This weekend, I had the honor of being part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision that ended “separate but equal” policies in public schools and beyond. It was a joy to hear the music of Kelley Hunt, Isaac Cates and the Ordained, Maria the Mexican, and Injunuity, and to read with fellow poets David Baumgardner, Tava Miller, and Ashanti Spears. Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion, held in downtown Topeka, Kansas.
What It Takes
It takes years of waiting on polished wooden benches
outside trembling courtrooms. Thousands of meetings
in church basements or someone’s living room,
sipping lukewarm coffee on folding chairs.
Centuries of nights up late worrying, or puzzling out
how to change what’s unjust and breaking us all,
then early mornings to make the oatmeal, pour the
orange juice, and remind the children to take their homework.
It takes 16 blocks to get to the black school instead of
the white one on the corner, and hundreds of new signs
for another march, hours on the phone, and dressing up
to meet with the senator who sends his aide instead
and says, don’t push, change takes time
as if that’s not obvious as daylight after decades
of waiting in chains, standing in the back of the bus
and swimming in the smaller mildewed pool
surrounded by weeds and broken beer bottles.
It takes gumption and guts, grief churned into anger
that makes a tired man head to the newspaper office
to tell a reporter, it’s past time for justice, and just in time
to turn supposed equality into walkaday freedom.
It takes all those lawsuits before judges blinded by habit
and their own inadequate stories, and all those potlucks
to break bread with people who don’t look like you,
and tell them what it’s like for mothers to count the minutes
between the school bell and the front door,
and fathers whose hearts fall when hear
their beautiful daughters say, it’s nothing, I’m okay,
when she’s not okay. It takes piles of briefs that sway
the sidewalk leading up to the school where
a little girl walks, hand in hand in a federal agent,
ready to cross the threshold into the world we should have
inhabited all along, each step a way to sing, “Stand Up.”
Even then, it’s not over, and it’ll take all this and more
to make it safe to drive, or cross the street, or ask
for help without the risk of seeing eye bullets and
all the secret lashes that separate us into a lesser people.
It takes the patience of water to turn mountains into rivers,
then find the courage to sing while the healing waters flow.