RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I'm joined by MORNING EDITION poet-in-residence Kwame Alexander. Hi, Kwame.
KWAME ALEXANDER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So last time you were here, Kwame, you and I encouraged our listeners to really look for the protective nature of poetry and to write a poem in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. He is the black man who was chased down by two white men and killed last February when he was out jogging.
ALEXANDER: I still struggle to grapple with what it means to be black and safe in America. Did you know that in the weeks following Arbery's death, three more African Americans were killed under police brutality? Sean Reed's death in Indianapolis, recorded live on social media. Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician in Louisville, was shot eight times in her bed. And just Monday night, Rachel, in south Minneapolis, another black man died in police custody. His name is George Floyd. There's video of him pleading with an officer, who's on his neck. We hear him crying out, I can't breathe.
MARTIN: Which, of course, were the last words of Eric Garner, who was killed at the hands of police in New York in 2014. And it is an impossible reality to try to reconcile. How do we face our best selves when we are confronted with this truth that is unfathomable and unjust?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. I recall a Toni Morrison quote. She said, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak. We write. We do language."
MARTIN: The art that comes from hurt is a compelling force, right? It can be formidable. And you are doing your part in that with your poems. We got over a thousand entries from our listeners, an emotional outpouring of poems, reflections about America, America today.
ALEXANDER: Look; I know I sound like a broken record here, but, wow, I was blown away with the heart, the anger, the angst and the hope in all of these submissions.
MARTIN: So you took them and combined them into many words and one voice.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. But, Rachel, our listeners, they write these muscular and moving poems and reflections. I'm just honored to be able to bring them together. So this is our crowdsource community poem "Running For Your Life."
ALEXANDER: What is the color of air? Who owns the right to breathe? Why are we so afraid of each other? When will they come for the brown men I know and love? What was his crime?
MARTIN: Is there justice for all in the land of the free, or only those who are white like me? What is the vaccine for this pandemic? I wonder where my baby is.
ALEXANDER: Another black body shot. White-hot hate left its stain on a blackened Georgia road.
MARTIN: My country, tis of thee. We must raise the skeletons buried deep in our past.
ALEXANDER: 1880, 1890, 1920, 1990, 2020 - give it time, white fragility says. Nothing moves forward until this hunting stops a knife on our collective tongues.
MARTIN: Please stop running from the truth and listen. This death was everyone's fault. This is on you, young America. We must accept the lingering shame and guilt, the anger and mistrust inequality have instilled, apologize for the damage, commit to sow a future with humility.
ALEXANDER: While we await such a day, let us say your name, Ahmaud Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery. I am sorry that we all know your name now, that we will forget it far too soon.
MARTIN: I am sorry that the only song they know to sing for you is tragedy. I am sorry that all I can do is write this poem. I am sorry that your life has become a metaphor.
ALEXANDER: My heart rages for another mother's loss of her son, for the blindness, for the cover-up, for the tears not enough to wet the graves of so many lost for the sake of insanity.
MARTIN: A black babysitter caring for white children, a black professor opening his own front door, a young black woman sleeping in her own college lounge, a black teen knocking on a door to ask directions - his first words, don't be afraid - a black boy jogging in the morning. There is an essential difference between running and running for your life.
ALEXANDER: I remember my mother, the night she got down on her hands and knees on the frayed rug, tired of the facade of racial progress, pain too hard to bear, fist pumping out the beat, I can't take it anymore.
I don't fear the pickup trucks. It's only the dogs sometimes, when there are two or more, and mean, who charge out onto the road, hair raised along their backs, barking and growling, coming up behind me, looking for a chance to bite.
My deepest fear is that I am black and that I will be murdered for it.
MARTIN: They are young men simply going about their lives. Never, ever again should a dream be deferred, should a parent have to explain Jim Crow still lives in the hearts and minds of white men, should a young man look over his shoulder at a gun and run only to lose this race.
ALEXANDER: Never, ever again.
We do have a choice, and it is an easy choice. We fight to rise above this sin.
MARTIN: We fight to be a world of one.
ALEXANDER: We fight for our humanity, because after leaves fall, they cannot be reattached to the tree.
MARTIN: Because broken hearts still beat.
ALEXANDER: Because Justice peeks her head around the corner and hope the door doesn't slam.
MARTIN: I don't really have any words after that. I think those words...
ALEXANDER: Yeah, the listeners gave us the words. They gave us what we needed there.
MARTIN: Yeah, they did. And we thank them for that and you. MORNING EDITION poet-in-residence Kwame Alexander. Thank you.
ALEXANDER: Stay strong.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.