Sunday, April 27, 2008

Duke Altum's POTW #62

I recently discovered this poet for the first time, and though I barely know his work, some of his poems have really struck me... I chose this one because it has a little "local flavor" - for me, anyway. The slave-turned-politician/orator/ambassador Frederick Douglass is one of the most inspiring and impressive stories of personal determination and triumph in this country's history. Starting with literally nothing (not even ownership of himself!), he taught himself to read from ads, scraps of paper, and anything he could find... and eventually became one of the country's most accomplished and eloquent voices for personal freedom and responsibility. His autobiography (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself) is an amazing book and well worth seeking out some time for a true-life story of succeeding against the odds (were there ever any greater odds against a man?).

Douglass was born into bondage on a farm that is only about 5 miles away from where I am sitting now - right here on Maryland's Eastern Shore. So for us around here his story is part of the local lore. I have yet to actually visit the site of his birthplace (which is embarrassing to admit!), but I plan to one day... and take my sons there as well.

Anyway, I never identified the poet I was talking about... no, it's not Frederick Douglass, but the African-American poet Robert E. Hayden. Hayden was the first black poet laureate of the United States and a pioneer poet of the African-American experience in this country. This poem is of course not just a worthy tribute to aforementioned Mr. Douglass, but also a moving rallying cry to all Americans who are still struggling to find personal freedom and make sure their voices are heard and their inherent dignity as persons is recognized. In this election season, sadly, it seems as relevant as when it was first written in the 1930's...


Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

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