Civil Rights Poets Wrote Prologue For Change

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Langston Hughes and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper are prominent African-American poets who wrote about civil rights and whose work still resonates today. Host Liane Hansen speaks with poet E. Ethelbert Miller about Harper's and Hughes' work and what it means in this time of change in America.

(Soundbite of song "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. SAM COOKE: (singing) I was born by the river In a little tent

LIANE HANSEN, host:

When Sam Cooke first sang "A Change is Gonna Come," he was keeping the hope of the Civil Rights Movement alive.

(Soundbite of song "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. SAM COOKE: (singing) It's been a long, a long time coming but I know A change is gonna come

HANSEN: Today, those same words and promises still hold strong. Last year, change was the key word in the presidential campaign, and President-elect Barack Obama is charged with making that change happen. The new year also marks a time for us to make changes in our own lives. So, to reflect on the power of words, poet E. Ethelbert Miller joins us to examine the works of past poets and how their words of change and dreams still resonate today. Ethelbert Miller chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. And welcome back.

Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Poet; Chairman of the Board, Institute for Policy Studies; Director, African-American Resources Center at Howard University): Oh, it's always good to see you.

HANSEN: Happy holidays.

Mr. MILLER: Same to you.

HANSEN: You've written an essay you're going to share with us. And you're looking at the work of poet Langston Hughes. First of all, what is it about his work that you most relate to?

Mr. MILLER: I always feel that he's a person who spoke directly to the African-American people and also to America. He also was an international poet. He always had this big smile. You know, he was always jovial, even when you listen to recordings of his reading. You know, Langston is just a beautiful person, and so I always connected to him and also his work, which I think is so easy to understand, but so profound at times that you go back and read it a second time.

HANSEN: Would you read the essay?

Mr. MILLER: (Reading) Two thousand eight was a rollercoaster ride with its ups and downs, a poor economy, foreclosures, tornadoes, and hurricanes. They bashed our hopes, but hopefully not our dreams. The poet Langston Hughes was our dream keeper. He once wrote, "Bring me all of your dreams, you dreamers. Bring me all of your heart melodies that I may wrap them in a blue-cloud cloth away from the too-rough fingers of the world."

Our world is changing and although the world's fingers are still rough, we still seem to be making wonderful progress. One thing which terrorism, wars, ethnic violence, and hatred cannot stop is the strength that resides inside the human heart and our capacity to love. In January, we will once again celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. We will remember the dream he spoke about back on August 28th, 1963. How far have we come? On January 20th, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. It seems as if the time has come to unwrap our dreams, to soften the fingers of this world with songs of peace and hope. When dreams turn into flesh, we discover ourselves. Is Langston Hughes who wrote, 'Hold fast to dreams. For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.'"

HANSEN: Poet E. Ethelbert Miller reading his essay on Langston Hughes. Wonderful verse there. Given that you mentioned the inauguration and it playing just such a big part in the metaphor of the poem, he has actually invited poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at the ceremony, and she's only the fourth writer to be asked to read their work as part of a U.S. presidential swearing in ceremony.

If you could choose an African-American female poet from the past that should be thought of at about this time who would you choose?

Mr. MILLER: Oh, I'm very happy that he slated Elizabeth Alexander.

HANSEN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: And that was one person I was, you know, highly recommending a couple months ago. But because Obama always seems to be making reference to Abraham Lincoln, you know, one would probably go back and look at what African-American women were popular during the time Lincoln was alive.

And that would lead us to Frances Harper. Her voice really captures a voice of the abolitionist, her voice that witnesses slavery. But when we look at the themes that she addresses in terms of religion, freedom, I think her work would be one that one would invite her to read.

HANSEN: Would you read one of her poems?

Mr. MILLER: This is perhaps from her - one of her favorite well known poems. "Bury Me in a Free Land." (Reading) Make me a grave wherever you will, in a lowly plain, on a lofty hill. Make it among earth's humblest graves, but not in a land where men are slaves. I could not rest if around my grave, I heard the steps of a trembling slave. His shadow above my silent tomb would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread of a coffle gang to the shambles led, and the mother's shriek of wild despair rise like a curse on the trembling air. I could not sleep if I saw the lash drinking her blood at each fearful gash. And I saw her babes torn from her breast like trembling doves from their parents' nest.

I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay of bloodhounds seizing their human prey, and I heard the captive plead in vain as they bound afresh his galling chain. If I saw young girls from their mother's arms bartered and sold for their youthful charms, my eye would flash with a mournful flame, my death-paled cheek grow red with shame. I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might can rob no man of his dearest right.

My rest shall be calm in any grave where none can call his brother a slave. I ask no monument, proud and high, to arrest the gaze of the passers-by. All that my yearning spirit craves is bury me not in a land of slaves.

HANSEN: And that's poet E. Ethelbert Miller, reading Frances Harper's poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land." Ethelbert Miller chairs the Board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is director of the African-American Research Center at Howard University. Thanks so much for coming back.

Mr. MILLER: Oh, thank you.

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