RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
By now, you all are familiar with MORNING EDITION's poet in residence Kwame Alexander. But Kwame is also an award-winning writer, a book author. And we wanted to spend some time with him this morning talking about his newest work. It is called "Light For The World To See: A Thousand Words On Race And Hope." And I am so glad to have you here this morning. Hi, Kwame.
KWAME ALEXANDER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. It's been a whirlwind of a year.
MARTIN: It's been a whirlwind of a year. We haven't talked in so long. And I found myself, over these many weeks and months, especially the summer, (laughter) missing you, missing poetry and our conversations. And now I know why, because you were busy doing something else, doing something that took more time and thought, right?
ALEXANDER: Well, I mean, as you know, Rachel, I believe in the power of poetry to engage with us, to inform us, to uplift us, to fuel our imagination in an immediate way, that it can connect with us emotionally. I think that through the listening of a poem or the reading of a poem about the woes of the world - and we've got a lot of woes right now - we can be inspired. We can be inspired to find the wonderful in ourselves and each other. I think the weight of being Black was too much to carry for me for a long time. And I didn't know how to find answers to assert myself to do something.
And then a friend of mine sent me a quote by Toni Morrison that 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. That is how civilizations heal. And so I wrote. I used my words to scream, to shout, to sort of lift up my voice to shine a little light for the world. I wanted to write this as a reminder to Black children and families to remember their humanity. I wanted to write it as sort of a wake-up call to white Americans to acknowledge and know the truth, to fight against the proclivity that maintain the hierarchy, whether conscious or not.
I think it's - I think of these poems as sort of Negro spirituals in a way, which are timeless in their comfort, in their guidance, in their roots in praise houses and ring shouts and other informal gatherings of enslaved Africans who needed to express their sorrows and their hopes. "Wading In The Water," "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen," "Steal Away To Jesus" - that's what these poems are for me. They are psalms and balms from my soul and, hopefully, for our souls, so that we can get on with the business of making the world a better place.
MARTIN: You wrote on the back, on the book jacket, that this is in the tradition of James Baldwin's "A Report From Occupied Territory." And I sat with that work over the weekend, read James Baldwin's words. And it is eerie - eerie doesn't really do it justice - the parallels to this current moment. What did you see in that? How did it help you understand what you needed to write right now?
ALEXANDER: Well, I think, in the sense that Baldwin was crying out. It was a plea for our humanity - for the humanity of Black people in particular, of oppressed peoples in general - to be recognized. I don't know if I'm writing a plea more so that I'm sort of making a demand, and that I'm saying we've got to reclaim our own humanity and cannot allow ourselves to be defined by other people. The wound has been here. The wound has been here since Africans first arrived on these shores.
These episodes of police killings and brutality, you know, they've existed for 400 years. I wrote this to remind us of the tragedy, Rachel, while also showcasing the triumph. The only way - the only way for us to do things better in the future is to understand what we did wrong in the past. I do think that we are at a critical boiling point of resistance in America. And then you see whites and Blacks and all Americans coming together to stand up for what's right. You know, we've got to all say that we're fired up and we can't take no more. And I think that's what's happening.
MARTIN: This is a collection of three poems. And I wish we had the time for you to just sit and read them all. But if you could just read the closing poem for us.
ALEXANDER: This is for the unforgettable, the swift and sweet ones who hurdled history and opened a world of possible - the ones who survived America, by any means necessary, and the ones who didn't. This is for the undeniable, the ones who scored with chains on one hand and faith in the other. This is for the unflappable, the sophisticated ones who box adversity and tackle vision, who shine their light for the world to see and don't stop 'till the break of dawn. This is for the unafraid, the audacious ones who carried the red, white and weary blues on the battlefield to save an imperfect Union, the righteous marching ones who sang we shall not be moved because Black Lives Matter. This is for the unspeakable. This is for the unspeakable. This is for the unspeakable.
This is for the unlimited, unstoppable ones, the dreamers and the doers who swim across the big sea of our imagination and show us - and show us the majestic shores of the promised land; the Wilma Rudolphs, the Muhammad Alis, the Althea Gibsons, the Jesse Owenses, the Jordans and the LeBrons, the Serenas and the Cheryls, the Reece Whitleys and the undiscovered. This is for the unbelievable, the we-real-cool ones. This is for the unbinding, the Black-as-the-night-is-beautiful ones. This is for the underdogs and the uncertain, the unspoken but no longer untitled. This is for the undefeated. This is for the undefeated. This is for you and you, and you. This is for us.
MARTIN: That was "The Undefeated," a poem from Kwame's new book "Light For The World To See: A Thousand Words On Race And Hope." For information about Kwame's readings, check out his website, kwamealexander.com. My friend, thank you for this.
ALEXANDER: Thank you for listening, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UMI SAYS")
MOS DEF: (Singing) Umi said shine your light on the world. Shine your light for the world...
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