Steve Bloom

Poet biography

The Debt

Once a year we hear
the words of Martin’s dream,
and he receives a boulevard
for every city in this land.
It doesn’t pay
the debt we owe.
In a state where you
stood by while he was killed
an airport now is known
for Medgar Evers.
It doesn’t pay
the debt we owe.
And sometimes you repeat, by rote,
a song that Ella also sang. But no,
not even this, nor placing
one Black face inside
the whitest of your houses
pays the debt we owe.
Our debt sprouts roots
which dig that deeply:
down into a soil on which
these huddled masses toiled
without relief—though
they, too, had a yearning
to breathe free.
Your prestigious universities,
cathedrals, mansions, palaces
of culture or of sport
and so much more—even
“amber waves of grain”
of which you sing
with so much pride
(from sea to shining sea)—
have grown upon
this ground, fertilized
long ago by unpaid blood
and tears.
“God’s grace was shed on thee”—
‘tis said, and yet they rarely note
that this was at the cost
of someone’s unpaid blood
and tears.
“Times have changed”
I hear you cry and it is true:
strange fruit does not so often hang
from southern trees these days.
It rots away instead in prison cells
or finds itself cut down too soon
upon a ghetto’s street.
The stolen labor, land and lives
just continued by another name,
you see, even after someone realized
that it might serve you just as well
to mark the end of chattel slavery.
The debt,
I note, is still
compounding as we speak.
Stories such as this will often
find their end upon a moral,
so here’s how this one goes:
The time is now
to pay the debt we owe.
The time has come
to pay the debt we owe.

Not Just Whistling

I am willing to bet you have used the words
without even thinking where they come from,
without even thinking there is a question
about where they come from
that you should be thinking about:
“I’m not just whistling Dixie.”

And if you’re not just whistling Dixie
what, precisely, have you been doing?

Yes, that is how deep the racist culture goes:
Even you do not stop to think
what this expression means
before you use it.

How about: “Keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off my . . . “
Tell me: Just what, precisely, is wrong
with “cotton-pickin’ hands”?

As for me, therefore,
I will keep searching for those
who are not just whistling
“John Brown’s Body.”