The Need for “The Elders” (a poem by Mari Evans)

The great victory of the Civil Rights movement was not given to the African American community as a gift, but taken and won as a right by the African American community.

This month as I read the stories from those who overcame and are still overcoming, I was reminded that those who rose up and did justice are growing older. Now is the time to hear the stories they have to tell as they wish to tell them. This is especially true of those not honored in their time, but who did the work from hundreds of churches.

The story of the Civil Rights era is not just the story of a few heroes, but of a community rising up. This is not a story I can tell or should tell. It is a story that must be heard, however, while we can. Poets that knew the era are slipping away. The leaders are aging fast and the young people that overcame are now the elders. There is a greatest generation of heroes and we still have time to listen.

Even saying: “listen” may be too much from me.  Mari Evans, who died in 2017, tells a truth that can only be written from the inside, honored by all true Americans, possessed by those whose families they are:

 

 

The Elders 

With their bad feet 

and their gray hair

and Amazing Grace how sweet the sound

cardboard fan

with a colored family seasonal

gift from Baker’s Funeral Home

stirring heat and hallelujahs

No hiding place down here, son

I asked Jesus to change your name, child

help me Jesus 

through one more day

And, yesm’am, I don’t mind working late

again and nosir: I’m feeling fine

it be a long time before you need a 

young man t’work this job

And swing low sweet chariot Lawd

somewhere there’s a crown f’me 

Be our heritage

our strength

The way they moved from can to can’t

preparing the way

throwing down the road

Say want you to have more’n I had child

Say be more than I am, go

Go where there ain’t no limits

See you standing at the top a that mountain 

looking down

With their bad feet

and their gray hair

bony symbols of indomitable will

having trumphied over Goree

endured the MIddle Passage

survived cotton and cane

Branding iron and bull whip

crossed Deep River into Canaan

strode through dust bowl and depression.

Smiled through smoking Watts and

Newark, smoldering Detroit and

locked arms with young to sing

surely We Shall Overcome

And now

be saying Walk Together Children

we went through the undergrowth

with only cane knives and we

cut it down to size

Fight the fight, wage the wars

and win

It’s in y’blood

With their bad feet

and their gray hair

they be our heritage 

our strength 

Torn tents pitched 

at the foot of the mountain

having moved from can to can’t

they be our atonal treasure 

they be

our priceless charge

 

———————

Buy the book Continuum (Mari Evans) Just Us Books, 2014.


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