In 1996, when I was feeling despair, my friend Shannon gave me my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm fairly sure he said this the night before he was killed, or perhaps it was the night before the night he was killed.
What a hopeful image. It inspired this poem, which was published in The Evening Reader, a beautiful literary journal published on newsprint (and the size of one of those newspapers that are often offered for free around cities). Since it was published in Newberry, S.C., it didn't have much of a wide-reaching distribution. Still it was one of my first publications as a grown up poet, so I shall always feel fondness for it.
Here's the poem, in all its youthful exuberance:
Arcing Towards Justice
Martin Luther King said that the arc
of history is towards justice,
and I must arc
towards justice as well:
ignore the politicians who would leave
children to starve
and adults to rot in prisons.
Some days I slump towards despair;
I don’t believe I can even save
myself, much less others.
Like Harriet Tubman, I cannot tarry
long in the swamps of despair.
I must go back, stretch out my arms, ferry
others to safety:
teach them to write, to analyze,
to dream the world they would want to inhabit.
I must teach them not to suckle
on the hatred spewed
by scared, old, white men
who are losing power, and so spurt poison.
I can build an ark of activism
for the diaspora of the dispossessed,
a sanctuary where we wait
for the old, white men to choke
on their own vituperative, vindictive vitriol.
We won’t even have to remove the mantle
of authority from their cold corpses.
It has been ours all along, from the moment
we claimed it as our own,
decorated it with our own bright threads,
chose our own best ways to wear our multi-hued
mantles, beacons to gleam and glitter
in the dark days of exile,
like comets arcing through the skies,
lighting the way home,
as a legacy of hatred burns
into harmless, intergalactic dust.
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