This poem written in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is from poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez—one of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement. She is the author of numerous books, including Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, where this poem appears.
Tonite in need of you
I move imperfect
through this ancient city.
Quiet. No one hears
No one feels the tears
The silence thickens
I have lost the shore
of your kind seasons
who will hear my voice
nasal against distinguished
O I am tired
of voices without sound
I will rest on this ground
full of mass hymns.
You have been here since I can remember Martin
from Selma to Montgomery from Watts to Chicago
from Nobel Peace Prize to Memphis, Tennessee.
Unmoved along the angles and corners
of aristocratic confusion.
It was a time to be born
forced forward a time
to wander inside drums
the good times with eyes like stars
and soldiers without medals or weapons
but honor, yes.
And you told us: the storm is rising against the
privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no
shelter in isolation or armament
and you told us: the storm will
not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of
the earth enables men (and women) everywhere to live
in dignity and human decency.
All summerlong it has rained
and the water rises in our throats
and all that we sing is rumored
Whom shall we call when this song comes of age?
And they came into the city carrying their fastings
in their eyes and the young 9-year-old Sudanese
boy said, "I want something to eat at nite a
place to sleep."
And they came into the city hands salivating guns,
and the young 9-year-old words snapped red
Mama mama Auntie auntie I dead I dead I deaddddd.
In our city of lost alphabets
where only our eyes strengthen the children
you spoke like Peter like John
you fisherman of tongues
untangling our wings
you inaugurated iron for our masks
exiled no one with your touch
and we felt the thunder in your hands.
We are soldiers in the army
we have to fight, although we have to cry.
We have to hold up the freedom banners
we have to hold it up until we die.
And you said we must keep going and we became
small miracles, pushed the wind down, entered
the slow bloodstream of America
surrounded streets and "reconcentradas," tuned
our legs against Olympic politicians elaborate cadavers
growing fat underneath western hats.
And we scraped the rust from old laws
went floor by floor window by window
and clean faces rose from the dust
became new brides and bridegrooms among change
men and women coming for their inheritance.
And you challenged us to catch up with our
own breaths to breathe in Latinos Asians Native Americans
Whites Blacks Gays Lesbians Muslims and Jews, to gather
up our rainbow-colored skins in peace and racial justice
as we try to answer your long-ago question: Is there
a nonviolent peacemaking army that can shut down
And you challenged us to breathe in Bernard Haring's words:
the materialistic growth--mania for
more and more production and more
and more markets for selling unnecessary
and even damaging products is a
sin against the generation to come
what shall we leave to them:
rubbish, atomic weapons numerous
enough to make the earth
uninhabitable, a poisoned
atmosphere, polluted water?
"Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful
thing compared to love in dreams," said a Russian writer.
Now I know at great cost Martin that as we burn
something moves out of the flames
(call it spirit or apparition)
till no fire or body or ash remain
we breathe out and smell the world again
Aye-Aye-Aye Ayo-Ayo-Ayo Ayeee-Ayeee-Ayeee
Amen men men men Awoman woman woman woman
Men men men Woman woman woman
Men men Woman woman
On December 29, 2011, Philadelphia selected Sonia Sanchez as the city’s first Poet Laureate. A proud resident of Philadelphia since 1976, Mayor Michael Nutter called her the “conscience of the city.” As Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate, she is responsible for selecting and mentoring a Youth Poet Laureate, participating in spoken word and poetry events at City Hall and the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Her most recent book of poetry, Morning Haiku, is available from Beacon Press. For a complete list of works by Sonia Sanchez, visit her website. Read more about her selection as Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate here, or visit Poetry Foundation.
Photo Credit: April 4, 1968: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before making his final public appearance to address striking Memphis sanitation workers. King was assassinated later that day outside his motel room. (AP/Wide World Photos)