolence ultimately didn't work? That it couldn't change America?
No. It did change America.
It did change America.
It changed it radically for me. I grew up in Arkansas and I know what fear is. What the movement did, nonviolence did, was to take the terror out of the South. And for the first time, you can not only go to hotels, but you can go all over the South without much fear of harm. That is a major achievement.
Certainly I recognize that.
The white South was the poorest region of the country when it was segregated. It was totally preoccupied in this terror.
It was not fit for professional sports, even, until nonviolence lifted it out of segregation and white Southern politicians were no longer stigmatized. So, you get Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and all these people elected president. And they're all standing on the shoulders of a nonviolent black movement. Whether they realize it or acknowledge it or not. That's the reason that our blinkered memory of this period is such a handicap for us today.
Granted, but nonviolence did not bring about the economic restructuring that King hoped for. So that today he could make the same speeches about inequality, poverty, work that he made 45 years ago.
Poverty is probably the toughest issue. You're talking about how much nonviolence? Maybe two or three years?
And for the time that it was active and that it matured into what is the movement. Movement is a word we use often, but don't reflect on what it means.
It was the watch word of politics. People were moved and literally moved history. But in a very, very short time. Now, the watch word of politics is spin. You know, nothing’s going anywhere and nobody's moving.
Not since Martin Luther King has inequality been on the table the way it was at the Occupy briefly appeared on the scene. And I wondered watching Occupy from here if a Martin Luther King had risen to embody that movement, would they have carried us further toward the changes that King and others wanted?
It may would have. I'm not sure. But, you know, getting rid of poverty, redistribution of wealth is not as easy as getting the right to vote. The right to vote doesn't cost anything. But redistribution of wealth takes across class lines. That costs a lot. And people will fight you in order to prevent that from happening. And I don't know what it would take in order to make that happen.
It's also not a simple formula. Dr. King never said we were going to give up freedom to have redistribution imposed on us. He never advocated something like that. It is a hard intellectual, spiritual challenge to figure out, "How do you preserve freedom and address poverty?" I don’t think Occupy got that far yet. It didn’t take that much responsibility.
It was just kind of a sign of protest and not a developed sense of responsibility the way, even the sit-ins were taking lessons from Rosa Parks.
Yes. That's right. The sit-ins disrupted society. The freedom riots disrupted things. Occupy Wall Street didn't disrupt much of anything. They just camped down there and they were not grassroots in quite the same way the Southern movement was during the time of King.
King was identifying with labor and workers and felt that unions were an essential part of the civil rights struggle.
I have this speech from 1961, when he told delegates of AFL-CIO convention, "Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for the children, and respect in the community." He felt this radical structuring that you talk about could not come without labor. And today, 45 years later, unions are largely impotent, smallest percentage of the workforce. So, what's happened to labor today?
Labor has fallen in disfavor and fallen into, in some respects, an intellectual vacuum. Because people take for granted the right that we give capital to organize in form of corporations. Every corporation is a public charter.
It is a creation of our people. It is a legal entity that we create. And the notion that people on the other end need some sort of vehicle in a global economy in order to make their rights effective ought to be an easy idea at least to begin a conversation with. But we're so frightened that anything -- I guess we're beholden to corporations in the way that people in the early movement felt that they were beholden to segregation, that their place in the order was threatened.
If you start messing around with this thing, your whole place might go. That's how they marshaled a lot of Southerners who were not in sympathy with segregation into not being for doing anything about it. And, so, right now, you know, I think that we're hostage to our fears and don't really understand how we need to think about economics.
A year before his death, this time he was speaking in California at Stanford University, he said, "In the North, schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954, when the Supreme Court's decision on desegregation was rendered. Economically, the Negro is worse off today than he was 15 and 20 years ago.
"And, so, the unemployment rate among whites at one time was about the same as the unemployment rate among Negroes. But today, the unemployment rate among Negroes is twice that of whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than whites." Now, Taylor and James, he could practically say the same thing today, 45 years later.
And when he did it, though, he could also say to American white people, "You tend to think of black people as hopelessly caught up in the rear. The way you should look at this is that the things that are happening to black people, unless you make common cause, are going to happen to you, too."
The poverty rates, the divorce rates in families that were decried among black people now, the white society has long since passed. The notion that higher education is primarily harder for men, which is now afflicting white society. Most of our college graduates are females. That's been true in black society for years.
And it has had effects in the culture. So, Dr. King said black folks are a headlight of the problems we need to deal with. And white people too often just see them as something that needs to be left behind and out of mind.
So, what would liberation theology say today about what Taylor just described?
Well, you know, liberation theology came into being largely because mainstream theology had not spoken to that gap. So, it was in the late '60s, early '70s, throughout the '80s, all the way up to the present day that liberation theology has its meaning primarily in seeing Jesus as one in solidarity with the poor to get them out of poverty.
So, in actual fact, what I see King as, is a precursor to liberation theology. I see King actually making liberation theology, particularly on the American scene, as real and true. And I think if he were here today, he would be trying to bridge this gap between the rich and the poor.
He focused on black people but it was always multiracial for King.
To connect it to what Jim just said, I think that an awful lot of people today are fearful of the basic economic structure and it keeps them from thinking and rattling and getting together to address these problems. He said that King conquered his fear. I say it took him a while to do it, but he certainly did it.
Fannie Lou Hamer conquered her fear. Everything that she did, including testifying as an unpolished woman before the Democratic Convention, she did when she was homeless. She had been evicted from her plantation. But she had gotten rid of her fear and had a vision that would empower and make productive whole generations of people who racism had denied, you know.
So, we have an awful lot of productive people in the society today who are productive and educated and have talent because the movement helped people conquer their fear. But we're now at another stage.
Now it's hitting us and I think everybody is afraid to deal with these issues in the way that the movement dealt with them, which was, "I'm going to let loose of my fear. I'm not going to worry about my savings and my wealth and whether my kids are going to get into Harvard. I'm going deal with the basic issues of how we can cope with these things together."
Given the absence of a movement today, given the power of money, corporations, and the structure, what do you think Martin Luther King would say to those in power today?
I think he would say something about, “You -- this society cannot survive with the huge gap between the one percent and the 99 percent. When you have that kind of gap, then you destroy the possibility of genuine human community and showing how we are interconnected together.
I pretty much agree with that. I think he would have to be saying, "Don't give into pride and thinking that it is solely your genius that's creating all these billions that you're sitting on. You are reaping the interconnectedness that we have.
"And that interconnectedness is precious. And it is political. And that can vanish. And so, you need to look beyond that." We only have two hopes: enlightenment, which comes from really wrestling and conquering your pride and appealing to the young, quite frankly; and catastrophe. That's the only other hard teacher that we would have, which is that we're going to ride this system into a catastrophe. And then we will wake up and say, "Why didn't we do it before? Why didn't we listen to Martin Luther King?"
Taylor Branch and James Cone, thank you very much for being with me and for your thoughts and ideas.
Martin Luther King’s eloquent truth-telling and the sad reality of today, the dream of economic justice, a dream deferred, the gap between rich and poor worse than ever led me to a young man who lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches literature and writing at American University. His name is Kyle Dargan, and he wrote this poem, “A House Divided,” It begins, “On a railroad car in your America…”
In your America, blood pulses
within the fields, slow-poaching a mill saw's
buried flesh. In my America, my father
awakens again thankful that my face
is not the face returning his glare
from above eleven o'clock news
murder headlines. In his imagination,
the odds are just as convincing
that I would be posted on a corner
pushing powder instead of poems—
no reflection of him as a father nor me
as a son. We were merely born
in a city where the rues beyond our doors
were the streets that shanghaied souls.
To you, my America appears
distant, if even real at all. While you are
barely visible to me. Yet we continue
stealing glances at each other
from across the tattered hallways
of this overgrown house we call
I mean in Washington, DC, where I live, you know, I wake up in southeast DC where the unemployment rate, it's around 22 percent. And I go across the city to AU…
Right, where, you know, unemployment is 3 percent, population's very affluent. So you know, every day, I'm forced to deal with those realities and reconcile them in my head. And I think, you know, that commute that I have to deal with, every week, comes out in my poetry, because I feel like often I'm trying to reconcile or make sense of these conflicting worlds that geographically aren't that very far from each other.
Kyle Dargan grew up in Newark New Jersey with working parents determined he would escape a deteriorating city and make something of himself. But echoes of the inner city still resonate when Dargan walks through his new neighborhood in Southeast DC.
Isn't your neighborhood more or less in the shadows of the capital?
I think realtors want people to think that, but actually, we're on the other side of the Anacostia River. Actually, my neighborhood now, I saw it listed somewhere on a real estate website as Capitol Hill East. And I'm like, "That's a bit of a stretch," you know, if Benning Heights was on the other side of the city, it would be Palisades. You know, it would be Georgetown. I mean, beautiful houses, beautiful view, but you know, you’re on the other side of the Anacostia. It's not perceived the same way. You know, people live one way on one side of the Anacostia River and another way on the other side.
There's a line in the poem that says “…where the rues beyond our doors were the streets that Shanghaied souls?" Is that your community now? The rues beyond the door? Or the streets that Shanghaied souls?
Sure, because cause I mean, lots of, lots of good kids just get caught up in trouble. And that's that line, when I'm talking about my father, this is true. You know, my dad, to this day sometimes we talk. And he's like, you know, "I'm just really happy you're not one of those knuckleheads out in a corner." And as my father, as my father, I can see where he has that concern, but to me, I'm like that was never really an option. Like I never really considered that you or my mother would accept that.
That's where I come from, but what he says is, like, "No, you don't understand. Like whatever we wanted, there's the environment to be contended with. And sometimes you lose to the environment.” And that's what you see with a lot of kids. Like there are lots of good kids that just lose to the environment, you know, not because they want to.
You know, you don't want to be in that situation. You don't want to be dead at 17. You don't necessarily want to have multiple kids, you know, at 16, 18. But sometimes the environment leads you down that path. And you know, as a parent and this, I guess, the big thing for me, because I don't have any children. And the question is, if I have kids, well, I stay in southeast DC, because, like, do I want to contend with the environment. I want to be there, you know. I want to be a presence but am I willing to risk my kids for that. I don't know.
I'm not sure that I understand why you chose to live like that when you could have gotten out and did. Your parents worked hard. You worked hard. You got out. You go to Washington. You have a fine teaching position at an important institution and you choose, in a sense, to go home again, although it's only a couple of miles away.
When I first got to AU, I lived in Glover Park, which some people call upper Georgetown which is right around AU, very quiet, but none of my neighbors really talked to me. The police would follow me around sometimes, which is fine by me, because I felt like I had a police escort all the time. I knew I wasn't going to do anything.
It's that idea of community, like why would I want to live somewhere where none of my neighbors talked to me, most likely, because I'm young and my skin is brown. That's not, that's not home to me. When I lived in northwest, if anything, I was constantly reminded of how I was an outsider. When I'm in southeast, you know, no one, I mean, no one even asks me what I do. I'm just there in the community. If I told them I was a professor, you know, given my age they probably wouldn't even believe me.
How old are you?
They would find that incredulous, right?
Yeah, the reality for many of these kids, like, and I know this is, you know, maybe strange for us, but many of them, like, don't expect to live past 19, 18. So they even think that you're an African-American young adult with a profession, like even that for many of them is something that they just don't see, I mean, when you have access to many different identities in your community, it gives you something to choose from. You know, you have something else to look at, to aspire towards. So my thing is, like, I just want to be another influence in my community, there are others.
You said they don't expect to live beyond 18 or 19.
Yeah. Like I hear them, because I ride the bus. And you know, and on a Saturday morning, you listen to teenagers talk about which of their friends got shot the night before, who died, who's still walking around with a coat that has blood from one of their friends on them. And it's a casual conversation to them. And I'm going crazy inside, listening to this, because you know, it's not normal.
It shouldn't be normal. But it is for them. And I think that's where you need, you know, that generational exchange, so that someone can come in and say, "Hey, you know, I know you're living this right lifestyle right now, but this is not normal for you. It shouldn't be normal for you.”
Does politics make sense in your neighborhood?
Well aside from some people I know having jobs, working for the government, I don't think most people in southeast DC see what happens at the federal level in terms of, like, having an immediate impact on their lives. You know, one thing that I heard bouncing around the time that Barack Obama got elected. And it's like, oh, this is going to be such a symbol for kids, you know, to look up to. You're going to have an African-American president.
But you know, having an African-American president doesn't deal with the drug issues, doesn't deal with the teen pregnancy issues. It doesn't deal with the lack of parenting issues. You know, all those things that maintain the reality, the negative realities. It's not all negative, but the negative realities of southeast DC. So I think, you know, people see the Capitol from the other side of the river. But in some ways, these it's very much a different world.
Read for us one of those poems you wrote about those kids where you live. It's called, "We Die Soon."
"We Die Soon."
This jazz. Once you learn it as your own,
you will listen to the brassy chatter of old
brown men riffing on recent murders
The boy who was killing folks
One who had a claw hammer No, in Virginia
The boy slashing women’s behinds
No, sir, this boy was stabbing people, cold
--seated on concave milk crates
or their sweat- and engine-
oil anointed limbs drooping
off a station wagon’s trunk door,
muscles slack save for fingers clutching cold beer.
Through appreciation, you will learn
to distinguish the hollers of youngins
that end in sweet jabs and hand slaps
from the hollers that summon
lights and sirens up the hill.
drowns the nights. The restless
birds sing back to the evening
gunshots--a magnum’s baritone pow.
With age, you’ll come to lament June’s music—
its melodies of bleeding boys, another
uneven tempo of jackings, strong-arm
thefts omitted from newspapers. They want
to get white folks moving
over here. No transcribed tunes.
These notes puncture, lodge in vertebrae,
make jukeboxes of our spines.
This living is to be erect with song,
and then be bent by it.
The poem, "We Die Soon," it takes its title from the final lines of Gwendolyn Brooks' poem “We Real Cool.” And in the poem, Brooks was looking at these truant kids in a pool hall.
And she decided, rather than judging them, you know, for being children in the pool hall, she's going to try to explore, "Well, I wonder what they're thinking about right now?" She's going to try to capture, like, "I wonder what they feel," without judgment. And so I think for me, I guess I wanted to take a similar approach to writing about southeast DC.
Do you read that to your students at American University?
No. Poems like that I tend to share with the kids from those communities and you know, I never see myself as speaking for them, because I'm not living their experience, but every once in a while, you know, one of them will ask me, like, are you from here? And I say, "No." And it's like, "Well, you sound like you understand it." And I said, "Well, I'm from, I'm from Newark. It's somewhat similar." But again, you know, I don't live their experiences. So I try to get them to write, because the world needs to see southeast DC as they see it.
You attempted to have them last year read at the White House. Tell me about that.
I guess someone from the President's committee on the arts and humanities was looking for a poet in the Washington, DC area to, you know, run a program that would bring, you know, poetry to kids. And some of the children got to read in front of Michelle Obama at the White House. And it was it was funny, because I think the entire time we were working on this project, they didn't really believe that they were going to go to the White House.
The kids? Your kids?
Yeah. Like we tell them and they and they would say, "Yeah, yeah, White House, whatever. You know, yeah. We see it all the time on the bus, we ride past it." But then when they actually got there and they actually got to meet some of the members on the president's committee their faces, like Kerry Washington, their faces, like lit up and they got nervous.
And I said, "You know, don't act nervous now. You were all cool before, when you didn't think you were going to come. So now you're here. Just relax and do what you have to do." And they did a great job. They did a really great job. I'm proud of them.
Do you remember the first poem you ever heard in school?
You know, I like to think of hip-hop as one of my first advanced English teachers. I was lucky enough. I had some teachers, Mr. Finley was one, he played Nas has a song. You know,” Whose world is this? The world is yours.” And that's sort of, like, the refrain of the song.
And that was a really big moment for me as a young African-American kid to hear this rapper tell me that, to ask me this question, you know, whose world is this? And to say the world is yours. And giving me the space to think about that. You know, thinking about what does that mean? What does that mean I have access too? What does it mean I can do?
And you know, I saw lots of rappers I’d see A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, artists that were using language to make the world theirs. And even today, because a lot of those my favorite hip-hop albums, they came out when I was 11, when I was 10. So I'm still going back and listening to them as a man and saying, picking out different metaphors, picking out different allusions, saying, "Oh, that's what that meant." So I mean, in many ways, I'm still learning from hip-hop.
Give me an example of an allusion or a metaphor that still resonates and informs your take on the world today.
A Tribe Called Quest has a song called "Check the Rhime." And in it Q-Tip, Abstract, the rapper, he says, you know, you know, "If knowledge is the key, then just show me the lock." And as a kid, you understand, like, oh yes, I go to school, because school's important. But as an adult, you realize it's like, you know, no, perspective is important.
And you know, critical thinking is important. And the ability to know what you don't know which is on the other side of the door, you know. You unlock one door and there's another door, but then that door opens to what you don't know. You have to learn all that before to get to the next door. So seeing an image played out over and over through my life you know, whenever I hear that line, I smile a little bit, because I'm like, "Yeah, I live that. I've been living that, you know, for the past 20 years."
Tell me about this one and then read it.
When I ride the bus, you see a lot of the neighborhood tags, kids write their different neighborhood crew gang tags on bus seats, on stop signs. And one day, I saw on the telephone pole, there was a sign advertising rest in peace T-shirts.
And I realized, like, you know, the kids writing these tags on the busses are probably kids that are going to have their faces and names on these, you know, rest in peace T-shirts. They're not gangsters. They're not hoodlums. They're just boys. And so I wrote this poem, "Crews."
Those Clay Terrace
Benning Park boys.
Those River Terrace
boys. After hours
those boys. Those
siring boys. Noise
Keep the blood
on the reservation.
Hunt those boys.
Solve for X: how many
whys and zombies
equal those boys.
Give me dap
those boys. My boy.
My cousin. No taller than tree
trunks chopped. Those boys
watch those boys.
Southeast hocus pocus—
you see / don’t see those
boys. Then you read those
boys: police blotter those
boys. Then they’re ink
graffiti on white tees:
those boys. Those Clay
Terrace boys. Those
Benning Park boys. Those
River Terrace boys. Those
Drama City boys.
I'm wondering can poetry really make a difference when kids are going hungry or their friends are being shot at with guns or their parents are losing their homes? Does poetry hold anything out to them?
I think there's solace. I mean, I think some are moved to action, but I think there's unfair pressure put on poetry. Like I'm glad that people expect so much of it, but you look at, I mean, honestly, like you look at Congress right now, I mean, legislation isn't fixing those things. So why would you expect poetry to? I mean, maybe poetry can inspire people to get on their legislators to do something, to fix something in their lives. But I mean, that's the place where poetry operates.
It doesn't operate at the infrastructure level. It operates at the motivation level it gets people. And that's why I say it's important, you know, if poetry isn't speaking to people, if you can read a poem and it just washes over you, goes over your head, you don't feel any human connection. Then I feel like that's a waste of the art form, because it could be making that connection with someone, possibly urging them to look at the world differently, to do something differently. That may or may not leave them to taking actions, but you know, if you don't try.
Kyle Dargan, thank you very much for being with me.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
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