| Special to The Columbus Dispatch
With his new book, Kwame Alexander — best-known for his works for children and teens — reaches out to an adult audience with three powerful poems addressing the struggles of Black Americans.
“Light for the World to See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope” is Alexander’s rap on race, a trio of works that serves as a lament, a call to arms and a celebration of Civil Rights and social justice leaders. Presented in reverse chronological order, the poems note the killing of George Floyd, the taking-a-knee protest of Colin Kaepernick and the election of the first African American president, Barack Obama.
The first poem, “American Bullet Points,” begins boldly with its title printed across yellow banners, suggesting crime-scene tape and crisscrossing against backdrops of black and white.
“We can’t see our home/we can’t breathe the air/we can’t break the chains/ we can’t run away,” Alexander begins and proceeds to deliver a litany of “can’ts” until the final “we can’t live but/we will not die.”
The daring, graphically designed interior of the book continues through the next two poems with large type and images such a clenched fist and American flags with crosses or Xs instead of stars.
“Take a Knee” repeats the verbal command with lines that reference Black victims of shootings, including Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Jamar Clark and others. “Taking Lives/takes a course/take a knee/take offense?” The poem weaves together the taking of Black lives with the taking up of a fight, concluding “now take a shot at not giving up on America.”
The final poem “The Undefeated,” is dated December 2008, just after Obama’s election. Rather than a celebration of his presidency, it is a paean to leaders and martyrs of social justice, “the dreamers and doers who swim across The Big Sea of our imagination/and show us the majestic shores of the promised land.”
Alexander’s book pays homage to James Baldwin’s 1966 article, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” written after police beatings of black children and a Puerto Rican in Harlem in 1964. And it pays homage to writers and civil-rights activists including Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, John Lewis and Arthur Miller, the New York civic leader who was choked to death by police in 1978.
After that event, as he writes in the book’s foreword, Alexander, then 10 years old, joined his father and classmates on a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Fearful at first, Alexander writes, he found courage and a voice “to speak up about what mattered: Black lives.”
Now 54 and a correspondent for National Public Radio, Alexander has written popular and award-winning books for young readers including “Swing,” “Rebound,” “The Undefeated” and “The Crossover,” a novel in verse that won the 2015 Newbery Medal for distinguished literature for children.
Clearly impacted by the incidents that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, Alexander describes “Light for the World to See” as this: “These three poems have been my balms. They are my chants, my psalms, my songs of protest.”
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