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Poet Kwame Alexander Reflects On Derek Chauvin's Guilty Verdict

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been almost a year since our poet-in-residence, Kwame Alexander, created a community poem about the hope of being Black and safe in America. He wrote it after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by two white men while he was out for a jog in Glynn County, Ga. Kwame titled it "Running For Your Life." Here's an excerpt of the reading that he and I did of that poem back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KWAME ALEXANDER, BYLINE: While we await such a day, let us say your name, Ahmaud Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery. I am sorry that we all know your name now, that we will forget it far too soon.

MARTIN: I am sorry that the only song they know to sing for you is tragedy. I am sorry that all I can do is write this poem.

Yesterday's verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial feels in a way like a turning point. The jury found the former Minneapolis police officer guilty on all three counts in the murder of George Floyd. So we called Kwame back up this morning. Kwame, thanks for being here.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, it's good to be here today.

MARTIN: It's hard to think about the fact that that day that we read that poem for Ahmaud Arbery was the very day that we learned about George Floyd's killing. And now here we are with a verdict in the Derek Chauvin case. What went through your mind when you heard guilty on all counts?

ALEXANDER: I think my reaction was a mix of sadness and glee. A man lost his life because another man couldn't see him, couldn't hear him. I had a feeling shared by many of my friends and colleagues on text and phone calls. It's that this is a great first step, but it's a small step. The jury - they knew that the country would burn if they got this wrong. It's the feeling that this judge better not give him a cakewalk sentence either. I mean, it's also thank you, justice, and it's, you know, thank God Almighty. Thank God Almighty. We're free at last, but we're not free yet.

MARTIN: We've got to note, yesterday, just before the judge read the guilty verdicts, a teenage Black girl was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio. Daunte Wright was killed 10 days ago, just north of Minneapolis, after being pulled over for a traffic violation.

ALEXANDER: Look, we - and when I say we, let's be clear. I'm speaking to all Americans, but especially to our white sisters and brothers, because as Vice President Harris said yesterday, racism, which is at the root of this police brutality, is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. Look, the progressive educator and the writer Jonathan Kozol wrote - and I quote - "that white people will probably go on leading our normal lives, will go on participating in our nation in a normal way, unless there comes a time where Black people can compel us by methods of extraordinary pressure to interrupt our pleasure." That pressure - that comes from the rallies. That comes from the riots. And as you know, it can come from poetry.

We can't breathe the air. We can't break the chains. We can't take a knee. We can't take a stand. We can't cross a bridge. We can't ride a bus. We can't have a dream. We can't wear our skin. We can't be ourselves. We can't be at home. We can't be alone. We can't be unarmed. We can't shoot ourselves. We can't do a thing. We can't drive a car. We can't walk the street. We can't ride a bike. We can't run away. We can't be a boy. We can't be a man. We can't be afraid. We can't break these chains. We can't walk. We can't run. We can't breathe. We can't live. We can't breathe. We can't live. But we will not die.

MARTIN: Wow, thank you for that. And you have put all of your thoughts and reflections into another poem for us too, right?

ALEXANDER: Yes. Now, this piece is a sort of testimony, a recognition on the momentous day after. The Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala., which is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center - they asked me to compile a poem for a new exhibit. Almost a thousand students and teachers, parents and children, people from all walks of life wrote poems sharing their vision for America the beautiful, and this poem is going to be featured in the center when it reopens later this year. It's called "A Civil Community."

MARTIN: OK. Let's you and I read this, OK?

ALEXANDER: Remember our people, the dreamers, the browns and the Blacks, the ones who built bridges from inland to coast, the ones who fought for justice and freedom, the ones who couldn't be silenced, the hollering of their heartbeat, the hope in their words.

MARTIN: Remember Martin, remember Assata, reaching beyond that plantation haze, sword lilies blossoming during our darkest times, sparrows singing our victory song.

ALEXANDER: This is for the ones who can no longer sing for themselves, for George Jackson and George Floyd, for Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn and Breonna Taylor, for Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, for Emmett Louis Till and Tamir Rice.

MARTIN: This is for the summer streets that once held our children's laughs, now turned to gunshots and mourning wails, for the Black lives fired up who can't take no more. This is for the faithful and the fearless.

ALEXANDER: For Harriet, following that North Star into possibilities, for Paul Robeson's soulful, deep, booming bass echoing like a cannon shot in the still winter air, singing the spirit, climbing a mountain, rafting a river, sailing the seas, counting every one of us who was not drowned, who has ever stood up. We are an ocean, some of us ripples, others waves. We carry the boat that heads into the horizon, the moon guiding us to a new dawn.

MARTIN: This is for the Tuskegee Airmen's heraldry and Amanda Gorman's yellow coat of arms. This is for Barack Obama's audacity and Rabbi Heschel's faith.

ALEXANDER: Remember, violence is a cycle, but so is peace. That is what we are fighting for, an end to chaos, a new birth of freedom. The ocean is our goal.

MARTIN: Grasp it with your fingers clenched in tight fists of unison, not to strike a brawl, but to tear down the wall of division. Grasp your rights. Grasp America the beautiful.

ALEXANDER: This country is a house, this world a village. If we are to be a civil community, let us come in unity. Rise up out of the blue. Rise up into the light. Rise up out of the waters. Rise up into the sun. Rise up through the love. Rise up. Reach for freedom. Know that you are good enough to end the rage, to turn the page, to stand up with pride, to stand up with peace, to lift your voice, to open your eyes, to rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON PERFORMANCE OF MOZART'S "AVE VERUM CORPUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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