If you don’t read much poetry, I would highly recommend these poems– they’re beautiful and poignant, and impart a deep trove of wisdom on the subtleties of race relations in America in such a small amount of space.
“Theme For English B” by Langston Hughes
When his white instructor prompts their class to write something that comes out of them naturally, Hughes questions what it means to write something truthful or authentic about himself, especially when the world often shapes how he views himself. The poem gets to its central conflict of the definition of the self when Hughes questions, “So will my page be colored that I write?/ Being me, it will not be white./ But it will be/ a part of you, instructor./ You are white–/ yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./ That’s American.” Essentially, he is proposing that though he has a different background than his instructor, they are both part of each other and the larger American narrative, whether they like it or not. Though this is true, Hughes still acknowledges, at the end of the poem, that there are still power imbalances in place that make equal and open exchange of ideas difficult: “As I learn from you. I guess you learn from me–/ although you’re older– and white–/ and somewhat more free.”
“Meeting A Stranger” by Sharon Olds
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w_uaeYJi7c (this is her reading the poem– she’s spectacular at performing her poetry, so it’s worth a watch)
This poem is from the perspective of a white person painfully aware of the connotations of being served by a black woman in a restaurant in the contemporary world. She begins the poem by discussing how the two of them meeting– Olds, a white woman, and this stranger, a black woman– is unequivocally joined by their mothers and fathers and “what they might have/ thought of each other”, and by their people and how they must have historically interacted with one another. She says that these ghosts of their pasts are faint– “quivers of reflected/ light on a wall”, but their presence is palpable. This poem is not from the perspective of a minority black person reflecting on their messy slew of identities working with and against each other, like in “Theme For English B”; rather, this poem is from the perspective of a white woman who recognizes her privilege and the American history that has allowed her– nay, rewarded her– for her ignorance of the suffering of African American peoples. Whether or not the history is so obvious in the room is not truly the question here– rather it is that she is recognizing it and taking responsibility for it.
“Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
This poem is loosely addressed to a young white man, though the address is not as personal and intimate as it is in Olds’ “Meeting a Stranger”. There is something defiant, pained, and outraged about the tone of the poem, as though the whole thing is just an trembling, explosive tirade against the young white man’s ignorant comment. It does not carry the contemplative, semi-idealistic, ruminating tone that is prevalent in Hughes’ and Olds’ poems. In the last part of the poem, Cervantes describes herself as “a poet/ who yearns to dance on rooftops” and enjoy and understand life. However, she says she is constantly reminded that “this is not/ my land/ and this is my land.” The last few lines of the poem bring back its central question: Cervantes concludes that although there may not be a war on races specifically labelled in that way, there is certainly still unrest and dispute– “there is war”.