"Poetry for the People": Reading Garveyism through Poetry

To Miss Ethel Trew Dunlap, and other Black Women Poets

by Jessica Covil Listen

Yes! There is no way to begin

except in exclamations,

the way you reach out through the print

and make yourself heard.


Yes! You have made yourself known

amidst every lie flung against you.

The ink dries and there you are:

black on a white background



And you can be as brazen

as any man,

but with a twist--

a militant with hips,

the curve of your lips

giving birth with new words

like God Himself

turning the lights on.



Like when Carita Collins

had the U.S. Attorney General

running scared

the year the black soldiers came home

to Jim Crow and more lynchings,

and she penned it:

“This must not be!”

And “New Negroes” the world over



Or Ethel Trew Dunlap,

whose poems were an archive

of freedom fighters,

“Four Million Strong” and growing.

She dreamed of dying one night

but kept going.


Black women poets--

you spoke of winning a higher place,

you made yourselves a space          

in the pages of a weekly

and all the borders they crossed.

Liberty was a song repeated,

chanted and enchanting.


You sang Garvey’s praises

and he sang yours too,

named you queen of all women.

Black woman,

he said,

your eyes shine with virtue.


And this was the price paid

to restore your “good name”:

to be a sweet maid,

a virgin.


Perhaps that explains why

Africa was rarely called “Mother”

when the womb was a fraught space,

a wound left open

like a field

where the seeds grown

were planted by force;

and the men who defiled you

labeled you




you would be roses:

something delicate

something cherished

both desired and protected--

a thorn in the hand

of any who would pluck you.


But I can see

how you grew your own garden,

a community of poets

by calling out each others’ names

like the women before you,

dedicating a line or two

to the women you cherished.

Not because any man told you to.


I know that

poetry has a spirit

--is spirit--

a growing from the Earth

with some heaven in mind.

When you were buried in the dirt,

how did it feel to come so close to the sky?

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