Poetry and human rights have always been closely linked. In fact, Archibald MacLeish, one of the preamble drafters of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a poet as well as a politician. Unlike prose, the rules of poetry are meant to be bent and broken, allowing writers to use words like paint on a canvas. The result has a unique and powerful ability to provoke empathy. Many poets harness their talents to draw attention to the state of human rights and express deep, complex feelings. Here are five poems that speak to this art form’s relationship to human rights:
“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” – Maya Angelou
One of the most significant writers and activists of all time, Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is known for her poetry, memoirs, essays, and more. Her 1969 memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, explores her early life, which includes sexual abuse. Writing poetry and stories helped her cope with this experience. The poem “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” contrasts the lives of two birds – one free and one caged. The free bird represents white society in America while the caged bird is the black American. With his wings clipped and feet tied, all the bird can do is sing:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
This imagery can be applied to all marginalized groups held hostage by unfair systems. “Caged Bird” challenges the reader to hear the song and take action.
“Let America Be America Again” – Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a crucial part of the Harlem Renaissance, a time in the 1920’s when black intellectualism, literature, and art flourished. Hughes was one of the innovators of “jazz poetry,” and he also wrote plays and short stories. In 1936, he published the poem “Let America Be America Again” in Esquire. He wrote it while on a train ride from New York to Ohio. It was a difficult time for the writer, as his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and his first Broadway play didn’t receive great reviews. Racism and criticism from within his own community hounded him.
“Let America Be America Again” centers on the American dream and brings up the point that for many Americans, the ideals of equality and freedom have never been realized. Powerful lines include:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars
I am the red man driven from the land
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek —
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
Despite this juxtaposition of American ideals and the harsh reality, Hughes ends the poem on a hopeful note that one day, America will live up to its own standards.
“The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” – Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is one of the most famous poets of the 20th century and the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was also the first black woman appointed as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Her work is deeply informed by politics, especially from the 1960’s on. “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” is so brief, it can be included here in its entirety:
(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.
What’s so interesting about this poem is that there are no other quatrains. The part of this story that most people are familiar with – Emmett Till’s murder by racists and a burial where his mother chose to have an open casket to show what they did to her son – is absent. Brooks gives readers a tiny glimpse into a moment most people don’t really think about when it comes to violations of human rights – a quiet aftermath, where those left behind are left to just sit with what’s happened. While this poem could be filled with lengthy lamentations, it’s sparse. The weight and grief can’t be expressed except in the empty spaces Brooks creates.
“Poem About My Rights” – June Millicent Jordan
June Jordan (1936-2002) was a bisexual Jamaican-American poet, teacher, essayist, and activist. Issues like gender, immigration, and race frequently came up in her writing. She also emphasised the importance of intersectionality when it came to struggles for equality and human rights. In “Poem About My Rights,” Jordan centers on race, rape, and gender inequality. Jordan details all the things that are “wrong” about her – wrong color, wrong sex, wrong continent. The poem is vivid and visceral, coming to its peak in the section:
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
It’s a declaration of truth and self-preservation. For anyone who has been told by the powers that be and even their own parents that they are somehow “wrong,” this poem is a rallying cry.
“I Do” – Andrea Gibson
Andrea Gibson (1975) is an American activist and poet who writes on LGBTQ issues, gender norms, social reform, and more. They frequently perform as a slam poet, as well, often performing in competitions and with Button Poetry. In the poem “I Do,” Gibson takes on the challenges faced by queer people head on, opening with the lines:
But the motherfuckers say we can’t.
‘cause you’re at girl and I’m a girl
or at least something close
Gibson then details how they’ll have to settle for an “uncivil union” in Vermont instead of a traditional church wedding. They imagine 50 years down the line, when their partner is dying, and there are rules about who can visit. Many queer couples are not allowed to see their loved ones at the end because they don’t count as “family members.” The rest of the poem explores the life Gibson and their partner shared, making this issue very real and personal to the reader. That’s the power of poetry. It makes human rights issues truly human.