Michael S. Harper's "Here Where Coltrane Is" and Coltrane's "Alabama": The Social/Aesthetic Intersections of Civil Rights Movement Poetry

Four Poems

Jeffrey Lamar Coleman

St. Mary's College of Maryland

[T]he poetry we have had in this country is a poetry without even a trace of revolutionary feeling—in either language or politics . . . . it is startling to realize that in the last twenty years there have been almost no poems touching on political subjects, although such concerns have been present daily.

—Robert Bly, "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry," 1963

Twentieth-century American poets have generally run in fear of history.After all, the century's poetry has been influenced in succession by groups of poets whose aesthetics urged them to turn their backs on historical realities. . . . this century's poetic mainstream has remained fairly static in one regard: its careful avoidance of public history.What brought American poetry to this curious state in the first place?

—Kevin Stein, Private Poets, Worldly Acts, 1996

In their statements about contemporary poetry’s political uninvolvement, Bly and Stein overlook one of the richest instances of where this is not the case: poetry which grew out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Perhaps such oversights help explain why, more than thirty years after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—often mistakenly referred to as the end of the Movement—no thorough investigation of the relationship between poetry and civil rights issues exists. The absence of sustained critical discourse with regard to this poetry is one of the more disturbing facts of contemporary American literary history. This is regretful not only because this particular genre has suffered neglect, but also because it is arguably impossible to fully appreciate (or be considered literate about) the Civil Rights Movement without at least cursory knowledge of the intersections between cultural politics and cultural productions.Likewise, it is also impossible to have a firm grasp on (or be conversant about) the continuum of contemporary poetry without familiarity with the rich lines and stanzas that evolved from the most significant social movement of twentieth-century America.

I contend that the primary purpose of many poets of the period was, of course, to speak out by way of verse against injustice. Furthermore, the immediate artistic expression was often deftly coupled with a conscious effort to unite the social with the aesthetic, and to capture and preserve the traumatic history of a country in violent, racialized turmoil. These writers also observed and critiqued the nation's various de facto/de jure political transitions, especially those concerning integration, education, and housing. In other words, poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Michael S. Harper, Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker and numerous others represented a thematically entwined collective writing against forgetting. They were often attempting to ensure that generations of Americans would not fall prey to historical amnesia.

Another concern of many poets was to illuminate the interconnectedness of historical and present day struggle. Such intersections and linkages with regard to the Movement and literature are multidimensional and help to situate readers inside or close to the historical sites they discuss. One of the most eloquent examples of a poem that accomplishes this type of polyvocal milieu and audience "relocation" is Michael S. Harper's "Here Where Coltrane Is." This extraordinary elegy is a complex interdisciplinary record of how the poet was moved as an artist to create a lyrical response to Coltrane's musical response to Martin Luther King, Jr's oral response to the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.As a result, Harper's poem intersects, bridges, and unites several discursive, aesthetic practices: history and oral tradition; oral tradition and music; and music, poetry, and again history, though not necessarily in this particular order. In this essay I will use "Here Where Coltrane Is" as a primary representative poetic text in order to help illustrate the matrix of expressive elements that often informed poetry inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement.

1. Historical Occasion

Knowledge of one of the Movement’s more significant incidents is essential to understanding the transgenre embrace exhibited throughout Harper's poem. On September 15, 1963 four young African-American girls lost their lives when fifteen sticks of explosives destroyed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Primarily responsible was Birmingham Klansman Robert Edward Chambliss, also known to his friends in the Eastview 13 Klavern as "Dynamite Bob. "The four who died were Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all fourteen; and Denise McNair, eleven.Approximately twenty others were injured (Hampton and Fayer 171-172). The bombing, an attempt to terrorize, intimidate, and prevent the Black community from fully cooperating in school integration, went unpunished for more than a decade even though an eyewitness claimed to have seen Chambliss and three other men plant the bomb. Chambliss was convicted in 1977, while Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were sentenced to life in 2000 and 2001, respectively, more than thirty years after the explosion. Immediately following the bombing, according to Sandra Bullard,

white supremacist leader Connie Lynch told a group of Klansmen that those responsible for the bombing deserved 'medals.'Lynch said the four young girls who died there 'weren't children. Children are little people, little human beings, and that means white people. . . . They're just little niggers . . . and if there's four less niggers tonight, then I say, Good for whoever planted the bomb!'(Bullard, 63)

The racist notion of African-Americans as less than human and deserving of barbaric treatment was by no means a novel concept in 1963, but what made the bombing and Lynch's comments so devastating was the growing belief or hope that racism was on the decline. Among those who had internalized and publicly expressed such optimism was Coretta Scott King. She recalls,

It happened right after the March on Washington which was such a great experience. It was a great moment of fulfillment, when Martin gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech, and we really felt the sense of progress, that people came together, black and white, even though the South was totally segregated. We felt that sense of oneness, and we had the feeling that the dream could be realized. And then, a few weeks later, came this bombing in Birmingham, with four innocent little girls. Then you realized how intense the opposition was. (Hampton and Fayer, 174)


The terrorist act conducted by the opposition served to jolt workers and followers of the Movement out of any realm of complacency they may have entered. There was, as King suggests, a certain justified air of optimism after the politically and spiritually-charged March on Washington. The desire to enjoy and even bask in the afterglow of the March is completely understandable, especially if one considers that prior to this historic interracial/interethnic moment, the Movement had been involved with such emotionally-taxing struggles as the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topekadecision in 1954, the Emmett Till murder of 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956, and the Little Rock crisis of 1957 and 1958.In addition, the following decade brought about the Freedom Rides of 1961, the James Meredith encounter with the University of Mississippi in 1962, sit-in demonstrations and Dr. King's arrest in Birmingham in 1963 (where King penned his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), as well as other events that literally served to alter the course of American history and race relations.Birmingham had also been, months before Chambliss and others laced the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church with explosives, the site where Eugene "Bull" Connor, director of public safety and later sheriff, unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on a peaceful group of children and young adult marchers. Photographs and videotaped footage of this brutality were widely published and broadcast, garnering the Movement increased visibility and substantially more empathy, particularly from whites in the North. While all of these struggles and confrontations resulted in either minor or major victories, they all exacted tremendous individual, group, and community tolls.For many, the euphoria and cathartic release that resulted from the March on Washington had been in the making for at least a decade. Then came the Birmingham explosion, which prompted Martin Luther King, Jr's eulogy, Coltrane's musical tribute, and Harper's elegy.

2.Oral Response

While the Alabama incident was extremely disheartening, Dr. King and others remained determined in their mission to “civilize” the most hostile white American. They had become adept at using tragedy as a means for inspiration and motivation. These instances were also used to help galvanize public support for the Movement. A particularly powerful example of the manner in which hate and resistance were often appropriated and transformed can be found in King’s eulogy. His homage for the children, which passionately intersects history and traditional Southern Black Baptist preaching, goes as far as to suggest that the church bombing could possibly unite the city of Birmingham and the South, if not the entire country.Combining Christian ethos with his famously rich and punctuated delivery, he assured mourners that

[T]hey did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. . . .We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.(Washington, 116)

In addition to emphasizing hope over despair, King’s eulogy as a whole encompasses a traditional dramatic structure. This aspect of Dr. King's eulogy is significant, not only for its incorporation of cadences King learned from black sermons and study of literary techniques, but also because it is fundamentally mirrored by Coltrane's "Alabama" (collected on Coltrane “Live” at Birdland). One need not be familiar with the entire text of King’s eulogy in order to appreciate its construction and purpose. I have identified passages that signal exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and a denouement. The following key excerpts alone should provide an idea of how the eulogy moves, and how it was possible for Coltrane to reinterpret both the words and the tonal changes.

Exposition: "This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our

last tribute of respect."
Complication or rising action: "These children—unoffending; innocent and beautiful—
were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes."
Turning point or climax: “The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole
citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into
the positive extremes of a bright future.”
Falling action: "Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma
that punctuates it to more lofty significance."
Denouement (which includes a paraphrase of Horatio's last words over Hamlet's dead
body): "Good-night sweet princess; may the flight of angels take thee to thy
eternal rest."(Washington, 116)

3.Musical Response

The rhythm of King’s eulogy and speeches join the social with the aesthetic by bringing together dramatic, musical, and rhetorical cadences. These intersections (i.e., public/artistic) are, of course, often complex and multilayered. For example, the genre of jazz has a rich history of responding to public history and social injustice. The art form also holds an interesting place in American culture when it comes to race relations. For example, Dr. John R. Straton, a Baptist Fundamentalist, saw the emergence and popularity of jazz itself as horrifying."I have no patience with this modern jazz tendency, whether it be in music, science, social life or religion," Straton states. He continues by blaming on jazz the purported decadence of 1920s America: "[Jazz] is part of the lawless spirit which is being manifested in many departments of life, endangering our civilization in its general revolt against authority and established order"(Leonard, 37). Jazz was also invested by many with the agency to invoke a particularly disturbing form of dance, which was often seen as "an offence [sic] against womanly purity, the very fountainhead of our family and civil life"(Leonard, 7). Similarly, "Jazz [was] doing a vast amount of harm to young minds and bodies not yet developed to resist evil temptation" (Leonard, 37). Or, in short, women and children were to be protected from and shielded against "the impulse for wildness" which was for many unfortunately and frightenly "traceable to the negro influence. "This influence, of course, was feared because it was perceived as always already threatening to the established and desired racial-sexual hierarchy. Writing in Jazz and the White Americans: The Acceptance of A New Art Form, Neil Leonard sums up much of this fear when he states,

Through miscegenation, 'inferior' races, like Negroes and orientals, endangered the purity of the blood. Sensual rather than spiritual by nature, these people offered a steady temptation to whites. . . And there was still another disquieting problem: it was feared that the savage passions of the vicious might nullify the careful abstinence or repression of the virtuous.As early as the 1860's doctors began to notice that the birth rate of the 'better' native, white, Protestant families was declining while that of the poorer, alien groups was rising. People were frightened to think of growing numbers of 'inferiors' eventually overwhelming the 'superior' stock.(Leonard, 38)

Thus, jazz and the places were jazz was performed were to be avoided by white Americans if they wanted to remain white Americans. In this sense, jazz in many ways became synonymous with libidinal mythology; meaning, that those "sensual rather than spiritual" folk of color were overly intent on infiltrating the "superior stock" by way of "savage passions" and sexual conquest. Of course this could not be allowed in a "civilized" society based largely on a system of racial caste

Decades later, with regard to the Civil Rights Movement which challenged a system of racial caste and racism, jazz artists such as Tony Bennet, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Jackie McLean, Oliver Nelson, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, and Nina Simone offered musical and personal support. Similarly, in the summer of 1960, Max Roach and Oscar Brown, Jr. recorded "We Insist! Freedom Now," which was written in honor of the four freshmen who, in February of the same year, staged a sit-in at Woolworth's "Whites Only" lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.1960 was also the year Charles Mingus performed "Prayer for a Passive Resistance" and "Freedom. "The following year, drummer Art Roach recorded "Freedom Rider" in support of groups that tested desegregated interstate bus travel.Roach also occasionally performed at lectures and rallies featuring Malcolm X in the early and mid 1960s.In August of 1963, prior to the March on Washington, Duke Ellington staged his protest-oriented musical, "My People," as a theatrical celebration of African-Americans and the Civil Rights Movement.(Bratton, 37-8)

Likewise, one of the most intricate and moving examples of jazz combined with social injustice occurred three months later.On November 18, the John Coltrane Quartet recorded "Alabama" as a requiem for the four girls who died in Birmingham approximately two months earlier. In addition, as Harper explains, the song is structured and rendered so as to approximate the cadences of Dr. King's eulogy. This involves, at least in part, recreating the dramatic arrangement utilized by Dr. King. Harper, in an interview with Edward Hirsch, insists,

When you listen to "Alabama," you understand Coltrane is writing this melody because he's reading the rhetoric of Martin Luther King's eulogy for these children. You realize that the man is actually listening to the words and then you hear, as liner notes, the words meant to accompany the melody of what they're playing. I mean there was an exact coordination.(Hirsch, 11)

All of these intersecting elements--public/social, oral, and musical--form what Geneviève Fabre and Robert O'Meally would term "a tightly interwoven matrix of expression for a people who have nurtured a rich oral tradition and who at the same time have set literacy as a persistently sought ideal. . . . Both the word on the page and the word spoken in air can combine . . . to create richly meaningful statements or 'structures of feeling' ."(Faber&O'Meally, 9)

These "structures of feeling" resonate throughout King's eulogy and Coltrane's requiem. Both are intended as testaments to perseverance, to the deeply-seated human ability to counter tragedy with creativity. Jazz historian Eric Nisenson takes note of Coltrane's unique ability when he calls "Alabama" a "Coltrane masterpiece." He also claims that

It is not only a beautiful piece of music, it is a profound meditation on the death of innocence and the seemingly endless tragedy of inhumanity.. . . Sidestepping any didacticism or preachiness, Coltrane approaches the subject with the insight of the true artist, and by so doing makes us feel the tragedy and, even deeper, the hope. That he could create such a stunningly beautiful piece of music out of those horrible events was indication of how profoundly compassionate a man and artist Coltrane really was.(Nisenson, 143)

Almost thirty years prior to Nisenson's 1993 publication, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) claimed, praisingly, that "Coltrane's sound . . . because of its striking similarity to a human cry it can often raise the hairs on the back of your neck" (Jones, 40). Both writers agree that there was something unusually unique about the gifts and presence of Coltrane, that some sort of mythological, rarefied aura emanated from not only the man, but from the man's saxophone as well.Likewise, Cornel West insists that “The form and content of Louis Armstrong's ‘West End Blues,’ Duke Ellington's ‘Mood Indigo,’ John Coltrane's ‘Alabama,’ and Sarah Vaughn's ‘Send in the Clowns’ are a few of the peaks of the black cultural iceberg--towering examples of soul-making and spiritual wrestling which crystallize the most powerful interpretations of the human condition in black life.” West concludes by adding, “This is why the best of the black musical tradition in the twentieth century is the most profound and poignant body of artistic works of our time."(West, 77).

The genius and complexity of Coltrane has even been acknowledged by rap and hip-hop culture, perhaps most prominently by one of its most politically controversial groups, Public Enemy. 

Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane
Yes to them, but to me I'm a different kind
We're brothers of the same mind, unblind
Caught in the middle and
Not surrenderin'

These lines lay bare not only the notion of media manipulation or victimization as suffered by the rap group Public Enemy and the late saxophonist John William Coltrane, but also easily lends itself to a reading that reinforces the sentiments of African-American brotherhood, rebellion, and self determination. It is also interesting to note the transgenre embrace at play here that effectively and simultaneously dismisses concepts that attempt to create drastic artistic distances between rap and jazz, as well as extreme generational and political chasms between the social conditions of the '50s and '60s, and the '80s and '90s, years in which Coltrane and Public Enemy, respectively, procured--if not demanded--attention. Moreover, the band's recognition of Coltrane here from "Don't Believe the Hype," their classic 1988 aural, verbal, and lyrical attack on both mainstream and African-American media, also strives to reestablish or reclaim Coltrane as a musical genius instead of an "insane" saxophonist, as many critics once deemed him. Of course, this associative act of remembering and reclaiming, especially in relation to Coltrane, African-American, and mainstream American culture, is not a novel accomplishment. It is, however, quite an apropos entrée to a discussion concerning transgenre analyses, or the discursive interplay among and between artistic disciplines--be they "popular," "high," or otherwise--primarily for the sake of preserving a collective cultural memory. Clearly, the multifaceted and interconnected historical layers that helped create "Alabama," (i.e., the Civil Rights Movement, the legacy of jazz protest, the Birmingham bombing, and King's eulogy) are, in and of themselves, richly stimulating.In addition, another aesthetic realm served to enhance the intertextual nuances of these existing layers.

4.Poetic Response

To this complex weave, poetry was to contribute an additional dimension. There is hardly a significant event from the Movement that is not captured by poetry--from the Brown decision to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. King. For example, the 1963 church bombing alone inspired, among others, "Winking at a Funeral" by Alice Walker, "Ballad of Birmingham" by Dudley Randall, "Birmingham Sunday" by Langston Hughes, "Birmingham 1963" by Raymond Patterson, "How to Change the USA" by Harry Edwards, and "Here Where Coltrane Is" by Michael S. Harper.

Harper (1938- ), Professor of English at Brown University, the first Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, and twice a nominee for the National Book Award, was drawn to Coltrane's intensity, the struggle for civil and human rights, and a manner in which to unite them artistically. His poem "Here Where Coltrane Is" not only unites the poet's admiration of Coltrane, jazz, and his interest in social justice, but does so with an exceptionally intriguing and powerful flair. The poem intends to instill in readers memories of all subjects mentioned, from the narrator's early inner discursive conjectures about soul and race to the outer, informing voice of "Alabama" that simultaneously anchors the poem and ushers us to a site of racial hostility and human tragedy. The two-stanza poem, which appeared in 1971 in History Is Your Own Heartbeat, reads,

Soul and race
are private dominions,
memories and modal
songs, a tenor blossoming,
which would paint suffering
a clear color but is not in
this Victorian house
without oil in zero degree
weather and a forty-mile-an hour wind;
it is all a well-knit family:
a love supreme.
Oak leaves pile up on walkway
and steps, catholic as apples
in a special mist of clear white
children who love my children.
I play "Alabama"
on a warped record player
skipping the scratches
on your faces over the fibrous
conical hairs of plastic
under the wooden floors.

Dreaming on a train from New York
to Philly, you hand out six
notes which become an anthem
to our memories of you:
oak, birch, maple,
apple, cocoa, rubber.
For this reason Martin is dead;
for this reason Malcolm is dead;
for this reason Coltrane is dead;
in the eyes of my first son are the browns
of these men and their music. (Harper, 1971, 32-33)

The poem incorporates or alludes to public and artistic responses to the tragedy in Birmingham, and eventually returns to the memory of the violence, and its possible impact on the next generation.

The intricately cohesive nature of the poem, as well as the primary intersections between history, oration, and music are found by way of references to John William Coltrane (1926-1967). The saxophonist, directly and indirectly, is invoked throughout the poem, especially in lines three and four ("memory and modal/songs, a tenor blossoming"), line eleven ("a love supreme"), which is the title of one of Coltrane's 1964 albums, and line sixteen ("I play 'Alabama' "). The latter utterance is, of course, doubly referential for it not only names Coltrane's tune, but also alludes to the fact that the song was written in memory of the bombing.Connected to these references, but offstage, as it were, is the fact that music alone was not responsible for Harper's admiration of Coltrane, the kind of admiration that inspired him to write poems in the musician's honor, or call forth the musician or his music as a muse, and title his first collection in 1970 Dear John, Dear Coltrane. I think it is now quite obvious that Harper, along with a host of other poets, either saw or heard aspects in the music of Coltrane that symbolized political statements or ambitions. For instance, two years after Dear John, Dear Coltrane was published, John O’Brien interviewed Harper. At one point, very early in the session, in response to a question by O'Brien concerning Coltrane, Harper replies, “One of the things that is important about Coltrane's music is the energy and passion with which he approached his instrument and music. Such energy was perhaps akin to the nature of oppression generally and the kind of energy it takes to break oppressive conditions, oppressive musical strictures, and oppressive societal situations” (O'Brien, 98). Harper's analysis of Coltrane's "energy and passion" is indeed interesting, for he equates or sees well-defined parallels between the latter's musical expression and politicized, societal oppression. This connection explains, at least partially, why Harper was inspired to enter the oral and musical "dialogue" started by Dr. King and Coltrane after the Birmingham bombing.

In the poem "Here Where Coltrane Is," the destruction caused by the explosion is inextricably connected to Coltrane's "Alabama," and thus to the events that followed the bombing, namely the public outcry and Dr. King's eulogy. The narrator's state of contemplation and on-going struggles to come to terms with the historical trauma of the bombing is perhaps most evident in the lines, “skipping the scratches/on your faces over the fibrous/conical hairs of plastic/under the wooden floors.” These four lines, economic yet forceful in structure and function, utilize literary devices previously employed by the poet. The first, "skipping the scratches," draws to it the physical, vinyl "record" of "Alabama" from earlier lines ("I play 'Alabama'/on a warped record player"), as well as flows into the following lines of "on your faces over the fibrous/conical hairs of plastic/under the wooden floors.” This string of images makes clear that something other than merely listening to Coltrane is happening here. The narrator is now actually "seeing" the four dead girls, and is mentally "skipping the scratches" on their faces, as if attempting to at once remember and forget.But the "memories" do not end here. There is also recollection of the "fibrous/conical hairs of plastic," a phrase that combines, rather cleverly yet gruesomely, the description of human remains (symbolized by "hairs") entangled with bomb fragments (symbolized by "fibrous," "conical," "plastic"). All of this is found "under the wooden floors," alluding to the fact that the four bodies were discovered in the basement of the church.

While the tone here is decidedly dire, we must remember that the ubiquitous nature of the music is providing a semblance of healing and sustenance for the narrator. In the midst of memories of destruction, imagination and creativity are being born."I play Alabama," the narrator says, "on a warped record player.” The record player is "warped," metaphorically speaking, because everything else also appears out of sync, especially the lack of humanity that occasioned the bombing. This is the primary subject, and pivotal point of the poem, that has been on the narrator's mind since the utterance of "Soul and race/are private dominions." All the while, Coltrane's appropriately melancholic instrumental tune has been playing in the background, guiding and informing the voice and structure of the poem. The interior narrative taking place is shrouded in grief and mourning, caused by the seemingly immediate memory of death, which is also at the heart of "Alabama."Literary scholar Günter H. Lenz asserts that the poem as a whole is a result of Harper's attempt to transform Coltrane's music into poetry.

This experiential and aesthetic interaction among the various levels and perspectives of the poem explains why, to Michael Harper, the poet, there is no contradiction, no mutual exclusiveness, between the black church, revolutionary politics, and black music. And it confirms to him the continuity of the black cultural and communal tradition . . . a continuum, however, that by no means should be mistaken as simply assuring harmony and happiness but has always been characterized, in American history, by suffering, violence, oppression, and resistance.(Lenz, 29)

The "suffering, violence, oppression, and resistance," Lenz mentions are the emotions Coltrane and Harper were attempting to translate by way of saxophone and stanzas, respectively, for the sake of preserving a collective cultural memory.

While "Here Where Coltrane Is" centers on historical references or things past, there is also in the poem a deep concern for the future. The lines, “Oak leaves pile up on walkway/and steps, catholic as apples/in a special mist of clear white/children who love my children are intended to paint a dream-like picture of racial harmony. What is extremely interesting about this particular section of the poem, intentionally or not, is the creation of optimism concerning race relations, only to have such optimism immediately obliterated by line sixteen: "I play 'Alabama' ."Alabama then becomes the dominant imagery in the poem (i.e., racial disharmony). This construction is strikingly similar to the sense of optimism expressed by Coretta Scott King following the March on Washington. In both instances, Alabama quickly undoes what took so long to build. Like the euphoria after the March on Washington which was undercut by the bomb, the dream of interracial solidarity too is undercut in Harper's poem by memories of the bombing. The end of the poem reads

For this reason Martin is dead;
for this reason Malcolm is dead;
for this reason Coltrane is dead;
in the eyes of my first son are the browns
of these men and their music.

Sascha Feinstein writes that the "ending suggests these men have died because of their race. But it is also a testimony to those who expend themselves for issues broader and more significant than any individual life. For this reason if no other they need to be recognized . . ."(Feinstein, 132) . While Coltrane definitely suffered due to his race, music, and other factors (Thomas, 82), he died of liver cancer in 1967, and not as a result of violence as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. However, I feel that Feinstein’s assertion concerning individuals who "expend themselves" for "broader and more significant" issues is accurate of all three men. But what about the eyes of the speaker's first son, which carry the "browns/of these men and their music"? Lenz insists that it is this son's responsibility to claim "the black cultural and communal tradition" left by Martin, Malcolm, and Coltrane (Lenz, 29) . Perhaps Lenz's point is valid, but the ambiguous nature of the ending of the poem lends itself to an interpretation that is at once optimistic and despairing. For example, the speaker definitely sees his son as part of a rich cultural history. Nevertheless, this history has resulted in the deaths of this trinity of men. Additionally, as readers we should also consider that the incorporation of Coltrane at this juncture is probably intended to return us to the heart of the poem, which is the deaths of four girls. Taking this into consideration (i.e., references to seven deaths in all), the speaker is most likely placing more emphasis on fear than optimism. As a result, the narrator dreads that the "browns" (race) and correlating blues (experiences) of these men will be handed down to the son (regardless of the son's talent or achievement) by a traditionally white supremacist culture.

This same sense of fear and terror can be found in other poems written after and about the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham,” for example, is initiated by an imagined exchange between one of the four little girls murdered in the explosion and her mother. Readers are given a daughter/mother, question/response dialogue for the first four stanzas before being presented with a third speaker of the poem who delivers the final four stanzas.

"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jail
Aren't good for a little child."

"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?" (Bell, 71-72)

The lack of a safe haven during this period emphasizes the unfortunate irony of Randall’s poem. While the mother prevents her daughter from participating in a “Freedom March” out of fear for her safety, she is unable to protect her from harm and tragedy.

Similar to Randall's poem, "Birmingham Sunday" by Langston Hughes is grounded in the immediate circumstances surrounding the bombing:

Four little girls
Who went to Sunday School that day
And never came back home at all--
But left instead
Their blood upon the wall
With spattered flesh
And bloodied Sunday dresses
Scorched by dynamite that
China made aeons ago
Did not know what China made
Before China was ever Red at all
Would redden with their blood
This Birmingham-on-Sunday wall.
Four tiny girls
Who left their blood upon that wall,
In little graves today await
The dynamite that might ignite
The ancient fuse of Dragon Kings
Whose tomorrow sings a hymn
The missionaries never taught
In Christian Sunday School
To implement the Golden Rule.
Four little girls
Might be awakened some day soon
By songs upon the breeze
As yet unfelt among
Magnolia trees. (Rampersad, 557)

Hughes appropriately relies heavily on church and Christian imagery and references to capture the anger and frustration caused by the explosion.
Raymond Patterson's "Birmingham 1963" also depends upon the innocence of preparing for and going to church on a Sunday morning:

Sunday morning and her mother's hands
Weaving the two thick braids of her springing hair,
Pulling her sharply by one bell-rope when she would
Not sit still, setting her ringing,
While the radio church choir prophesied the hour
With theme and commercials, while the whole house tingled;
And she could not stand still in that awkward air;
Her dark face shining, her mother now moving the tiny buttons,
Blue against blue, the dress which took all night making,
That refused to stay fastened;
There was some pull which hurried her out to Sunday School
Toward the lesson and the parable's good news,
The quiet escape from the warring country of her feelings,
The confused landscape of grave issues and people.

But now we see
Now we see through the glass of her mother's wide screaming
Eyes into the room where the homemade bomb
Blew the room down where her daughter had gone:
Under the leaves of hymnals, the plaster and stone,
The blue dress all undone to the bone--
Her still, dull face, her quiet hair;
Alone amid the rubble, amid the people
Who perish, being innocent. (Adoff, 209-210)

Patterson's concluding lines are captivating in both their rhythm and imagery. He leaves the reader with the extremely agonizing description of one of the daughters "amid the rubble, amid the people/Who perish, being innocent." This mood is further intensified by the preceding line, "Her still, dull face, her quiet hair," which provides the reader with a lasting, though unpleasant, image of the young girl literally buried inside the church.
Burial rituals, innocence, and tragedy are at the heart of Alice Walker's "Winking at a Funeral." Originally published in Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, which the author dedicates in part to her "heroes, heroines, and friends of early SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee," Walker's "Winking" serves as a brief section of a longer poem.

Those were the days
Of winking at a
Romance blossomed
In the pews
Love signaled
Through the
What did we know?

Who smelled the flowers
Slowly fading?
Knew the arsonist
Of the church? (Walker, 158)

The title alone connotes innocence or frivolity in the face of ever-present despair and depression. How many rituals are more somber in America than a funeral? How many acts are more subtle, or at times invasive, than a wink, especially if the setting is a funeral? "Romance blossomed/In the pews/Love signaled/Through the/Hymns," Walker writes, as if to give the poem an innocent, child-like feeling. The last line of the first stanza asks: "What did we know?" which is immediately followed in the second stanza by "Who smelled the flowers/Slowly fading?/Knew the arsonist of the church?" This latter half of the poem leads the reader from a point of innocent "winking" and into a more grim, realistic realm of the event at hand; meaning, a funeral. In addition, the lines and question, "Knew the arsonist/Of the church?" suggest that the identities of the arsonists were known, at least to the mourners in attendance, and perhaps even to those who felt no sense of remorse.
Whereas Walker's poem focuses on innocence and experience, "How to Change the U.S.A" by Harry Edwards strikes a distinctly retaliatory tone. Based on an interview Edwards gave to the New York Times in May 1968, the poem reads:

For openers, the Federal Government
the honkies, the pigs in blue
must go down South
and take those crackers out of bed,
the crackers who blew up
those four little girls
in that Birmingham church,
those crackers who murdered
Medgar Evers and killed
the three civil rights workers--
they must pull them out of bed
and kill them with axes
in the middle of the street.
Chop them up with dull axes.
At high noon.
With everybody watching
on television.
Just as a gesture
of good faith. (Major, 48-49)

Edwards' poem goes beyond the Birmingham bombing to also include the death of Medgar Evers. Evers, leader of the Mississippi NAACP, was ambushed and shot outside of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, in June of 1963. Similarly, Edwards'lines, "those crackers who murdered/. . . the three civil rights workers" reference Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. The three were Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) workers who were found dead in an earthen dam in Mississippi in 1964. One should also keep in mind that the interview that gave birth to this poem was conducted approximately one month after the assassination of Dr. King, which gave rise to widespread anger, frustration, and violence.

John Coltrane once said that "when there's something we think could be better, we must make an effort to try and make it better. So it's the same socially, musically, politically, and in any department of our lives" (Kofsky, 227). The poetry that emerged from the Movement attempts, for the most part, to make things better, if only by expressing, recording, intersecting, and thereby preserving significant historical sites. Despite this, scholars as recently as 1996 have argued that "Twentieth-century American poets have generally run in fear of history" and have turned their "backs on historical realities" (Stein, 9). Instead, I think that it is too often us, scholars, academics, and educators, who run from the poets and poems that embrace our history, especially when that history is tragic or less than pleasant. Perhaps this explains the void that too often exists in our discourse on contemporary poetry. What makes this all the more tragic is that an entire generation of poets who often wrote against forgetting has been virtually forgotten-at least within the context (or intersection) of "mainstream" American poetry and the American Civil Rights Movement.



1. Body Art Theatre

Torture is what it was like,
The way birds plucked hairs from flesh.
Was he now a Hitchcock woman
In cut-away black and white frames;
Or wounded raccoon, possum, deer,
Anything vulnerable
From an afternoon sky
Darkened with wings hovering?

For three days he and his wife sat handcuffed,
Operas of transcendence in their heads.
Others were shot or carved with razors
Until dragons blossomed
Across the crevices of their breasts.

One woman sought divine levitation
From a bed laced with rose thorns.
Red, yellow, and white petals strewn beneath the stems.

Viewers wanted to pray for her,
Make her rise from the garden.

Everyone wanted to gather
The beauty of it all, her blood
Like incensed oils blessed
Dripping above the curve of her spine.

When she finally rose, horizontal
As a leaf floating on water,
Sparrows sprouted
From each limb, swinging her away--
Grainy gray frames dissolved,
Black as full moon repose.

The crowd stood, unable to move
Staring into near absence,
Amazed by a sudden shaft of light
Now resting where their eyes had been.


2. Brown-Winged Shoulders

I thought they would come to me
Perhaps inside a swift, constant whisper.
At least it was hoped
A dream would land
Onto page, and there
They would lead
Through all that is sweet and absolute.

Everywhere, there were wings,
As a Dave Brubeck tune danced
In 9/8 time. Still,
No brown feathers fell,

And again, I was left
To stand alone
Beneath the smooth, curved spine
Of air: brilliant are the breezes,
But on this day, they too chose silence.

What is one to do
When voices anxiously awaited
Do not glide into one's palm?

I asked this of a stranger once
While we sat in an airport
Watching countless planes take flight.
She whispered, "They will return.
Everything alive and moving will return."

Yes, I thought,
Later recalling the transitory
Nature of faith:
How it sometimes appears
Sacred, not quite grounded
In this, our other
And often lonely world.


3. Regions

We have reached this region
With the aid of clocks
Circling the hours of six and eight.
At seven, we remembered
Once making love
With the same sense of rhythm
Attached to the stigma, time and place.

We have fallen ever since

For all things remote: never embracing
Voices that knock and plead
To be answered on arrival. We do not hear
Our mothers and fathers

Not breathing in bedrooms. Their ears
Taking in calls for life
To be completed, strung up after dark
With the snap of a finger, a rope, a flame.
We do not hear

The winds of braided leather
Slicing sweat and flesh. The screams
Have now been grounded like ankles
Shipped in rows. Here

In this unsettled region,
We have landed. Unsure
If the sounds we do not gather
Ring out from stolen drums,

Or travel inside echoes, broken:
No longer there, but not quite here.


4. Separation

Sometimes it happens as quickly as this: She drives
and from the passenger side, you arrive alone with words,
hoping they will connect in some romantic sense.
Think again: they have fallen, and that stream of ideas
you once thought was infallible
now blankets every streetlamp you pass.

On black slates of pavement, she stares,
driving as if the silence of two faces is too much,
as if it cannot be reconciled or even tossed from the window
you have just opened to get a fresh breath.

Up goes the window.

And you turn to her wishing to say, "I'm sorry,"
but her eyes tell you words
would now be usesless, like the air
vacuumed around you: nothing flowing any more,
until you land alone at your door, without a sound,
composed, as if a swarm of razors has feasted and floated
off with the flesh of your tongue.

Works Cited

Adoff, Arnold, ed. The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20thCentury. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Bell, Bernard. Modern and ContemporaryAfro-American Poetry. .Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1972.71-72.

Bly, Robert.“A Wrong Turning in American Poetry.”Claims for Poetry.Ed. Donald Hall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982.

Bratton, Elliot F.“In the Interest of Freedom: Jazz in the Cold War.”The Crisis April-May 1998: 37-38.

Bullard, Sara. Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Robert O'Meally. History and Memory in African-American Culture.New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Feinstein, Sascha. Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present. New York: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer.Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantam Books, 1990. 

Hirsch, Edward. Gulf Coast. November 1993: 7-14.

Harper, Michael S. History Is Your Own Heartbeat.Chicago: University of Illinois, 1971.

---.Interview.Interviews With Black Writers.Ed. John O'Brien. New York: Liverlight, 1973.

Jones, LeRoi. Black Music. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1968

Kofsky, Frank. Coltrane, John.Interwiew.Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music.  New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.

Lenz, Günter H., ed.History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1984.

Leonard, Neil.Jazz and the White Americans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Major, Clarence, ed. The New Black Poetry. New York: International, 1969.

Nisenson, Eric.Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Stein, Kevin.Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry.Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996.

Thomas, J. C . Chasin' the Trane: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane.New York: Doubleday and Company, 1975.

Walker, Alice. Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1983

Washington, James M, ed.. I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. San Francisco: Harper Books, 1986.

West, Cornel, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.The Future of the Race. New York: Knopf, 1996.