Saying His Name
“History Lessons” by Yusef Komunyakaa
Squinting up at leafy sunlight, I stepped back
& shaded my eyes, but couldn’t see what she pointed to.
The courthouse lawn where the lone poplar stood
Was almost flat as a pool table. Twenty-five
Years earlier it had been a stage for half the town:
Cain & poor whites at a picnic on saint augustine
Grass. No, I couldn’t see the piece of blonde rope.
I stepped closer to her, to where we were almost
In each other’s arms, & then spotted the flayed
Tassel of wind-whipped hemp knotted around a limb
Like a hank of hair, a weather-whitened bloom
In hungry light. That was where they prodded him
Up into the flatbed of a pickup.
We had coffee & chicory with lots of milk,
Hoecakes, bacon, & gooseberry jam. She told me
How a white woman in The Terrace
Said that she shot a man who tried to rape her,
How their car lights crawled sage fields
Midnight to daybreak, how a young black boxer
Was running & punching the air at sunrise,
How they tarred & feathered him & dragged the corpse
Behind a Model T through the Mill Quarters,
How they dumped the prizefighter on his mother’s doorstep,
How two days later three boys
Found a white man dead under the trestle
In blackface, the woman’s bullet
In his chest, his head on a clump of sedge.
When I stepped out on the back porch
The pick-up man from Bogalusa Dry Cleaners
Leaned against his van, with an armload
Of her Sunday dresses, telling her
Emmett Till had begged for it
With his damn wolf whistle.
She was looking at the lye-scoured floor,
White as his face. The hot words
Swarmed out of my mouth like African bees
& my fists were cocked,
Hammers in the air. He popped
The clutch when he turned the corner,
As she pulled me into her arms
& whispered, Son, you ain’t gonna live long.
"History Lessons" from Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Published by Wesleyan University Press. Used with permission.
Terrance Hayes explores how Emmett Till has become a haunting, powerful figure in Black poetry—and Black public grief—through the work of 10 important poets. Subscribe to the PSA newsletter for more in the Saying His Name series and to keep updated with the PSA.
Terrance Hayes on “History Lessons” by Yusef Komunyakaa
In 1955 Yusef Komunyakaa was 8 years old growing his poet's soul in Bogalusa, Louisiana, just a four-hour drive from Money, Mississippi. Komunyakaa is such a great poet, I sometimes forget he was once a black boy raised in the Jim Crow south. This poem from Magic City, one of his most autobiographical collections and one of my all-time favorite books, suggests the world he witnessed growing up. The speaker is perhaps barely adolescent in part one as an unnamed woman (mother, sister, teacher, lover?) points to a "piece of blonde rope," remnant of a courthouse lynching twenty-five years earlier. Again, in section two the speaker is told the various hows and histories of local racism. The telling feels intimate and folkloric as the stories are shared casually over “hoecakes, bacon, & gooseberry jam.” The woman could be his grandmother, an aunt. How old do you suppose the speaker is in this poem? Eight or ten years old? The poem’s final and only line of dialogue is evidence the woman could be his mother. We don’t know “the hot words swarming out of his mouth” when he confronts the man from Bogalusa Dry Cleaners. Only that she comforts him with a paradoxical statement: “Son, you ain’t gonna live long.” The name of the poem is “History Lessons.” The speaker is learning where he lives and how he must live in his body to survive.