I Speak of the City: Helene Johnson

[it feels like i could post harlem poems all day long but this particular sonnet captures so much. the first line jumping right out at you and then the switch of viewpoints from line to line mimicking the movement of crossing from avenue to avenue. i can imagine the speaker as an active onlooker, measuring the pedestrian walking through 125th street, stride for stride, while also taking into account the perception of onlookers. this ability to capture the pace and bustle of crowded sidewalk streets in meter and rhyme is a beautiful use of the petrarchan sonnet.]

Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem

You are disdainful and magnificent—
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise—
Your shoulders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.

© Helene Johnson

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