An Old Woman Remembers

This poem tells a story of the 1906 Atlanta riots.

Her eyes were gentle, her voice was for soft singing

In the stiff-backed pew, or on the porch when evening

Comes slowly over Atlanta. But she remembered.

She said: “After they cleaned out the saloons and the dives

The drunks and the loafers, the thought that  they had better

Clean out the rest of us. And it was awful.

They snatched men off of streetcars, beat up women.

Some of our men fought back and killed, too. Still

It wasn’t their habit. And then the orders came

For the milishy, and the mob went home,

And dressed up in their soldiers’ uniforms,

And rushed back shooting just as wild as ever.

Some leaders told us to keep  faith in the law,

In the governor; some did not keep that faith,

Some never had it; he was white, too, and the time

Was near election, and the rebs were mad.

He wasn’t stopping hornets with his head bare.

The white folks at the big houses, some of them

Kept all their servants home under protection

But that was all the trouble they could stand.

And some were put out when their cooks and yard-boys

Were thrown from cars and beaten, and came late or not at all.

And the police they helped the mob, and the milishy

They helped the police. And it got worse and worse.

“They broke into groceries, drugstores, barbershops,

it made no difference whether white or black.

They beat a lame bootblack until he died,

They cut an old man open with jackknives

The newspapers named us black brutes and mad dogs.

So they used a gun butt on the president

Of our seminary where a lot of folks

Had set up praying prayers the whole night through.

And then, “she said, “our folks got sick and tired

Of being chased and beaten and shot down.

All of a sudden, one day, they all got sick and tired

The servants they put down their mops and pans

And brooms and hoes and rakes and coachman whips,

Bad niggers stopped their drinking Dago red,

Good Negroes figured they had prayed enough,

All came back home–they had been too long away–

A lot of visitors had been looking for them.

They sat on their front stoops and in their yards,

Not talking much, but ready; their welcome ready:

Their shotguns oiled and loaded on their knees.


“And then

There wasn’t any riot anymore.”


by Sterling Brown


The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.
Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.
Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.
I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.
But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.
The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.
–Czeslaw Milosz (Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky)


Why are our ancestors

always kings and princes

and never the common people?

Was the Old Country a democracy

where every man was a king?

Or did the slave-catchers

steal only the aristocrats

and leave the fieldhands


street cleaners

garbage collectors

dish washers


and maids


My own ancestor

(research reveals)

was a swineherd

who tended the pigs

in the Royal Pigstye

and slept in the mud

among the hogs.

Yet I’m as proud of him

as of any king or prince

dreamed up in fantasies

of bygone glory.

–Dudley Randall