By Elizabeth Alexander
1. Walking (1963)
after the painting by Charles Alston
You tell me, knees are important, you kiss
your elders’ knees in utmost reverence.
The knees in this painting are what send the people forward.
Once progress felt real and inevitable,
as sure as the taste of licorice or lemons.
The painting was made after marching
in Birmingham, walking
into a light both brilliant and unseen.
The city burns. We have to stay at home,
TV always interrupted with fire or helicopters.
Men who have tweedled my cheeks once or twice
join the serial dead.
Yesterday I went downtown with Mom.
What a pretty little girl, said the tourists, who were white.
My shoes were patent leather, all shiny, and black.
My father is away saving the world for Negroes,
I wanted to say.
Mostly I go to school or watch television
with my mother and brother, my father often gone.
He makes the world a better place for Negroes.
The year is nineteen-sixty-eight.
Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, raised in Washington, D.C., and attended Yale University, where she now teaches African American Studies. She is the author of six books of poems, including most recently, “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010.” On Jan. 20, 2009, Alexander became just the fourth poet to recite an original poem at a U.S. presidential inauguration. Here is a recent conversation with her on Art Beat. Also, watch Alexander’s 2009 conversation with Jeffrey Brown.