Fire by Night
When the burnt black bodies of the homeless
Were found in the embers of the Negro church
Into which they had crept to sleep on the floor
The wails of the people traveled down the cold wind
And reached the ears of the rich on the mountain
Like the distant whistle of a fast train coming
This is one of my favorite poems, and I first read it a little more than a year ago now at a poetry conference on Vashon Island in Washington State. There is a lot that my literary training taught me that I could bring to bear on this short poem, but what humanity taught me is even more important – and that is what we should remember as teachers of protest poetry / poetry of lament.
Like all powerful literature, the brilliance of this poem lies in its universality and yet also its particularity.
All people, if burned up, become black. Not only Black people. The skin burns.
Therefore, the bodies in this poem are universally recognizable as humans – not “just” black people, – though “just” is what the audience of this poem may have otherwise regarded them. This poem forces us to come to grips with the fact that our society has framed Black bodies as stronger and indifferent to harm. Indeed, it tells us, Black people also burn.
The White readers of the 20th century might have been more inclined to regard such a fire with distance and without empathy. But the burned black bodies seem to have more humanity through the commonality of the fate of any body, which turns black when it has burned.
These humans have suffered and died in a church, homeless and sleeping on the floor. Rich White people listen to their cries isolated in their secluded neighborhoods on the hill.
Are they indifferent? We must also point out to students that John Beecher was a White man.
The poem’s ability to humanize Black bodies through a dehumanizing fire sets the tone for the other powerful movements in this brief poem.
The church is meant to be a refuge, a place for the downtrodden. And wealthy Christians are supposed to give alms to the poor and to show mercy. This poem indicts them for their indifference to the sufferings of their black fellow Christians and to the downtrodden more generally. How can we tell they are indifferent? Because they have separated themselves from the poverty and live on the hill.
Is this where we start to talk about the indifference that is learned via the racial caste system in the United States alluded to by the fact that the Black mourners and their White hearers live in different neighborhoods?
While this is one of the unspoken thrusts of the poem, turning this reading into a lecture on community development would come across as inauthentic in the classroom without having already raised students’ awareness in preparation for the poem. While we may be passionate about these topics, our classroom is not the site of a political rally. It is a site of critical thinking and care and perspective taking.
The wails of the mourners – presumably African Americans – as they discover the bodies, reach the ear of the rich – undoubtedly White – people who live on the mountain.
The moral of the story: vengeance is coming. But it will come from the Lord. How to teach this in a public school? I would talk about universal sense of justice. Justice seems distant – the whistle is distant. And yet the train is fast.
How do we teach such nuances to children?
What if the children are rich? Do we teach them guilt?
What if they are disadvantaged students of color? Do we teach them learned helplessness, self-pity, or anger?
What if they are White disadvantaged students? Do we teach them resentment that their plights are not highlighted in the poem?
This is where the ability to read the room is of the utmost importance. But this ability must be paired with the teacher’s own sense of justice and right and wrong and their careful planning of the objective of the lesson, lest the teacher project their insecurities on the students when the lesson becomes uncomfortable. And it will become uncomfortable – as it should. In the United States, we are very self-conscious about discussions of race and kids pick up on this. But it is something that we do need to talk about.
I will continue to write about how we can coach students into a humane perspective towards themselves and others, paired with a sense of duty to right wrongs. This duty to act justly and reflect on one’s complicity must be imparted without being overly prescriptive in how students might work towards justice in their own spheres of influence.
And it must be age-appropriate.