Dreams of War

Brown_Girl_Dreaming-300I bought Brown Girl Dreaming for my daughter for Christmas, and now I am reading a poem to her each night before bed. Last night I read “South Carolina at War.” I’m going to copy the entire poem here, which is a lot of text to pull from a copyrighted book. But I can’t say what I need to without first making sure you know the whole story.

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us –

we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

 

why people are marching all over the South –

 

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

 

First they brought us here.

Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,

and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

 

And that’s why people are so mad.

 

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio

without hearing about the marching.

 

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without

seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting

where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit

and getting carried out, their bodies limp,

their faces calm.

 

This is the way brown people have to fight,

my grandfather says.

You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist

on something

gently. Walk toward a thing

slowly.

 

But be ready to die,

my grandfather says,

for what is right.

 

Be ready to die, my grandfather says,

for everything you believe in.

 

And none of us can imagine death

but we try to imagine it anyway.

 

Even my mother joins the fight.

When she thinks our grandmother

isn’t watching she sneaks out

to meet the cousins downtown, but just as

she’s stepping through the door,

her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,

Now don’t go getting arrested.

 

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,

I won’t.

 

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,

and we’re still fighting for the free life

we’re supposed to be living.

 

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina

and even as we play

and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

 

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.

And just as good and bright and beautiful and free

as anybody.

And nobody colored in the South is stopping,

my grandfather says,

until everybody knows what’s true.

 

And I thought, “Jesus, nothing has changed.”

Then it was 1863,

and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

That was one hundred and fifty years ago and brown people still can’t just put their fist up, still have to insist on something gently. Walk toward a thing slowly. Still have to be ready to die.

This poem is Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood memory from the late 1960’s. That was fifty years ago and now it’s 2015 and there’s a war going on in South Carolina and even as we play and plant and preach and sleep, we are still a part of it.

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