In Brooklyn, New York, on the morning of November 7, 1978, as I got ready for school, my father, the principal, informed me that the entire student body would be marching over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to protest the police killing of Arthur Miller, a Crown Heights Black civic leader. My first reaction was fear.
I cried as my classmates and I shakily marched across the Hudson River, along narrow streets lined with supporters and policemen. Even though this was not my first racial justice-themed school “field trip,” it was my first march across a bridge, and I did not want to suffer the same fate John Lewis and his fellow civil rights demonstrators did on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965—attacked and bloodied by police officers. In my ten-year-old mind I was certain that if police officers who were sworn to serve and protect human beings could murder a civic leader—and be acquitted of all charges—then surely they wouldn’t think twice about siccing their police dogs on us, or fire-hosing us, or worse, somehow managing to open up the bridge. While we were on it.
Among the marchers and protestors on that cloudy day were Jitu Weusi, founder of Uhuru Sasa Shule (“Freedom Now School” in Swahili), the progressive school I attended; Anna Quindlen, New York Times reporter; Sonia Sanchez, poet; and members of the congregation of the House of the Lord Church, whose pastor, Herbert Daughtry, was the protest’s organizer and leader.
As the march entered Lower Manhattan and capstoned into a spirited rally, the reverend shouted atop a car, “We have not been satisfied that police are going to stop killing our children,” and then he began to lead us in song . . . in a psalm of resistance: “We’re fired up, we can’t take no more. We’re fired up, we can’t take no more.” As the chants grew louder, the rhythm stronger, a spiritual momentum gained, and I found myself joining the chorus of activists shouting triumphantly. The moment was contagious, akin to being in church and not realizing you’re on your feet, clapping, making a joyful noise like everybody else . . . until you are. My angst cooled. I raised my huge placard with Miller’s face on it and found my footing. I couldn’t articulate what was happening at the time, but somehow, in that moment, I found comfort in my voice, in those around me who were lifting theirs. But it wasn’t just comfort that the words and sounds brought me, it was also a kind of muscularity. A power to face the world and demand that it see me. The power to speak up about what mattered. Black lives.
Recently, as I’ve struggled to find my own meaningful way of parting these waters of racial injustice that threaten to drown us today, that have haunted us for centuries, I keep returning to the words we chanted that day. And wondering, are they strong enough to carry this weight?
This book is me attempting to answer that question. Me lifting my voice, using my words to say something . . . about racism, about Black triumph, about solidarity. About police brutality and its devastating impact on Black America, on America. This book is a sort of wading into the water, a roll of thunder, a call to action. A rally in verse.
Audre Lorde wrote, “Poetry lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” We find ourselves in a world like never before. And, yet, we’ve always been here. In this moment, as we grapple with the fear, the uncertainty, the awakening, I turn to poetry, a small but powerful emotional geography that has the ability to reach inside of us, map our humanity, anchor us on solid ground, heal, and lift our souls to the heights of joy.
These three poems have been my balms. They are my chants, my psalms, my songs of protest. My hope for us is built on nothing less. We all want to be a part of the change that’s happening in the world. So, yes, we are fired up, because we can’t take no more. And we are coming for our freedom. Now.