White Boy in Harlem
The sound took over, then the smells, then the cold, then the smoke.
Seven thirty in the morning, streets full of everyone
Like cops and good guys and bad guys and women and children
(But not so many) looting. Hometown markets, stores, shops.
Streets, New York streets, cold and gray, cloudy with smoke,
Buildings burning, owned by whites who owned Harlem,
Buildings burning, looters looting, churches filled, mourners mourning,
One day away from perfection. It seemed so close.
Lennox on fire, a vigorous, vivacious avenue, a target of vicious extreme,
On fire, storefronts smashed, pilfered, gashed.
NYPD, cops, like covens of doves, standing on every corner,
Noticing not to notice, keeping the peace, nurturing the dream.
The A train stops at 135th & Lennox with regularity, usually packed,
But not today, no one came but me. White boy in Harlem.
Up subway steps to the pitted sidewalks, spitted and plastered
With a hundred years of matted gum, multicolored gray.
The gum-shoes in blue winter overcoats, fog for breath,
Surround hapless white boy. Why was I here? Did I not hear?
Martin Luther King Jr. shot last night, shot dead a world away,
Yet Harlem was burning. Law-abiding citizens looting
In anger and celebration of Martin’s assassination. Watching in horror
And fascination as neighborhood folks passed by, slowly, without guilt
Or denial, carrying TVs, stereos, kitchen goods, clothing, food, baby stuff,
Bags of who-knows-what, while buildings burned, while Harlem burned.
Martin’s message of hope hung on a thin string of hope. We could not cope
With his vision, though some tried, a few died, Martin the last to find peace
In death as a killer’s bullet took his breath away, and him away,
And the message got twisted in Harlem as people torched their own town.
Cops stood by to keep the blood-lust cool. It worked while the people looted
Without harassment, missing the message, mixing the message with despair,
Personal loss and personal gain. No arrests were made. The pulpit played
Hallelujahs to its holy flock and prayed for a more civil right.
The night settled in, looting subsided, buildings collapsed in smoldering ruin.
Newly aquired TVs broadcast death of a leader, a man of will, a man of faith.
What will life be tomorrow? We feel in our sorrow a need to hide,
To not let others know our fear, our shame, our wistful hope.
© 2006 Thomas A. Ekkens
This poem is from my chapbook Horizon.
You can see the above illustration of the King Monument in our MLK Memorial section, which describes my 1999 entry for an international competition for the design of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Read more about this experience on the Schomburg Collection page.