The Poetry of Uprising – Baltimore

Since the unexplained death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents, activists, and community leaders have been protesting police brutality. Last week, clashes between the police and protestors led to familiar images—lines of police in riot gear arrayed against the people they are supposed to protect, the eyes swollen by tear gas, the tanks on city streets. Familiar, of course, because we’ve just seen all of this before in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere. For Baltimore (as for Ferguson), there are historical resonances, too, that for those of us who study the past are like the sound of a bell, calling us to do what we can to help contextualize these events. Baltimore public historian Eli Pousson has been collecting documentation of police brutality and the Civil Rights history of the city. Betsy Nix, a co-editor of the wonderful public history project and book Baltimore ’68, which examines the roots, events and aftermath of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, recently explored the relationship between past and present in Baltimore in this interview. Denise Meringolo, UMBC, has created a community archive to collect materials related to the uprising here to make sure that the histories that are written about this moment draw from more than official media narratives.

But what comes to my mind as I read the news or see the images in my Instagram feed is a poem published in a Baltimore literary magazine called Chicory from October 1967. Written by Tina Bracken, it is eerily familiar:

troubled sleep     night in the city

I went to bed but could not sleep
For I heard the sounds of the city
The sounds were many both shrill and deep
They went on and on without pity

I rose from bed to seek them out
The sounds that seemed so near
I saw two policeman chase and shout
Two youths who ran in fear
Slowly I closed the window shut
And wondered do others hear?

I went back to bed and fell asleep
Then during the night in a dream
I heard two shots and ambulance roar
A muffled cry a loud guffaw
In the morning I woke
To learn it was no dream
As I hoped and as it seemed

Her description of police harassment of young people, the shots and ambulances are haunting, but even more so is her question “do others hear?” We know that other people in her building and her street can hear, but who beyond that? Who in 1967 cared about what happened in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore? The editors of Chicory cared. The aides at the neighborhood center cared. Then, like now, the Enoch Pratt Free Library cared.

There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then. A magazine like Chicory, which began publication in 1966 with funding from the Community Action Agency under the auspices of the Enoch Pratt Free Library gave residents a forum through which to describe their experiences living in East Baltimore. And they did, making Chicory, now forgotten, a resource into the conditions that led to the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. In an untitled poem from the same issue the author, simba, quotes the New York Times description of “helmeted policemen using clubs and chemical sprays” against antiwar protestors. The author asks,

do you recognize them?
Seen ‘em before?
In Selma, on the tv, routing civil rights demonstrators?
And you turned the channel when it was over to ‘Gunsmoke’

acknowledging the use of state violence against all manner of protestors, whether in the civil rights movement or the anti-Vietnam War movement. But the clincher is that condemnation of American disinterest in politics—turning the tv channel to a show about the west, that symbolic terrain of colonialism—to avoid thinking about the present.

And aren’t these voices from 40 years in the past worth hearing today as a reminder that the conditions that we’re talking about now have long roots that reach back 40, 50, 60, 100, 200 years? A reminder that art is one way that poor people have contended with their marginalization and have claimed the right to tell their own stories in their own language? A reminder that when accused of being uncivilized, animalistic, thugs, the poor have responded with poems?

Chicory is also a reminder that we once lived in a world where the federal government invested in its people. Created with funding from the federal government’s War on Poverty, Chicory was published from 1966-1981. That ending date, soon after the ascension of Ronald Reagan’s austerity economics, is no coincidence. We are still living amidst the echoes of that austerity when cultural programs that literally cost pennies per taxpayer are cut in order to balance budgets overburdened by war and corporate welfare. Where today is the recognition that arts, culture and the humanities are not different from job training or economic development but are part of a holistic plan to insure the wellbeing of all our citizens? Where is our 21st century War on Poverty?

I hope that the uprisings in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, and every other city are the beginning of what historians will call the new civil rights movement. I hope that police departments reform so that they are not occupying forces in black and poor neighborhoods. But I also hope that these events can spark another conversation, one about poverty, policy and the interrelationship of art and culture in our future.

To explore more poetry from Chicory, click here.

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