Reading Protest Poetry in Preparation for Hamilton

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Alison Peters

Staff Writer

Alison Peters surrounds herself with books, green things, animals and love. A Creative Writing M.F.A. holder with a day job that shall not be named, Alison is also working on a Masters in Library and Information Science. Currently cohabitating with her partner in the Northernmost outpost of San Francisco’s East Bay, she spends her spare time exercising her big dog so he won’t get annoyed with her, reading everything she can get her hands on, and then writing about it all. If you’re ever interested in discussing Harry Potter, Alison re-reads the series at least once a year, so drop her a line.

I am thisclose to finally seeing Hamilton, and I’m going in an almost virgin. As in: I haven’t read any in depth synopsis, listened to the soundtrack, read the reviews. I did this on purpose, and I stand by my decision. (After the show I plan on reading these excellent post-Hamilton book recommendations to keep that vibe going.)

But until then, I’m setting the mood by reading protest poetry.

My love of poetry is long and deep and has grown with me over the years. I was always a fan of the romantic stuff from across the pond that was favored in high school: college introduced me to poetry by people of (my) color, people like me. Maya Angelou. Alice Walker. Nikki Giovanni. Audre Lorde.

And then I took a class with the late, beloved poet/activist/professor/phenomenal woman June Jordan, and I was forever changed.

Protest Poetry: Poetry for the People-A Revolutionary BlueprintPoetry for the People was to my education what Hamilton is to the world today. It opened my eyes to poets from Latin America, from Palestine, from down the street. June Jordan brought the world of Arab and American poetry to the class, challenging us to read from and think of a different worldview – one that remarkably mirrored the struggle people of color in this country go through. Displacement. Distrust. Misunderstanding. Uprising. Freedom.

That’s a simplistic way of saying I felt the connection among marginalized people, and understood that poetry was one way that we could express ourselves – raw, pain, anger, urgency, protest.

And that defines protest poetry for me. It hurts, it makes me mad, it makes me think, it makes me cry, it empowers me.

Like this line from “alternate names for black boys”:

17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath.

Or this, from “Maqam”:

A child
in Syria has amputated legs because he has ventured
into a minefield to eat grass. He still has two eyes,
two arms, a mouth.

Hamilton brought spoken word and verse back into the conversation. And so in honor of that, in celebration of the tradition, I’d like to share a group of protest poems. Brought to you full text by the excellent Poetry Foundation, “committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.”

Protest Poetry

Poem about My Rights, by June Jordan

Maqam, by Zeina Hashem Beck

alternate names for black boys, by Danez Smith

the right way to speak, by Jacqueline Woodson

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

Arise, Go Down, by Li-Young Lee

That Loud-Assed Colored Silence: Modernity #2, by Douglas Kearney

Borderbus, bu Juan Felipe Herrera

Rosa Parks, by Nikki Giovanni

Prayer, by Francisco X. Alarcón