or a meditation on a photograph of student protestors

After a photograph of Benedict College and Allen University protesting segregation on Columbia’s Main Street, March 2-3, 1960

Time was the best informer.
– Charity Adams Earley, One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (1989)

and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.
– Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993)

In the picture, the one from 1960,
the one from Columbia, South Carolina,
the one of the students dressed smart
and walking up Main from the south
and east, one young man up front
is just stepping into the street with his books
slung loose against his hip, and his tie
is a black exclamation against his white
shirt, and a white woman in dark
fur holds her bag of goods against her
like a child, watching the young men,
the young women walking by, carrying
books as if they had just stepped
out of class to make their way downtown,
or as if, maybe, they thought they might
study some, sitting at the counter,
or as if they’d go back to class,
once this necessary errand was done.

Before cynicism seared our brows, as Maya
Angelou puts it, we yet knew we still
knew nothing—we knew that there was still
so much we still needed to know, still need
to know about each other, about that moment
a woman clutches her shopping to her breast
like a child, and students from Benedict walk
past her, determined, not looking at her.

In the picture, the one from 1915,
the one from the Lowell Observatory
in Flagstaff, Arizona, we can see
stars like white spots on a deep
black sky—stars and maybe planets
though they didn’t know it then, since
they didn’t know they’d just photographed
Pluto, the dark planet, which wouldn’t be
discovered for another fifteen years—
two faint images not yet recognized
for what they were, the way it is with knowledge,
the way we only realize later what
we witnessed, the depth of that sky, the slight
movement of that one small thing,
that dark planet, and the whole system
could be refigured, re-imagined.

It was March, 1915, that camera
pointed at the sky, the year Muddy
Waters was born and Booker T. Washington
died, the year Babe Ruth stepped up
to the plate and hit his first home run,
the year Jack Johnson became the first
black world heavyweight boxing champ,
the year Langston Hughes moved to Lincoln,
Illinois, and started writing poems.
It was March, the NAACP
was picketing The Birth of a Nation, while horsemen
dressed in Klansmen hoods rode the streets
of New York City to sell more tickets.
It was 1915, the year German
subs sunk ship after ship, the year the Turks
slaughtered the Armenians, the year the US
began its long occupation of Haiti,
the year 56 black Americans were lynched
and hundreds followed Chief Sam, left
Oklahoma for the Gold Coast,
the year the Supreme Court struck down
attempts to block black voters, the year
the US House of Representatives rejected
the idea that women should have the right to vote,
the year a Harvard man, a black historian,
Carter Woodson, the father of black history
founded The Journal of Negro History, determined
to recover the overlooked, the ignored,
the suppressed, what was always in the picture
but we didn’t yet know what
we didn’t yet know.

As we grew older, says Charity Adams Earley,
who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina,
there came a gradual awareness of a black
social order and a white social order,
separate but unequal. In general, she says,
children were protected by their parents
from the harshness of the system, but time,
she says, was the best informer. And time
remains the best informer—the way that change
and leadership are revealed, that faint planet
not yet recognized, those young men
and young women moving across the street,
dislodging the old orbits, admitting new
planets to the map of what might be.

Somewhere, someone is taking a photo, we don’t
yet know what it will reveal.

In the picture, the one from 1960,
the one from Columbia, South Carolina,
the students face forward, ignoring her stare,
that woman there, beneath the grey awning
of McCrory’s 5, 10, and 25 cent
store, huddled beside the line of men
blocking the store’s door. No, they don’t
look at her, at them. They look straight
ahead, into the future.

A poem written for the Benedict College President’s Dinner, 10 Feb 2015, to celebrate the leadership of Dr. David H. Swinton and to honor the theme of Black History Month 2015, A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.