In this installation we have compiled 5 poems, all centered around the theme of resistance and oppression. Poetry is one of the ways in which one can express their deepest feelings and emotions in the rough and raw. The 5 poems we have chosen to share with you are beautiful and moving yet so powerful. In the words of Thomas Gray: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words the burn.”
Democracy – Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Langston Hughes was an American poet, writer and activist. After moving to New York in his youth, Hughes began an extensive career in poetry in which he revolutionised the art form and was a great influence on many to come. In Democracy, Hughes writes about oppression in America, and how he is tired of people expecting fairness and democracy to come about by letting things take their course.
Dear Little Girl – Emihle Mlonzi (2004 – Present)
Emihle Mlonzi is a 16-year-old Capetonian activist and poet. Originally from the Eastern Cape, Mlonzi grew up with her grandma, who taught her to be a free soul and to not live in fear. In Dear Little Girl, Mlonzi talks about moving to the city, and how it changed her.
Phenomenal Woman – Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
Maya Angelou was an American poet, civil rights activist and writer, whose bountiful career has produced over 50 years worth of writing, and has been an inspiration to many activists and poets through the years. In Phenomenal Woman, Angelou speaks on the impact of female beauty standards on women and female power through self-assuredness and standing up against these standards.
Anguish Longer Than Sorrow – Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile (1938 – 2018)
Keprapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile was a South African Tswana poet, activist and member of the ANC during the apartheid struggle. He was greatly interested in African-American literature, and became a notable figure amongst African-American people, bringing his unique perspective from South Africa to the table. In Anguish Longer Than Sorrow, Kgositsile comments harshly on the impact of border controls and xenophobia, and the oppression facing displaced individuals.
City Johannesburg – Mongane Wally Serote (1944 – Present)
Mongane Wally Serote is a South African poet and writer from Sophiatown. He was part of the struggle against apartheid with the ANC, before seeking exile in Botswana and London where he continued to support the ANC and the apartheid struggle. In City Johannesburg, Serote talks about the life of a black worker in Johannesburg, and the danger, fear and sadness accompanying them.
Resistance Poetry #1
Compiled by Nick Ford for the African Climate Alliance
Democracy – Langston Hughes (1949)
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
Dear little girl – Emihle Mlonzi (2020)
I still remember you
I remember how you smiled
I still have memories of you in me
I remember how you made everything look good
I remember climbing the tree and falling
But at the same time thinking its
Okay to fall
I don’t know what you turned into to
But you wake up every morning
And you smile
But behind that smile
The is endless fear of
You are scared to get on that tree
Because you might fall and break your bones
I don’t know how it started
But it’s ruining you in every way
And every day the fear becomes stronger
That you even hide behind your scars
You look at yourself and think
Is this the girl I wanted to become
I never wanted this but it wanted me
I shut the doors I scream I cry
I break down
But I still smile
Because behind the smile the is a secret passage that no one
And I’d rather have that.
Phenomenal Woman – Maya Angelou (1978)
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Anguish Longer Than Sorrow – Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile
If destroying all the maps known
would erase all the boundaries
from the face of this earth
I would say let us
make a bonfire
to reclaim and sing
the human person
Refugee is an ominous load
even for a child to carry
for some children
words like home
could not carry any possible meaning
must carry dimensions of brutality and terror
past the most hideous nightmare
anyone could experience or imagine
Empty their young eyes
deprived of a vision of any future
they should have been entitled to
since they did not choose to be born
where and when they were
Empty their young bellies
extended and rounded by malnutrition
and growling like the well-fed dogs of some
with pretensions to concerns about human rights
Can you see them now
stumble from nowhere
the premature daily death of their young dreams
what staggering memories frighten and abort
the hope that should have been
an indelible inscription in their young eyes
I should just borrow
the rememberer’s voice again
while I can and say:
to have a home is not a favour
City Johannesburg – Mongane Wally Serote (1972)
This way I salute you:
My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket
Or into my inner jacket pocket
For my pass, my life,
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach groans a friendly smile to hunger,
My stomach also devours coppers and papers
Don’t you know?
Jo’burg City, I salute you;
When I run out, or roar in a bus to you,
I leave behind me, my love,
My comic houses and people, my dongas and my ever whirling dust,
That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye.
I travel on your black and white and roboted roads
Through your thick iron breath that you inhale
At six in the morning and exhale from five noon.
This is the time when I come to you,
When your neon flowers flaunt from your electrical wind,
That is the time when I leave you,
When your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling darkness
On your cement trees.
And as I go back, to my love,
My dongas, my dust, my people, my death,
Where death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh,
I can feel your roots, anchoring your might, my feebleness
In my flesh, in my mind, in my blood,
And everything about you says it,
That, that is all you need of me.
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg,
Listen when I tell you,
There is no fun, nothing, in it,
When you leave the women and men with such frozen expressions,
Expressions that have tears like furrows of soil erosion,
Jo’burg City, you are dry like death,
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg, Jo’burg City.