Categorical Meditations by Mariam Williams

This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Mariam Williams in order to reflect on one of the projects developed for Organize Your Own by Rosten Woo in the larger context of the exhibition.


Visitor Survey by Rosten Woo

Categorical Meditations by Mariam Williams


Division. We learn it formally by third grade. The process has its own vocabulary—


Factor trees

2 goes into 24 how many times?

5 and 2 are prime factors of 10

100 divided by 20 is 5

100 divided by 20 equals 5

Interchangeable words and phrases create a language for separation—its being, its contributors, its equality.

What is the mathematical equivalent of unity?



January 2016. I’m standing in front of a large white board, maybe 60 x 40”, with about thirty red, blue, and green rectangles printed on it, featuring questions from the American Fact-Finder Survey, the National Health Interview Survey, and the Survey of the American Consumer. Instructions at the top of the board ask viewers to insert small, yellow-tipped mapping pegs to respond to each question, then insert small, black-tipped pegs to represent the three categories they most identify with. Finally, viewers who stick it out through the whole exercise will insert light, blue-tipped pegs into the three categories in which they feel they are most likely to organize.

The work is vast and yet filled with minutiae.

How did you get to work today?

I took the bus/subway/elevated train. I rode my bicycle. I walked. I drove.

Pets deserve to be pampered.

How long have you lived in your current residence?

It’s a halting experience to see hundreds of survey questions blown up to a grand scale. If I were to stand the board horizontally on the floor next to me, it would ascend to more than half my height. The quotidian nature of categorization, whatever intangible quality, which has made it ingrained, has, for a moment, surrendered its power. I must think.

How many boxes can I put myself in? Who is asking this? Why do they need to know? What use are the details of my life to them?

I volunteer, my hand guiding yellow-tipped pegs.

African American

Straight, that is, not gay

Number of children under the age of 18 in household: 0

I self-identify, but the categories’ significance is prescribed. Someone else has deemed it important to know that I am a graduate student over the age of 34 who sees a primary care physician for her immediate medical needs, is in charge of the grocery decisions in her household, and doesn’t attend religious services regularly. Someone needs to know the man next to me is white, gay, works in technology primarily for the salary, and often plans ahead. According to the surveys, there is no crossover in our lives, no place where we meet. Yet these details of our lives, these categories, are equally important to someone. They want to know so that they can sell me things that will make my life better. No one has asked me:

Do you believe Black people will ever be embraced by the country they built?

Does that question make you wonder why you still want children?

Has anyone asked him:

Do you understand the fears of the woman next to you? Have you ever thought about them? Why or why not?

What use to me are the details they want to know?


When I hear the phrase, “organize your own,” I think of SNCC in 1966. I think of people in 2016, people who likely live, worship, and socialize in places with people of the same race or nationality, talking to each other about racism in the U.S. and either how they experience it or what they can do about it. I picture people going home for Thanksgiving and reaching the point when they can no longer tolerate their drunk uncle using racial slurs to refer to Chinese people.

These are the factors for speaking: enough commonality but enough difference and no more tolerance. Same blood, same root. Different regions, generations, and incomes. Aunt Cora, PhD; Uncle James, factory line. When will you settle down and have some kids? When will your sister stop having all those kids? She’s turning into a welfare queen.

What goes into organizing your own family? Please (don’t) excuse my dear Aunt Sally (anymore).


I take public transit to work and school. The other commuters and I fall into a box, together. Yet some of our differences we can sense. Briefcases vs. backpacks. Shined wingtips vs. Timberlands. Local’s accent vs. tourist’s. Stench of street sleep vs. bed rest on laundered sheets.

What is required for any of us to take that impossible action, to “reach across the aisle?” These are my own, but to commute together, every day, same route, same time, is not enough to talk about race. I look at them and wonder,

Do these people feel lonely?

Have they reached their goals?

Does life at their age look like what they thought it would and what they think it should?

Do they procrastinate?

What was their day like today?

When was the last time they did something for the first time?

I don’t want to know their:

political affiliation

gender persuasion

sexual orientation

educational motivation

I want to know, “Can you speak the language of unity?,” even as I wonder, “How is that different from the language of erasure?” A thousand categories divide each human from the next, but a thousand categories—socially constructed, chromosomal, genetic, divinely imparted, chosen—make us who we are. A thousand, black-tipped pegs mapping out each opportunity to ask, “If 100 divided by 20 equals 5, do not all twenty parts have the same value?”


Mariam Williams is a Kentucky-based writer now living in Philadelphia. She was loving her job in social justice research and was in the midst of pursuing a master’s degree in Pan-African studies from the University of Louisville when she decided it was time to pursue creative writing instead. Williams is a 2015–16 Trustees Fellow in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. She is interested in the intersections of identity, history, and the arts and wants to put her tangential background to use to help women and girls discover the power and importance of their own voices.

Poetic Responses to OYO

Mary Patten

Mary Patten – The Ways of White Folks

Last year Maggie Ginestra brought her poetry class from Moore College of Art & Design to visit the Organize Your Own exhibit at Kelly Writers House. The class looked at the artworks and were provided select poems from the Young Patriots Organization chapbook Time of the Phoenix. Below you’ll find the poems and an introduction from Ginestra:

The invitation to dive into Organize Your Own and emerge with poems was a juicy challenge – not just an ekphrastic exercise, but an opportunity for us to engage history and community where they meet poetry, which is all the time when seen through lenses (like OYO’s) that are dialed to our moments of making.

Before visiting the exhibit, we encountered materials shared with the contributing artists – several poems written by female Young Patriots for Time of the Phoenix (including some by organizer Peggy Terry) and a clip from American Revolution 2, in which Black Panther Bobby Lee roused the Young Patriots to greater self- determination. Many of us were surprised to find language and energy there that was so alive, immediate and exciting.

We walked to Kelly Writers House on February 11th, which turned out to be one of the coldest (and sunniest) days of winter in Philadelphia in 2016. We started out from Moore’s campus and followed the river. We might not have been bundled up enough to relax into our journey and our time in nature. We were very eager to arrive.

As poets, we had a few things on our mind. We’d been reading and practicing the spirit of Maxine Hong Kingston’s “To Be the Poet,” in which she suggests documenting an alternating rhythm of your seeing and your feeling as a way to show up to your now. Thus, our chilled bones and geographical disorientation were very much a part of our meeting with Organize Your Own.

We’d also been thinking about assignments and their inevitable effect on our presence in the moment – how they can help us to show up and also confound our capacity to show up. We read Dorothea Lasky’s mini-manifesto Poetry Is Not a Project and thought about how any loyalty to an idea of what to write might compromise our sharing of lived experience. But then we had many ideas in response to the layers of history and community we encountered at Kelly Writers House. Ideas that felt like living.

We hope we’ve collected our loyalties to living, and the spirit in which they emerged, in these poems, as a joyful and diverse response to the artworks and energies of Organize Your Own.

(Maggie Ginestra)

Student Poetry In Response to OYO 

  • Kaylie Minzola – Begin the Hunt
  • Sarah Bea McDade – Brotherhood
  • Geneva Champagne – Darkness 
  • Alexandra Mosoeanu – End of the Ways of the White Folks
  • Aidan Weiss – An Afternoon At Kelly Writer’s House
  • Colleen Durant – Woman. Working.
  • Sapientia Park – A day of reckoning
  • Shahada Mouzon – Organizing Humanity
  • Brittany Snyder  – Silent
  • Alissa Outwater – Stand
  • Pinky (Shaniyah C.) – Standing Still vs Moving Still
  • Kelly Fitzpatrick – Sweeteners
  • Rebecca Martin – This Place is Warm

Download the Poems Here!

On Amber Art’s Urban Space Jockeys

This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Bettina Escauriza in order to reflect on one of the projects developed for Organize Your Own by Amber Art & Design Collective.

(Photos by Taji Nahl)

On Amber Art’s Urban Space Jockeys

by Bettina Escauriza

  1. The Photograph

Two Black men in lawn jockey outfits holding lanterns stand in symmetrical poses, as statues would, in front of a food store on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. The cold interior light from the store spills out onto the street, casting blue shadows on the faces of the men, which are otherwise obscured by night’s darkness. A giant decal of fresh seafood pasted on the left window dominates the scene: bright red crab legs create a downward curve next to a blush pink shrimp, pale potatoes, and a lone broccoli on the bottom left corner, all held within the embrace of an aluminum dish. Inside the store we see a certificate of some kind (perhaps of compliance) pasted on a clear plexi-glass partition, a juice dispenser filled with purple liquid, and in the far distance, the bright fluorescence of a bug light. But what is easy to miss in this photo is the third person standing just beyond the threshold of the large windows, inside the store, their face visible next to the end of the crab legs, partially bisected by the black metal border that holds the panes of glass in place, their body obscured by a large orange vinyl sign advertising a food special. To us, it’s just a floating head really.

The image described is one in a series of photographs that document the performance piece entitled Urban Space Jockeys by Amber Art and Design. Though the image was constructed to follow a symmetrical/bilateral composition, it unintentionally follows the Rule of Odds. The three subjects form a strange triangle, oscillating between what is intentional and what is incidental, creating a composition in which the third person in the background is at the apex and center of the image. The strong architectural, geometric lines create a heavy symmetry—a repeated pattern wherein the objects in the individual quadrants formed by the architecture break the rigid symmetry and generate motion for the eyes. The parallel positioning of the subjects constructs a strong sense of weighted balance, really appropriate for a pair of statues that that would flank an entrance—in this case, the statues flank the entrance to the obscured history of the roles of Black people and Black resistance to oppression in West Philadelphia.

In their performance piece Urban Space Jockeys, Amber Art engages the complex and hidden history of Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. For the piece, Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez dressed and posed as lawn jockeys, and were photographed as the statues in different locations. Lawn jockeys have a complicated, layered, and truthfully, unknown, origin. From the legend of Jocko Graves—the Black boy who inspired George Washington by waiting for him and subsequently freezing to death, lantern in hand, along the banks of the Delaware during the Revolutionary War—to the anonymous “faithful groomsman,” or the black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. By some accounts these statues were used as signal posts for stops on the Underground Railroad, when a cloth of a certain color tied to the arm of the jockey meant this house was safe for African Americans, who were fleeing slavery in the South.[1] In Urban Space Jockeys, Amber Art is referencing all of these histories by becoming the lawn jockeys and reinserting that particular narrative of Black history and the Black body into the contemporary space of the city.

Though by its nature, the Urban Space Jockeys performance is external and meant to be consumed by spectators, there is a deep internality to the work that viewers must excavate for deeper meaning. A profound truth of the work is that many aspects of it are only knowable to those who share the experiences of Blackness in this society that have been constructed around the violent and genocidal enslavement and oppression of Black people. The tension between what is knowable and unknowable in the work— depending on who experiences it—is a powerful antidote in a society that seeks to flatten and normalize everything and fix history in place as a story that can be told completely and, that in turn, can be fully understood. Urban Space Jockeys does not function as a didactic history lesson, but rather as an organic encounter with the public, if they are lucky enough to be out there during one of the performances, or view its documentation in an art gallery. For those of us who are familiar with the racist narrative and history attached to the lawn jockey as an object produced by a racist society, the first layer of the Urban Space Jockeys performance is readily apparent, but the ways in which this history is intertwined with the history of Lancaster Avenue lives in a deeper place.


  1. The Avenue

Though there is nothing to mark the horizon, the severe angle of Lancaster Avenue is very palpable. The Avenue is loud and alive. During peak hours, a steady stream of people walk down the sidewalk and in and out of businesses, as the flutter of their conversations blends with the buzzing clamor of traffic. Lancaster Avenue has a rich history—originally it is said to have been an ancient Lenni­Lenape road, before becoming the first turnpike, connecting Philadelphia to Lancaster, in 1795. As the first major paved road, it helped to transform the city by easing the flow of goods and commerce that came in on barges through the Schuylkill, then moving through West Philadelphia to Lancaster and beyond.[2] Eventually, Lancaster Avenue became linked to the Lincoln Highway, the first-ever intercontinental highway in the United States, a single line stretching across the land, connecting Philadelphia to San Francisco.[3] Several houses that were stops on the Underground Railroad were located on the Avenue, so just below the surface of the present there is a powerful history of solidarity and resistance to oppression.

But, as one walks down Lancaster Avenue, this history is invisible. What Michel de Certeau wrote of New York is also true of Philadelphia (at least in this part of town)— “Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future.”[4] The present’s unrelenting devotion to becoming the future effectively silences the past. Time is a collection of surfaces that builds the sedimentary rock of the present, and in the orogeny of passing time, things get lost.

There is a certain degree of inevitability to this process of muting the past, but there are processes of power at play that shape the muting. Thus, if the history of the resistance to African enslavement, along with other histories, is hidden under the steady bustle of working-class neighborhood commerce, then it happens in service of some kind of logic. Some would say that it is not so nefarious, but I would argue that in a city so obsessed with its own past and its relationship to the beginnings of this nation, the long process that hides the hands and intentions of those who built the present is obscured in this particular narrative for a reason.

Urban Space Jockeys is an excavation and presentation of the image of the lawn jockey—both as a historical site of the oppression of Black bodies and of the complex archaeology that links these lawn jockeys to the Underground Railroad, while at the same time actively pointing to the current and virulent process of gentrification that seeks to consume Philadelphia in the coming years. The performance aims to engage the past in dialogue with the present to interrogate the future as it looms in the horizon.

In an interview I conducted with the artists, they explained that their aim is to amplify the voices of their community members by telling the history of Black Philadelphia. They are members of and live and work in marginalized communities that exist in a state of constant vulnerability by the forces of racism and capitalism. Through their public interventions, Amber Art seeks to engage with the public in a dialogue about the Black body, both its history and its present. By forging spaces for dialogue, they engage with people in neighborhoods who don’t get to access art through conventional means of a museum or a gallery. Amber Art uses performance as a way of posing questions about race and power, and to bring to the surface Black narratives of resistance to oppression that have been silenced. There is a deep, resonating healing and corrective power to this work, as it actively constructs a world in which that which has been silenced can speak. Their work asks questions about what survives in the collective memory of the colonized, the enslaved, and how these processes unmake, make, create, and recreate the word we live in every day.

The intersection of art and activism is rife with contradiction, as are all situations in which power is simultaneously manifested and contested. These contradictions cannot, nor should they, be avoided—they should be actively engaged and deconstructed to see what other formations may arise from questioning and making. As Walter Benjamin wrote: “Our life, it can be said, is a muscle strong enough to contract the whole of historical time. Or, to put it differently, the genuine conception of historical time rests entirely upon the image of redemption.”[5] And perhaps, despite all our deconstruction and construction, we don’t get to fix things—maybe we just make air holes, and that’s okay.




De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), p. 91.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 479.

Bettina Escauriza is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia, born in Asuncion, Paraguay. She received her BFA in Sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute, and an MFA in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her work deals with a broad range of issues including urbanism, anarchism, indigenous issues, immigrant experience, environmental justice, and feminism, frequently expressed through mixed media and actions. Among these, she organized a series of conferences around prison issues and the abolition of the prison industrial complex together with Native American groups and others in 2008. She has also herded sheep and built outhouses in Black Mesa, Arizona, as a way to support Diné elders resisting relocation. She is a fellow at Slought.


Anger Therapy

anger-therapy_5x10Last month at Duke University the artist Pedro Lasch hosted an Anger Therapy session inspired by Organize Your Own. Here is the description:

Anger Therapy Session No. 1 / White People Especially Welcome: Organize Your Own
Mon, Nov. 21st, 10-11am. Ahmadieh Lecture Hall, Bay 4, Smith Warehouse, Duke University, Durham NC.

Looking forward to talking politics with family over Thanksgiving? Right.

Between children yelling ‘build the wall’ at their classmates, attacks across the country, screams of ‘lock her up’, and shouts of ‘not my President’, Americans are more divided and angry than ever. The aftermath of the most hate-filled electoral campaign in decades seems to include the normalization of the deliberate harnessing of anger into political power.

If you’d rather not fight with family, need a place to rehearse, or people to get back to after losing it, the FHI Social Practice Lab at Duke University invites you to join one or more of our upcoming Anger Therapy Sessions (A National Response). Each session has a unique set of creative rules and guidelines that will let those who attend share their anger, without getting violent. If you are angry, you are most certainly welcome, but you don’t have to be. We cannot, however, welcome anyone whose anger has led them to believe that hate of any social group on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation is an acceptable public expression. For such individuals, we hope there will be other forms of therapy available.

Our sessions are first and foremost an expressive, experimental and constructive tool to reinterpret and redirect the high levels of anger so many of us are feeling. This may involve some healing, but that is not their main goal. Neither is a sense of appeasement or conflict resolution.


Anger Therapy Session No. 1 / White People Especially Welcome: Organize Your Own
Mon, Nov. 21st, 10-11am. Ahmadieh Lecture Hall, Bay 4, Smith Warehouse, Duke University, Durham.

Rules: All are welcome at this event, but anyone who thinks they are perceived as ‘white’ or self-identify as such is especially welcome. Why, you may ask, would we hold an event directly inviting white people at a university, with white nationalist figures like Steve Bannon rising to the highest levels of US government? We hope these two references will help explain, as they are also key to this session’s exploration of anger. More than fifty years ago, Stokely Carmichael (leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) said: “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters of the movement has been that they are afraid to go into their own communities – which is where the racism exists – and work to get rid of it.” Taking up this direct call, artist and activist Daniel Tucker recently created a rich series of events in Chicago and Philadelphia, leading to a 2016 exhibition and final publication with the title of ‘Organize Your Own’. Using Tucker’s work, we hope our anger may be framed and redirected by Carmichael’s convocation to engage the contemporary ‘white rage’ we heard so much about throughout the election, whether we identify it only in rural and working class populations, or also amongst Wall Street and college educated folk. Like any other racial construct, we of course understand that being or feeling ‘white’ is a fluid and complicated thing, unlike recent election polls or marketing statistics would have us believe. Always excluding African-Americans and moving at painfully slow rates from its English-American roots to gradually accept German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, White-Hispanics, and other groups, the concept has shifted back-and-forth historically to both exclude and include specific minorities in the US saga of racial oppression and emancipation.

If you would like to organize similar Anger Therapy Sessions at other campuses or anywhere else, like or follow the FHI Social Practice Lab Facebook page and write to us there, or contact lab director Pedro Lasch. We would like to help make this a national effort.

Panthers, Patriots, and Poetries in Revolution by Mark Nowak

This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Mark Nowak in order to contextualize the poems written by the Young Patriots Organization (reproduced here in a chapbook by Society Editions) which served as an inspiration for the commissioned visual and performance art and poems presented throughout the exhibition and events series.

Panthers, Patriots, and Poetries in Revolution
by Mark Nowak

A poem—

is first a dreamy note,

till it be wrote.

—Ed Mampel, from “A Poem,”

   Time of the Phoenix, Vol. 4


Literary history is a curious motherfucker.[1] Let’s take 1970, for example. On May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen open fire on a crowd of anti-war protestors at Kent State University. They kill four students––Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer––and wound nine others. Eleven days later, at Jackson State University in Mississippi, police fire approximately 400 rounds of bullets and buckshot into Alexandra Hall to quell a protest. They kill Phillip Gibbs, a junior and the father of an 18-month-old child, and James Earl Green, a high school senior.[2] Gil Scott-Heron releases his first album in 1970, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The album opens with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and its cover proclaims Scott-Heron a “New Black Poet.”

While events like Kent State, Jackson State, and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” produce ruptures and resistance across the American landscape, the Pulitzer Prize in poetry is given to Richard Howard’s Untitled Subjects. Composed during the social turbulence of the late 1960s, and officially released in 1969, Untitled Subjects is far from a thermometer of the times. In fact, Kirkus Reviews asserts that if it were Howard’s “intention to create a kind of historical almanac with fusty circumlocutions, garden party wit, and the flavor (rarely strained, though rarely infectious) of nineteenth century mores, obsessions, and somnolence, all done up in elaborate forms, mostly syllabic (oddly-enough, everything here could really be read as prose), then he has eminently succeeded.”[3] Indeed Howard’s book is hardly a volume of poetry with any intentions to stand in solidarity with the times or “bring the war home.”

The following year, in 1971, the accolades of institutional poetry (a.k.a., “Poetry”) grow slightly sharper political teeth. When W. S. Merwin learns that he’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his volume The Carrier of Ladders, he authors a brief notice, “On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize,” which is published in the June 3, 1971, edition of the New York Review of Books. Merwin opens by thanking the judges for their opinions about his work, but continues by asserting that after “years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington,” he is “too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.” He concludes by asking that his Pulitzer Prize money “be equally divided between Alan Blanchard . . . a painter who was blinded by a police weapon in California . . . and the Draft Resistance.”[4] One month later, in the pages of the same eminent magazine, Merwin’s Pulitzer response is chastised by none other than W. H. Auden as “an ill-judged gesture,” which “sounds like a personal publicity stunt.”[5] Merwin, as might be expected, publishes a retort to Auden that is also printed in the pages of the New York Review of Books.[6]

This is how literary history is played out at the apex of the pyramid: Reviews review; secret judges secretly judge; younger male poets, for reasons solid and self-serving, attempt to slay their Oedipal elders in the pages of esteemed New York City-housed literary monthlies; and the singular genius is isolated from the masses of creative workers, excessively celebrated and handsomely rewarded. The years under discussion here represent a watershed period for publications in the people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop. The poems produced in community spaces and published during this historical moment are not only more profoundly engaged in the political climate of this radical era than many of the celebrated and canonized volumes of the period, but also take on a more agitated, partisan stance. They are attempts to rewrite those “hidden episodes” of migration, war resistance, racism, police violence, sexism, and other struggles faced by poor and working people, particularly poor and working women of color.

So in contrast to a vertical and hierarchical literary landscape, the objective of what follows is not an engagement with the history of canonized poets and elite arts organizations, but the employment of what I’ve taken to calling a people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop. It is an analysis of more populist poetries produced during the same period by the non-canonized non-elite, including school children in Brooklyn, inmates at Attica prison in the months following the riots, and social movement activists from the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, and the Young Patriots Organization.

The term “people’s history” is, of course, borrowed from Howard Zinn’s monumental study A People’s History of the United States. In the book’s opening chapter, Zinn argues for a new conception of history that is both creative and emancipatory: “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.”[7] Similarly, then, a people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop is a creative literary history emphasizing ‘those hidden episodes of the past.’ It encompasses poems that deeply engage suppressed histories, resistance practices, agency, and solidarity among their community’s members.  

One significant example of this kind of people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop is The Voice of the Children, an anthology collected from community-based poetry workshops facilitated by June Jordan and Terri Bush in the late 1960s in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. In the book’s afterword, Jordan describes the founding of the workshop, its unstable funding and geography, and the type of students the workshop attracted: “At first we were sponsored by The Teachers and Writers Collaborative Program,” she writes. “Then, and ever since, we have continued on a volunteer basis, supported by the growing number of friends these Black and Puerto Rican teen-agers have gathered around them.”[8] Finding a space for these community-based youth workshops was never easy. Jordan goes on to note: “[W]e had some trouble finding a place of our own: someplace warm with a window, tables, and an outlet for the phonograph . . . But finally, The Church of the Open Door gave us a room of our own. Then Doctor White Community Center has given us a space where we can be together, working with, fighting with, words.”[9]

The young writers group met every Saturday, And though Jordan admits that Saturday’s were usually “no time for school,” she and Terri Bush “tried to set things so that the workshop would differ, as much as possible, from school.” For the Black and Puerto Rican teenagers who participated in their workshops, Jordan believed “school is mostly a burial ground for joy and promise. School is where these poets and writers are often termed ‘verbally deficient,’ or worse.’[10] One illustration of typical New York City public schools in the years leading up to the early 1970s can be found in Herb Kohl’s classic volume 36 Children. Kohl describes a school in which “there was no complete set of sixth-grade arithmetic books,” and social studies units are “full of stories about family fun in a Model T Ford.” In response to these textbooks, one of Kohl’s students responds: “It’s a cheap, dirty, bean school,” while another concludes that the books are “phoney.”[11]  Conditions like these were ubiquitous in the schools attended by June Jordan’s workshop participants.

Through poetry, however, Jordan’s workshop students were given an opportunity to address this locus of their lives. The poems published in The Voice of the Children are divided into five sections: “Politics,” “Observations,” “Blackness,” “Love and Nature,” and “Very Personal.” In “Politics,” 12-year-old Veronica Bryant writes a poem in which she asks, “why women can’t be president,” while David Clarke, Jr., 14, declares in a prose poem that “We Can’t Always Follow the White Man’s Way.” The predominantly rhyming couplets of “The Last Riot” by Vanessa Howard still ring true in our era of Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. Likewise, 10-year-old Christopher Meyer’s mordant examination of “Wonderful New York” moves from an opening stanza that describes the decaying cityscape:

The hypnotizing neon light

the street banks like garbage dumps

and the drunk vacuum cleaner

who suck up whiskey like air

to stanzas where he links global New York to his personal experiences of the city:

As New York provides a building for the U.N.

so shall it provide its cemetery

Invisible dangers are always around the corner,

as hell is around the corner for me.

While this is both a stark and fiercely political ending for anyone’s poem, it speaks even more vociferously when it comes from the pen and imagination of a child who has barely been in the world for a single decade.

Yet it isn’t only the “Politics” section where the political poems are to be found. For example, the “Observations” section includes writings on “The Lost Black Man,” “Children as Slaves,” and “I’m No Animal,” while the “Blackness” section includes a strong range of poetic subjects including “for Nina Simone wherever you are” by 15-year-old Linda Curry, young Miriam Lasanta’s “My Soul Speaks Spanish,” and the interrogative-laced, Black Arts–inspired “What’s Black Power?” by Loudel Baez, age 12:

Is Black power a knife in your back?

Is Black power winning a fight?

Is Black power killing a White?

Is Black power having a gang?

Is Black power getting high?

Is Black power wanting to die?

Or is Black power being proud,

standing out in the crowd,

standing with your fist held high?

This political tenor continues throughout the remaining sections of “Love and Nature” (with poems about the Vietnam War) and “Very Personal” (including a poem that employs the repetition of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s famous line, “i am waiting”). The Voice of the Children closes with a compelling haiku by 14-year-old Juanita Bryant—in which she reiterates the idea that is prevalent throughout the anthology—the idea that the personal is the political:

No friends nor enemies

cross my way

And isolated I will stay

Unfortunately, but not uncommon for political verse, The Voice of the Children is published in precisely the same year as the much more apolitical and playful Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch and the students of P.S. 61. Koch’s volume garners significant national attention (including a number of feature pieces in the New York Times, Life, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere). Koch’s affable approach, rather than the radical agency of Jordan’s The Voice of the Children, becomes a model for the poetry in the schools program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s and serves as the inspiration for literally hundreds of playful “wish” and “lie” and “dream” poems in anthologies published by state arts boards across the United States.[12] It becomes, quite simply, a Fordist model for the mass production of youth poetry. As Phillip Lopate argues in his assessment of Koch’s technique, “[T]here is still something mechanically induced about the hip, modernistic surface of many of the Wishes, Lies, and Dreams poems . . . This method is a fail-safe pedagogic machine for the mass production of surrealist metaphors.”[13]

By contrast to Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, the reception of The Voice of the Children is limited to a pair of brief, sober notices in the New York Times. On January 24, 1971, the Times publishes Eve Merriam’s response to three new books, which includes The Voice of the Children. Accompanying her review, titled “For Young Readers,” is an image of two darkened hands bound by shackles. Merriam opens her inept review by informing readers of the Times that, “Black consciousness-raising is an ambiguous phrase.” She contends that it can “suggest raising the level of consciousness among whites about blacks” (of course she opens with what the term might mean to white people) as well as “making blacks more self-aware.” She says almost nothing about Jordan’s book, instead opening with a lengthy quotation from Christopher Meyers’s poem “Wonderful New York,” cited above. She follows this with two more lengthy quotations from poems by Michael Goode and Vanessa Howard, then concludes with a single sentence of her own, “One can only echo what June Jordan states in her Afterword: ‘With all my heart, I wish the voices of these children peace and power.’” In the pages of the New York Times, the revolutionary agency of June Jordan’s The Voice of the Children will decidedly not be televised.

Ten months after Merriam’s dismissive notice, Martin Gansberg brings Jordan’s book back to the New York Times readership when he pens the project’s obituary. In “Voice of the Children Is Stilled,” Gansberg’s first sentence reproduces Merriam’s final statement on wishing the children’s voices “peace and power.” After a brief overview of the workshops, Gansberg informs readers that “[n]ow comes word that their writing workshop . . . has been stilled for lack of funds.”[14] After mentioning dried-up funding “from an earlier group called Writers Collaborative” and “some additional financial support when Holt, Rinehart & Winston gave the group an advance of several thousand dollars on the book,”[15] Gansberg concludes by citing poems already printed in Merriam’s earlier review, including those by Michael Goode and Carlton Minor. Gansberg terminates his death notice by quoting a single all-caps stanza from Minor:




In the end, the principal newspaper of New York City chooses to barely notice Jordan’s exceptional project while it thrives, but is seemingly all too happy to devote additional space for the project’s detailed obituary.

As the Koch anthology continues to be glorified in the press and in classrooms across the United States, numerous politically engaged poetry anthologies begin to appear in the first years of the 1970s, most receiving even less or poorer press coverage and classroom use than the Jordan-Bush anthology. In 1970, New York’s World Press releases Herbert Kohl and Victor Hernández Cruz’s magnificent anthology Stuff: A Collection of Poems, Visions, & Imaginative Happenings From Young Writers in Schools—Open and Closed. The following year, 5X Publishing in New York publishes a similarly noteworthy volume, Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin’ at You: An Anthology of the Sonia Sanchez Writers Workshop at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem. Grove Press releases yet another compelling anthology of youth poetry edited by Irving Benig in 1971, The Children: Poems and Prose from Bedford-Stuyvesant.[16] The following year, American Faculty Press releases Nicholas Anthony Duva’s outstanding collection of Jersey City middle school poets, Somebody Real: Voices of City Children.

Between the two reviews of June Jordan’s The Voice of the Children in the New York Times, radical protests begin to break out in the expanding US prison industrial complex. On August 21, 1971, prison guards at San Quentin open fire on and murder writer, activist, and Black Panther Party member George Jackson. The following morning, inmates at Attica State Prison in Western New York fast and hold a silent protest in response to Jackson’s murder.[17] Two weeks later, Attica inmates rebel and take the D-Yard (and up to fifty hostages). After four days of negotiation and standoff, Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller orders troops to retake the prison on September 13, which results in the death of 43 inmates and guards. While journalists are initially told that inmates slashed the throats of some of their victims and emasculated others, an independent coroner’s report later concluded that all had died from “a bullet that had the name Rockefeller on it.”[18]

Several months after the Attica revolt, Celes Tisdale, an assistant professor at Erie Community College in the nearby city of Buffalo, is invited to run a creative writing workshop at the prison. Tisdale’s journal entries from his first workshop at Attica on May 24, 1972, are divided into sections titled “Anticipation,” “Before the Great Wall,” and “Within.” The 6:15PM entry under “Within” reveals the deeper personal connection that the poetry teacher had to some of his new students at Attica: “The men are coming in now. I recognize some of them from the old days in Willert Park Projects and Smitty’s restaurant where I worked during the undergraduate days. They seem happy to see me but are properly restrained (strained?).”[19] Tisdale finds something quite different from the media’s portrayal of rebelling inmates who were supposedly slashing throats and severing genitalia during the Attica rebellion. “Their sensitivity and perception were so intense,” Tisdale writes, “that each Wednesday night, I came home completely exhausted.”[20]

Two years after Tisdale’s initial workshop at Attica, Detroit’s Broadside Press publishes an anthology of the participants’ poems, as well as Tisdale’s journal entries, in Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica. In my reading of poems from Betcha Ain’t, I want to draw on Joy James’s essential work on the “(neo)slave narrative,” a term she initially borrows from John Edgar Wideman’s introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Love from Death Row. For James, (neo)slave narratives “reflect the languages of master, slave, and abolitionist.” The battle between these three subject positions “created the language of the fugitive or incarcerated rebel—the slave, the convict.”[21] When addressing the long literary history of the (neo)slave prison narrative, James asserts that:

Through their narratives, imprisoned writers can function as progressive abolitionists and register as “people’s historians.” They become the storytellers of the political histories of the captives and their captors. These narratives are generally the “unauthorized” versions of political life, often focusing on dissent and policing and repression.[22]

A single-stanza poem by Brother Amar (George Robert Elie), “Forget?,” certainly registers as having been written by a “people’s historian” of the Attica revolt, offering readers, as James asserts, an “unauthorized version” of political life in the prison while “focusing on dissent and policing and repression”:

They tell us to forget Golgotha we tread

    scourged with hate because we dared

to tell the truth of hell

    and how inhuman it is within.

Inmate Isaiah Hawkins addresses the bloodiest day of the revolt, September 13, 1970, in his poem “13th of Genocide,” while Mshaka (Willie Monroe) writes of the Attica rebellion’s aftermath in “Formula for Attica Repeats”:

. . . . . and when

the smoke cleared

they came aluminum paid


from Rock/The/Terrible,


of S.O.S. Collect Calls,


They came tearless,


apologetic grin factories

that breathed Kool


and state-prepared speeches.

They came

like so many unfeeling fingers

groping without touching

the 43 dead men

who listened…

threatening to rise


Other poems in the collection also examine this bloody massacre, including Christopher Sutherland’s “Sept. 13” and Sam Washington’s “Was It Necessary?.” The writers in Tisdale’s Attica workshop were certainly becoming, in James’ configuration, “the storytellers of the political histories of the captives and their captors,” perhaps none with such force as John Lee Norris’s poignant, lyrical, and ultimately devastating poem, “Just Another Page (September 13–72)”:

A year later

And it’s just another page

And the only thing they do right is wrong

And Attica is a maggot-minded black blood sucker

And the only thing they do right is wrong

And another page of history is written in black blood

And old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed their sons

And the consequence of being free…is death

And your sympathy and tears always come too late

And the only thing they do right is wrong

       And it’s just another page.

In this atmosphere of a vibrant people’s poetry surfacing everywhere from community centers in Brooklyn to prison classrooms in Attica during the early 1970s, is it all that surprising that revolutionary organizations of the same historical period begin documenting their encounters with racism, sexism, state repression, police violence, and the war in Vietnam through poetry? For the remainder of this essay, I’d like to look briefly at the writings of other “people’s historians” in a coauthored volume by two members of the Black Panther Party and a poetry anthology by women in the Weather Underground, then conclude by examining a bit more deeply the verse collected in four volumes of Time of the Phoenix, a poetry magazine/pamphlet of writings by members of the Young Patriots Organization, the Rainbow Coalition, and fellow travellers in the early- to mid-1970s.

The connection between the United States prison industrial complex and the Black Panther Party and other radical movements runs deep—even as it relates to poetry. As Amy Washburn argues in “The Pen of the Panther: Barriers and Freedom in the Prison Poetry of Ericka Huggins,” incarcerated Panthers like Huggins regularly turned to poetry not as an escape, but as a form of ongoing activism. Huggins spent three years, 1969–72, in prison at Niantic State Farm for Women, often in solitary confinement. According to Washburn, Huggins wrote regularly while in prison and “nurtured her devotion to revolution behind bars by writing about the deplorable social conditions she and her community experienced.”[23] Some of these writings were eventually released by acclaimed San Francisco publisher City Lights Books under the title Insights & Poems, a volume that also includes writings by Panther cofounder Huey Newton.

One of Huggins’s poems in Insights, “A Reflection on Niantic,” is a musing on prison life and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color that Michelle Alexander has cogently dubbed The New Jim Crow.[24] Huggins’ poem opens by reflecting on the myriad ways in which she experiences “brown” at Niantic:


fall the leaves of

golden yellow on

cold ground

brown the feet

of the dispossessed

  brown around

  the asphalt

that darkens the


Though the leaves themselves maintain a golden yellow—or do so at least momentarily in their autumnal transition in the Connecticut landscape—everything else is either described with the color brown or by words like “asphalt” or “darkens.” In the lines that follow, Huggins sets this symbolic and politicized “brown” in a dialectical relationship to whiteness: “the winter comes/brown is covered/ with snow/ and heavy prison coats.” These lines suggest several possible readings. In one, Huggins is simply documenting the changing landscape; the fallen leaves are being covered by winter snow as prisoners don winter coats in the inclement weather. In an alternate reading that incorporates race and struggle, the “heavy prison coats” represent the prison guards themselves, whose whiteness covers and attempts to silence the prisoners.

Huggins brings her reflection on life at Niantic State Farm for Women to a close by invoking the solidarity of sisterhood and re-invoking the symbolic color brown:

my sisters linger in the night air

  hover by the door

     handcuffed or not

the jail holds their bodies—brown;

  holds their minds—blue.

Throughout her writings in Insights & Poems, Ericka Huggins becomes a “people’s historian” of Niantic, documenting the struggles of the incarcerated women while employing the poem as a mode of activism and resistance. As Washburn asserts, “Repositioning women’s political and cultural work with the black power/liberation movement shows a fuller, more inclusive vision of this historical period.”[25] Likewise, Huggins’s poetry demonstrates “the role aesthetic productions played for black women as critiques of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in ways they could not do politically, socially, and economically due to [their] imprisonment.”[26]

Sing a Battle Song: Poems by Women in the Weather Underground Organization, an anthology written and published during the same period as Newton and Huggins’s Insights & Poems, illustrates other facets of the early 1970s political climate and the importance of alternative aesthetic practices. The untitled, anonymous introduction to Sing a Battle Song, dated January 1975, outlines how a collection of poetry penned by “people’s historians” might be distinguished from the poetry of elite institutions. “We are not professional poets,” the authors of the introduction declare. “We prepared this book of poetry as cultural workers, striving to create poems which are accessible to the people and responsible to the struggle.”[27] This configuration of a poetics of accessibility, responsibility, and struggle is significant here; it establishes a poetics distinct from institutional poetry and centers poetic practice as a tool of people’s active resistance.

The women of the Weather Underground—inspired, as they declare in their introduction, by radical women poets like Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Judy Grahn, and Diane di Prima (none of whom have ever receive accolades like the Pulitzer)—sought to engage what so much poetry of accessibility, responsibility, and struggle attempts to do: work between the first person singular (“I”) and the first person plural (“We”), while simultaneously allowing space for both individual voice and group solidarity within a creative process. The writers of the introduction inform us that each poem is written by a woman who is an individual, yet they go on to highlight that each poem was also workshopped; each poem was  “discussed collectively: praised and criticized for its content, its craftswomanship, its effectiveness.” Overall, the women poets of the Weather Underground sought “to integrate individual and collective energies” as a means to “develop and improve” women both individually and as a collective social force.[28]

Contemporary literary history and criticism rarely examines the poetry of people’s historians. Though recent volumes like Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America are beginning to pay critical attention to more populist forms of poetry, the tenor of most literary criticism is seldom anything but derisive. Reviewing the reprint of Sing a Battle Song in the Guardian, for example, British poet and book reviewer Ian Pindar can only muster up a three-word phrase to describe the poetry of the women of the Weather Underground, dismissing it as “hectoring feminist verse.”[29]

Against this widespread dismissiveness, I see a distinctive range of poetries at work in Sing a Battle Song. Some of it employs themes and strategies from progressive women poets, such as Muriel Rukeyser and her attention to “the road” and the nation-state in “The Book of the Dead: The Road.” The anonymous poet who wrote “People’s War” (Summer 1972) that was published in Sing a Battle Song, for example, talks about “the same road,/built and then destroyed and rebuilt,” as well as “invisible trails . . . the path/where headlights would betray,” and “The streets/lined with legless beggars.” In one central section, the poem uses the symbol of the road in relation to US imperialism in the context of the Vietnam War:

What is the road?

The Americans mark it on the map

a known line –

But its measure lies in other dimensions…

The poet uses the opening interrogative to engage the reader (again, this idea of accessibility) followed by a line that critiques United States’s dominance and aggression. The use of “line/lie” in the third and forth lines of the stanza follow the opening question by examining whether the line marked by Americans is yet another imperial inscription, another one of the compounding lies of the US government during the Vietnam War, or something inaccessible (“in other dimensions”) about US involvement in the war. This brief excerpt even engages several of the categories of the poem itself (line/measure) to reflect on the larger context and connotations of poetic composition.

The interrogative is a mode frequently employed in many poems whose poetics are grounded in accessibility, responsibility, and struggle. In Sing a Battle Song, poems like “Venom II,” written during the winter of 1974, pose significant questions like “What turns class hatred/inside out?” and “What is the bridge to you?” I find these persuasive inquiries to be irreconcilable with the notion of a ‘hectoring feminist verse.’ Additionally, to cite but one example, the opening stanza of “Venom II” appears to me as concise and well-crafted an opening to a poem as one might find in any issue of an institutional literary journal like Poetry magazine from the early 1970s:

I wonder about the


work-worried women

in cloth coats and curlers

spitting hate

in Birmingham or Boston.

Yet in the end, it’s never a question of whether poems such as these might somehow be on par with poems of the literary establishment. Quite the opposite. The objective of the “craftswomanship” of “Venom II” isn’t about entering the literary canon. In response to the question “What is the bridge/to you?” the author of “Venom II” inscribes a two-line response which also serves as the conclusion to the poem: the bridge is an action, i.e., “our struggle/to reveal it.”

Although the poems of Ericka Huggins and the women of the Weather Underground have been published and reprinted by progressive presses like City Lights on the West Coast and Seven Stories on the East Coast, the vast body of poems published in Time of the Phoenix, a journal that emerged out of the Young Patriots Organization, have received almost no attention until now. Nevertheless, the poetry published across the four issues of Time of the Phoenix (1970-1976) leaves a vast repository by “people’s historians” on struggles with poverty, police violence, migration, and more, all in verse form.

Formed in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s, the Young Patriots Organization (YPO) was part of a “vanguard of the dispossessed.”[30] Its members were raised in Appalachia, and the organization’s politics were inspired by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. In Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, authors Amy Sonnie and James Tracy assert that the YPO “may have formed with or without the direct influence of the Chicago Panthers, but there is no doubt that the Black Panther Party lent primary inspiration, theoretical framework and a programmatic model to the Uptown organization.”[31] And while members of the YPO were involved in varied activities such as creating breakfast programs and health clinics, several Patriots, including one of the YPO’s founders, Doug Youngblood, “worked most of his ideas out in poetry and political essays.”[32] The pages of each issue of Time of the Phoenix suggest that many other Patriots and fellow travellers in the early years of the 1970s turned to poetry, too.

The inaugural issue of Time of the Phoenix included a wide range of poetic styles and themes. The Patriots members’ Appalachian roots were celebrated in poems like Georgia Atkins’s “A Southern Band of People” and Ruth Gorton’s “Mountaineers are Always Free.” An emergent feminist critique is inscribed in poems like Gorton’s “You Think ’Cause I’m a Woman” and others like it, many of them in poetic solidarity with poems by the women in the Weather Underground from the same historical period.

One of the more multifaceted poems of the first issue, a poem that engages many of the themes discussed throughout this essay as well as one of the first in Time of the Phoenix to discuss poverty and the political state of Uptown Chicago, is Patricia Gonterman’s “Apathy, Confusion & A Wee Bit O’ Irony.” The poem opens by addressing an array of issues including prisons, cops, schools, alcoholism, and murder:

Did you hear, Mary Scott had a boy?

When the jailer tells Billy Rand he’ll jump for joy!
The police beat up on the boy down the way;

What with delinquency as it is, it happens every day.

The drunk left his wife again. He comes back every year,

Then goes when she’s expecting another kid.

Last night in the alley a man was shot;

It’s another old story, around here it happens a lot.

Gonterman’s poem continues to expand its reach across social issues like welfare and social services: “That nice couple got their kids taken away./Welfare came and grabbed them.” She includes a stanza about a hospital that refuses to treat a wino (“Guess they didn’t know he’d die”), and then she turns to one of Uptown’s largest problems, the lack of safe, clean, and affordable housing:

A rat bit the Bots boy on the face,

The housing shortage is a shame,

They’re still trying to find another place.

In the very next line, the narrator informs readers that her taxes have gone up: “I guess the government needs the money/For war and such.” This is followed by a stanza on two more boys who got shot, a stanza on the Vietnam War, then a concluding longer stanza that brings together themes such as police violence on college campuses with a feminist critique of the everyday lives of women in Uptown:

Yesterday the downstate college had another riot.

The police broke in and a few people got hurt,

At least today everything is quiet.

The world sure is in a mess,

Sure wish there was something I could do;

Well, better go home and cook, I guess.

The second issue of Time of the Phoenix, published in 1972, likewise contains poems that return to the Appalachian themes of the inaugural issue. Michael Browning’s “The Coal Miner’s Kid,” for example, paints a stark picture of the generational cycle of coal mining in rural Appalachia. Readers are introduced to “the pot-bellied coal miner’s kid” who’s been “[b]orn through ignorance and reared in poverty.” The child’s landscape is bleak amidst “[c]rumbling, rotten tipples,” the “dark, worked-out mine shafts,” and “a boarded-up commissary/and his playgrounds.” We learn in the next stanza that the local school was “burned down and never rebuilt.” The poem concludes with the repetitious life cycle that is unfortunately produced by this kind of Appalachian upbringing:

His security rests in a broken, pension-drawing

miner, coughing too hard

and drinking too much,

who tells about when this deserted,

poverty-ridden camp was booming and full of miners —

all working and spending and never saving.

With never enough clothes or food or money,

the coal miner’s kid lives and grows

and finally digs coal for his own kid.

It’s like an illustration out of some Appalachian version of Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Browning’s poem encapsulates the geography, desperation, and “people’s histories” that so many of the Patriots escaped, only to find a different kind of desperation and poverty in the North. Although Issue 2 of Time of the Phoenix includes fewer poems on Appalachia than the inaugural volume, it begins to directly address the place that was becoming YPO members’ new home in 1972, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

The second issue opens with poems like J. Schmidt’s “The Uptown Woes” and Robert Emerine’s “Inner City.” Later in this issue, poems like Jean Tepperman’s “New in Uptown” and particularly her serial poem “October Uptown,” inscribe the new poverty of the industrialized north. After an opening section on a “Little boy smoking/With hill colored hair” who watches the Uptown traffic, we learn of the “Helpless hearing” of the new urban poor who can hear their “landlord/shut the furnace/At ten o’clock/The night of the first/frost.” Tepperman’s poem concludes with the solitary loneliness of this new Chicago geography:


The light in the room

Darkens the street’s dusk

If I can just see

Through the night

Maybe someone

Will walk up the sidewalk

For me.

The mountains and the coal tipples are gone, replaced by the isolation of Uptown’s poverty and a people some called “simply too poor to organize.”[33]

If Issue 2 of Time of the Phoenix signaled a move away from the central theme of Appalachia to poems grounded more in the geography and politics of Uptown, Issue 3 of the magazine saw a move away from the predominance of the “hillbilly nationalist” theme toward a wider inclusivity of poets from the “vanguard of the dispossessed.” Early in the issue, two poems by Jesus Ledesma initiate this transition. The first of these poems, “Life in the Streets,” illustrates Uptown from a perspective readers would not have seen in the first two issues of Time of the Phoenix:

Life in the streets ain’t too cool

’Cause you always have someone who wants to

Make a fool or burn you. You drink a little

then you get busted for a bullshit charge

Like disorderly conduct. You want to cop some

Tea? Then you get burned, then you find him

And beat his head, not for takin your money

But it makes you lose your pride if

You don’t do nothing about it. Then you go

Home with blood on your hands and your mother

Says, “Que pasa, hijo, you fighting again.

Que pasa you got no corazon.  all you do is fight.”

And your sister’s crying ’cause she knows

What is happening.  Wait till tu padre comes

from work.  and all you say is “I had a fight

con some blancos.” “tu un malo muchacho”  “mira

La sangre.”  and you say, “forget it, I’m going

To bed after I wash up.” “Life in the streets”

A number of other poems in the third issue of the journal offer visions of Uptown from the perspective of Black and Puerto Rican writers such as Victor Rosa’s “I’m a Proud Puerto Rican.” This transition continues through issue four of the magazine as well in poems like Alfredo Matias’s “Where Are The Latin Poets?”; several poems by David Hernandez (who would later go on to become Chicago’s unofficial poet laureate); Eduardo Condes’s “Tecato’s Dream,” and others. Perhaps this range of poetic styles, languages, and modes of address comes to full engagement in “Bla-Bla” by Cesar Quinones, which appears toward the end of this final issue of Time of the Phoenix:

La monja habla habla


el colr a manto azota


el cristo se derrota


Ante el pecado de otro


Nubes grises de anti-cristo


derrumbando un tonto mito


que no aplica ni revela


ni a los tiempos ni a los hombres


¿Hán de callar la materia?


¿Pára sublemizar el espiritu?



bla, bla, bla

tan solo bla bla.

Yet this is not to say that the YPO poets ever left Appalachia and its mountaineers completely behind. If “memory is a motherfucker,”[34] the writers published in the final two issues of Time of the Phoenix also kept the people’s history of Appalachia alive in the public memory for years after they’d migrated north. In Issue 3, for example, Shelva Thompson’s poem “The Hyden Disaster” re-examines the death of 38 miners in the Finley Mine Disaster in southeastern Kentucky in December 1970. And in Issue 4, Kathleen Sowers’ “The Legacy of My Father” is a moving elegy to everything left behind when an elderly miner and family patriarch dies, including both a literal and symbolic mountain of memories:

My father left us a log house built by him

in a hollow in Emlyn, Kentucky.

An acre of ground to grow our food

A gold spring that ran from an under-

ground source purified by rocks

over which it ran.

A corncrib on high stilt legs covered with

tin to keep out the rats.

A loving mother who would never forsake us,

and, best of all

he left us a mountain.

The four issues of Time of the Phoenix present a vast array of remembrances of Appalachian culture as well as the political and social adjustments to and challenges within the poverty and violent policing of the urban north in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. They also illustrate the simultaneous establishment of the Appalachian-centered poetics of the early YPO and the expansion into a much more expansive “vanguard of the dispossessed” in the issues that followed. Finally, the poems published in Time of the Phoenix offer a varied and persuasive display of a poetics of accessibility, responsibility, and struggle on nearly every page.

This brief look at a people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop by schoolchildren in Brooklyn, prisoners at Attica, and activists in the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, and the Young Patriots Organization suggests that poetry in the early 1970s broke significant new ground in audience, authorship, and agency. It opens a range of questions about social movement spheres in which poetry might have been a tactic in other struggles of the era. For example, how might poetry have been used by postal workers in the US Postal Workers strike of 1970, by farmworkers in Delano during the UFW grape boycotts, by textile workers at the Farah Garment Factory in El Paso, by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and organizations like DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) in Detroit, and countless other resistance movements by workers and the working poor?[35] My guess is that we still have an incredible amount to discover about the uses of poetry by social movements, with the poetic practices of the Panthers, Patriots, and others examined here leading the way.

About the Author

Mark Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, is an award-winning poet, social critic, and labor activist, whose writings include The New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” Shut Up Shut Down (2004, afterword by Amiri Baraka), and the acclaimed book on coal mining disasters in the US and China, Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), that Howard Zinn called “a stunning educational tool.” He directs both the MFA program at Manhattanville College and the Worker Writers School at the PEN American Center.


1 With a nod to the opening of Bill Ayers’s Fugitive Days: A Memoir (“Memory is a motherfucker,” p. 8).

2 Wyckoff, Whitney Blair. “Jackson State: A Tragedy Widely Forgotten.” <;.

3 “Untitled Subjects,” Kirkus Reviews. <;.

4 Merwin, W. S. “On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize,” New York Review of Books (June 3, 1971). <;.

5 Auden, W. H. “Saying No,” New York Review of Books (July 1, 1971). <;.

6 Merwin, untitled reply to Auden, New York Review of Books (July 1, 1971). <;.

7 Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), p. 10–11.

8 Jordan, June and Terri Bush, eds. The Voice of the Children (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.: 1970), p.   94.

9 Ibid., p. 95.

10 Ibid.

11 Kohl, Herbert. 36 Children (New York: Signet, 1968), p. 19–20.

12 “Wish” poems begin to densely populate state-sponsored poetry in the schools anthologies almost immediately after the publication of Koch’s anthology. To cite but two examples from different regions of the country: Measure Me, Sky: The South Carolina Arts Commission Anthology of Student Poetry for the Poetry-in-the-Schools Program (1972) includes numerous wish poems; likewise, the inaugural publication of the Arkansas poets-in-the-schools program, i used to be a person (1973–74), is saturated with Koch-inspired wish, lie, and dream poems.

13 Lopate, Phillip. “The Balkanization of Children’s Writing,” The Lion and the Unicorn, 1.2 (1977), p. 101–02.

14 Gansberg, Martin. “Voice of the Children is Stilled,” New York Times (Nov. 7, 1971), A18.

15 I believe Writers Collaborative here refers to Teachers and Writers Collaborative. And while I couldn’t locate a source, it seems likely that the advance was a payment to the book’s editors, not direct financial support of their workshop.

16 In the intro to The Children, Benig says that his decision to teach in Bed-Stuy was motivated by the war in Vietnam: “Someone told me that teachers teaching under the auspices of the Board of Education of the City of New York don’t get drafted; that is, if they teach in a “bad” area, Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant… The bloodied hands of Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and W.W. Rostow, clutched at me and, with my tail between my legs, I chose the Board of Education” (p. vii–viii).

17 Wicker, Tom. A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011; first published by Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1975), p. 315.

18 Ibid., p. 301.

19 Tisdale, Celes (ed.). Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica. (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974), p. 51.

20 Ibid., p.12.

21 James, Joy (ed.). The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. xxv.

22 Ibid., p. xxxii.

23 Washburn, Amy. “The Pen of the Panther: Barriers and Freedom in the Prison Poetry of Ericka Huggins,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 8.2 (2014), p. 56.

24 As Alexander notes, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” In Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), p. 6.

25 Washburn, “The Pen of the Panther,” p. 71.

26 Ibid., p. 71–72.

27 Dohrn, Bernadine, with Bill Ayers and Jeff Jones, eds. Sing A Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970–1974. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), p. 74.

28 Ibid., p. 74.

29 Ian Pindar, “Weather Reports,” Guardian, Jan. 20, 2007. <;.

30 Sonnie, Amy and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), p. 3.

31 Ibid., p. 69.

32 Ibid., p. 72.

33 Ibid., p. 4.

34 See Footnote #1.

35 For an overview of these and other labor struggles in the 1970s, see Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. And for one source of poetry’s engagement in Detroit’s revolutionary union movements, see Marvin Surkin and Dan Georgakas’s classic, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (A Study in Urban Revolution), which includes several workers’ poems.


Bobby Lee’s Hands by Fred Moten

The following piece was written for the Organize Your Own catalog and draws inspiration from a scene in the film American Revolution 2 (Directed by Mike Gray and Howard Alk, U.S.A., 1969). Here is the clip excerpted for your context:

bobby lee’s hands [1]

by Fred Moten

don’t lay back on cuts, man

Held in the very idea of white people, in the illusion of their strength, in the fantasy of their allyship, in the poverty of their rescue, in the silliness of their melancholy, in the power of their contacts, in the besotted rejection of their impossible purity, in the repeated critique of their pitiful cartoon, is that thing about waiting for vacancy to shake your hand while the drone’s drone gives air a boundary. Don’t be a ghost, be a spirit, Baraka said, in a movie about white people, the socially dead. Can the socially dead organize their own? What are the socially dead, anyway? This is an ontological inquiry only insofar as it’s concerned with what it is, or what it would be, to have an ontological status. What it would be to have an ontological status, and know it, is what it would be to be a white person. In that condition, that particulate dream, which is the eternally prefatory’s tired aftermath, one is what it is to persist in having begun interminably to wait on being one. Such a one, that one who is not one but wants to be, is a ghost. How do you stop being a ghost? How do you stop being political in Lincoln Park? One must imaginatively practice oneself away into a whole other mode of service, Uptown’s collective head, speak ‘em up and say ‘em now.

For a minute, the mountains in Chicago—having come from nowhere but the gap, from undermelungeonal elsewhere in nowhere in the gap, already more and less than by themselves or as themselves, having brought the modern to the city in Junebug’s homily and Preacherman’s homeless vespers—had enough of waiting on being white. Sent to this in order to be sent by it, along with all that gathering he carries that always be carrying him, was Robert E. Lee, III. The resurrector, having risen again to serve insurrection, didn’t have a slave name, he had a ghost name, so they would recognize him. It’s like in this buried clearing of the afterlife the ministers of espionage are Saul Alinsky and Jackie Mabley, but just for a minute, but you couldn’t even time it, and it really had no place, just an irregular displacement of Sabbath in a clearing dug out of a chapel. There’s a movie of this open secret movement but by the time the watching started, there were more watching, hunting, droning, than destroying and rebuilding. Even the movie couldn’t frame it, but for a minute, more than having had enough of being dispossessed, the mountains give away what they would have been, which was held out to them and away from them as what they awaited, ghosts of the brutally unborn in settlement. Giving up the ghost was given in his exhaustion—in showing, in showing up, his already having given himself away in having come. Sister Ruby couldn’t even look at him, at them, at what he and she were doing simply in their presence,

the panthers are here

                                    are here

the panthers are here


                                                                                          for uptown

                                                      for anyone who lives in uptown.

 We’re here for you, we’re here to be used by you, says Bobby Lee, deep in the history of the slave revolt. What the mountains were trying to relinquish was not a privilege but a death sentence, continually executed in their own pronouncement of it and in their waiting, when the poor interdict an unowned theater of their own. You can’t love nobody but the poor, he says. For it is given to the poor not only to be the object of that sentence but also to object to it, in preferment of their own miraculous showing. The generality of that precarity is our privilege, if we let it claim us. What whiteness seeks to separate, blackness blurs by cutting, in touch. The movie about the movement keeps the secret it reveals. The ruptural caress is on the cutting room floor or, deeper still, is underground. His hand waves in exasperation at people laying back in cuts. His hand presses someone’s shoulder. Uptown can’t improvise without contact, we not movin’, man, let’s move, we can’t move. In the cut, laying back on cuts is given to dance in a laying on of hands, we can’t move without you, and we’re on the other side, in sufferance of an already given rupture, in lightly hugging someone’s neck just like a shawl. This practice of serrated handing, animation given in the disruption of the dead body’s protection, struggle shared in tousle and massage, message come in touch, having claimed them, having come to be claimed by them, having come to show them, having come to see them to believe, is how the mountains became his own to organize, how they became what belongs to what’s over the edge of belonging. They had to bear some whole other way of bearing and being borne so they could leave their own (ghostliness) behind, becoming something other than what they were not, something other than what they were waiting on. The panthers are here, are here, the panthers are here and, for a minute, the mountains move.

well, he know how to cut yards

For a minute. This interlude in curacy, between a juke joint in Jasper and the Fifth Ward’s gardens, is special now because of the richly alternative way some differences are felt. When interlude becomes impasse then a way out is held in knowing how to cut by touching. And do you know a lot of people don’t know how to cut yards? They don’t know how to cut yards. But when he fix it it’s so pretty. I love for him to do my yard. But what I don’t like about him, he don’t wanna take no money. He cuts yards by touching, by a kind of tenderness sown on every weed, as if he serves at the weeds’ pleasure, as if passage is booked in love with the idea of taking her out to dinner. You can’t build no block club by not doing something for folks. How else can you know who are your own, the owned, the held, the held away, in shoes so they can walk to heaven, which is on the street where they live? Turning left and right toward itselflessness, gently refusing laying back on cuts, knowing how to cut yards, you go and start chattin’. There’s an endless, insistently previous preview of our work in progress that is held, handed, in touch, in feel(ing) and there’s no need to wonder about the ghostly individual and his view. Seeing himself everywhere and calling it politics, he would—in the power of his gaze—be complete and indivisible, out of touch in self-possessed, self-picturing monocularity. Meanwhile, Bobby Lee is this other thing in tactile dispersion, practicing that haptic, active, organic Phantasie where one sees, because one is, nothing at all. It’s nothing. It ain’t no thing. Selflessness ain’t about nobility or even generosity. The substance of its ethics is of no account, no count off, no one two, just a cut and then people be grooving. It’s not about friendship with others, either. Society is not companionship or friendly association with others; it’s companionship or friendly association without others, in the absence of the other, in the exhaustion of relational individuality, in consent not to be a single being. Bobby Lee is another name we give to the xenogenerosity of entanglement: the jam, that stone gas, a block club in a block experiment, an underpolitical block party, a maternal ecology of undercommon stock, in poverty, in service, genius in black and blur.


[1] This writing is indebted, and seeks to respond, to two films, each of which contain a scene, a view, of an extraordinary force that, in these particular manifestations, is known as Bobby Lee, an inveterate sociality in defiance of portraiture. The films are American Revolution 2 (1969), co-directed by Mike Gray and Howard Alk for The Film Group and Mike Gray’s The Organizer: A Preview of a Work in Progress (2007). They are both to be found on Facets Video DV 86930, 2007.

Fred Moten is author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press), Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works), B. Jenkins (Duke University Press), The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions) and coauthor, with Stefano Harney, of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions/Autonomedia). His current projects include two critical texts, consent not to be a single being (forthcoming from Duke University Press) and Animechanical Flesh, which extend his study of black art and social life, and a new collection of poems, The Little Edges. Moten served as a member of the Board of Managing Editors of American Quarterly and has been a member of the Editorial Collectives of Social Text and Callaloo, and of the Editorial Board of South Atlantic Quarterly. He is also cofounder and copublisher (with Joseph Donahue) of a small literary press called Three Count Pour.

The Book Is Here

Many thanks to all who came out to our events in Philadelphia and Chicago last month to release Organize Your Own. We are pleased to announce the book is now available for mail order through our publisher Soberscove Press. Thanks to all who contributed their time and energy to this project! Thanks especially to our designer Josh MacPhee, editor Anthony Romero, publisher Julia Klein of Soberscove, and the funders from Columbia College Chicago’s Leviton Gallery and Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

img_2241Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements

Published by Sobsercove Press (2016)

247 Pages

Edited by Anthony Romero, based on the project curated by Daniel Tucker

Designed by Josh MacPhee

The book, Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements, features new work by contemporary artists, poets, and writers that relates to the Black Power movement’s mandate to “organize your own” community against racism. Exploring the question of what “your own” might mean, this book connects some of the concerns dealt with in the 1960s and ’70s to the conversations and social movements around racial justice happening today.

With contributions by: Amber Art & Design, Rashayla Marie Brown, Emily Chow Bluck, Billy “Che” Brooks, Salem Collo-Julin, Irina Contreras, Brad Duncan, Bettina Escauriza, Eric J. Garcia, Maria Gaspar, Thomas Graves, Robby Herbst, Jen Hofer, Aletheia Hyun-Jin Shin, Mike James, Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, Jennifer Kidwell, Antonio Lopez, Nicole Marroquin, Fred Moten, Matt Neff, Mark Nowak, Edward Onaci, Dave Pabellon, Mary Patten, Rasheedah Phillips, Anthony Romero, Frank Sherlock, Amy Sonnie, Hy Thurman, Thread Makes Blanket, James Tracy, Daniel Tucker, the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, Dan S. Wang, Jakobi Williams, Mariam Williams, Rosten Woo, Wooden Leg Print &amp; Press, Works Progress with Jayanthi Kyle, and Rebecca Zorach.


Major support for Organize Your Own has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from collaborating venues including The Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, Kelly Writers House’s Brodsky Gallery at University of Pennsylvania, Slought, Asian Arts Initiative, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and others.