A Poem Reflecting on Black History Month

Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions, achievements, and resilience of Black Americans, and to also reflect on the systemic racism that continues to pervade society. One manifestation of this inequity is that Black people are disproportionately affected by homelessness: Approximately 57 percent of heads of household in NYC shelters are Black. As we wrote in our State of the Homeless 2020 report, “Homelessness is unequivocally a racial justice issue, and is one manifestation of historic and persistent housing discrimination, biased economic and housing policies, extreme income inequality, and disproportionately high levels of poverty among people of color, as well as biased policing and incarceration in communities of color.”

We recently asked some members of our Client Advisory Group to share their perspectives on Black History Month, as Black New Yorkers who have experienced homelessness. In response, M.A. Dennis wrote this powerful poem about history, identity, and the ongoing struggle for justice and equity.

“After Frederick Douglass”

By M.A. Dennis

What to the Slave’s Descendant Is the Month of Black History?

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in R-E-S-P-E-C-T 

for the creators of this February celebration, 

who were well-intentioned, wanting to give 

well-overdue attention to African-American 

achievements — countering the bitter, twisted 

lies of a whitewashed history; honoring Black 

heroes for causing good trouble — But I struggle 

during the Month of Black History.

What am I (formerly homeless individual) 

to do with your celebration of Black History? 

What does February mean to Black people 

like me, who have almost no History, who 

cannot trace my lineage past my grandparents? 

The enslavement of my Ancestors was the ultimate 

identity theft.

Our unknown history is the ultimate homelessness: 

If we have no history, we have no roots. 

If we have no roots, we have no home.

I am Black and I want my History.

In my dreams, I see visions of Oprah: 

You get a history! You get a history! You get a history! 

I need a history that goes beyond Dr. King, 

beyond Malcolm, beyond Tubman and Tupac, 

beyond Black-owned businesses 

distributing formulaic calendars

during the Month of Black History. 

(Those calendar illustrations do come in handy though

for your child’s last-minute Black History Month project.)  

Yes! Give Matthew Henson his props — Not for being 

the first to reach the North Pole, but for being 

the first brother to enjoy working in frigid cold.

On the Pulse of Morning 

I will lift up mine eyes unto 

The Hill We Climb —despite infallible 

military strategy which states: The Hill 

provides superior position to the elevated enemy 

— not the climber. 

Yet, Black people keep climbing. 

A monolithic Moses, seeing 

the “I Have A Dream” speech Promised Land 

but not being allowed to enter it. 

This Month of Black History, gives me the joy

of a toddler opening a Happy Meal 

and realizing it contains no toy. 

Will serious reparations be given 

to the illegitimate children of the founding fathers?

I want the compound interest on my mule & 40 acres 

to include Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and 

Harvard University’s Center for Research 

Finding My Roots: African descendant

owed the American Dream as inheritance — Till 

this day it remains lost in the Tallahatchie River,

lost in the sauce of transatlantic transactions.

We the lives who are all darker than blue; who 

trap demons in blue bottles; who use blue paint 

to ward off harmful spirits; who have only spoken 

words with severed mother tongue, our oral 

tradition passed down by assassinated prophets, 

brown Listerine anger swishing in our mouths.

We the People of Color (Purple) 

use humor as a coping mechanism:

Have you heard the joke circulating 

around the Black people water cooler:

If Black History is the shortest and coldest month,

whose history is March through January?

Is it the history of records 

putting pale faces on the covers of albums

sung by dark-skinned voices?

Is it the history of names on the marquee

and their forced entry through rear exits? 

Only in America could the talent on stage 

not be good enough to sit in the audience. 

Only in America do trees — Life-promoting

entities — get noosed in deadly perversion. 

Only in America can the sounds of Walt Whitman 

be drowned out by broken record death threats 

for hammering too many homeruns.

Only in Feb-uary, is there an unnecessary

hard rrealistically

Only in February, is insufficient length 

to celebrate; Black History truth 

cannot be a 28 to 29-day sojourner.

It’s time to remix

This Month of Blacktasticness

let it last year-round

let it rewrite history 

as it should’ve been written in the first place.

This Month, I focus not on the first Black 

this or that — But instead, I ponder the last:

Who will be the last Black person murdered 

in cold blood, in their driveway, in their bedroom,

in their car, in a holding cell, in a chokehold?

On the concrete sidewalk, on the asphalt street? 

During a wellness check or “routine” traffic stop? 

Who will be the last of us

subjected to generational spirit-crushing poverty? 

Which forces The Souls of Black Folk 

to yet again

stretch a meal, so that 

five loaves of bread and 

two fish 

can make 5,000 sandwiches.

Inspired by the Frederick Douglass speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”