For this occasion,
I’m going to call the roll,
and if you are present, answer.
If you’ve been waiting,
tell us how long, tell us
or show us how you feel.
After a while, this may
become a litany of angels
and saints, the quick and the dead,
who, in melody and harmony
in spirit and in truth, and with
thanks to James Weldon Johnson,
“lift ev’ry voice and sing”
There are many slaves here.
Some sold south.
Some who were beaten
after hiding in the woods.
There are men and women
and children. Mammy,
Jake, Jezebel, Chicken-Man
were not your real names.
Stripped of your natal pride.
Still, for this night, you have come.
I’m sure Gabriel Prosser’s here.
Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner.
Your rebellions speak louder
of what you wanted
than the “here” of your swift reply.
This present freedom
depends on shed blood—
even blood from John Brown’s
white body, so that dead, his
“soul [, too, still] march[es] on!”
Harriet Tubman, You were
“Moses” to your kin,
and you managed to smuggle 19
out to freedom in the north.
How loudly your actions speak.
What a fight for equality.
You two great women are here.
Then I mention certain
former slaves, who have recorded
their stories in the government
project that created jobs after
the Great Depression. I will call
only a few of you by name.
Ben Horry. Sarah Gudger. Aunt Lucy.
And you will answer, “We are here,
after waiting a long, long time.”
There are many others with you.
You know who you are.
Frederick Douglass. In 1872,
you were nominated for Vice-
President by the Equal Rights Party.
You’re here, right?
You’re watching what’s being called
“historic.” Watching the votes come in
for America’s first Black President,
you look happy.
A. Philip Randolph. You, and
the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
You who formed a labor union and
fought Jim Crow and marched in ’63.
You are here? You say, “yes,”
and that you believe in Main Street.
George Washington Carver.
Phillis Wheatley, Mahalia Jackson.
Septima P. Clark.
The writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Booker T. Washington. “I Too Sing
America,” answers Langston Hughes.
I am calling Martin, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers.
Ralph Abernathy. Bayard Rustin.
James Farmer. Andrew Young.
And John Lewis, the “Boy from Troy” who
marched with you, spoke at the Lincoln Memorial.
Many of you are dead now—“free at last.”
Lewis breathes, votes in Congress, took
a “bunch of flack” in the present election.
Let’s not forget Rosa. Rosa Parks,
so much more than any symbol.
Ella Baker. Jo Ann Robinson.
All of you women behind the scene,
who typed and organized and walked.
I call on the beautiful Fannie Lou Hamer.
How I hope your answer comes in song,
for my “little light” so wants to shine,
with your light. How many voters did
you bring, Fannie—“sick and tired”
to the bone that Freedom Summer?
I am calling the girls who died in Birmingham.
Coretta Scott King. Maya Angelou.
Alice Walker. June Jordan.
Nora Zeale Hurston. Toni Morrison.
And Viola Gregg Luizzo,
the only white woman to die
in the movement of the 60s.
I call on Jackie Robinson.
I’m recalling your sacrifice, when someone—
forced to pee behind the bus and to eat at
the back window—calls out, “Here!”
You may now go where you will.
I’m saying “Hey” to Willie Mays,
Hank Aaron. O.J.?
O. J., How did you get here?
Your silence speaks volumes.
Volumes. What about Tupac?
Perhaps some others will surprise.
But remember who we are.
Ralph Ellison. Lerone Bennett. John Hope Franklin.
Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong.
Minister Louis Farrakhan
and a Million Men who went for a March
in the ’90s. Tony Parent? Alton Pollard?
John Mendez weren’t you there? Yes,
I’m calling you, too, Carlton Eversley.
And Jesse Jackson. Oh, Jesse, Jesse—
I know why you cry. You who were
there when King died,
shot, falling backwards, blood spilling
onto the hard cement at the Lorraine.
Didn’t we all go backward for a while?
Barack Obama. President Elect.
Elsewhere, the leaves ride
autumnal air waves; it is fall.
But not here. Not now.
No, here the air is still.
As still as it was in the swamp
where the runaway slave hid,
then “st[ole] away to Jesus.”
A great cloud of witnesses
have come for this night.
This time is recorded.
Many who have known the dream
“see the glory” that King saw
on the top of a mountain.