I chose the title of this poem because that was the gut reaction I had after attending the 30-year anniversary celebration yesterday of a prestigious literary organization in Portland , Ore., whose catchphrase is "Words Matter." The yawning absence of faces of color in the audience, the list of speakers, the celebratory videos, and even the staff and volunteers of the organization merely reinforced the invisibility of those potential and accomplished writers who look like me. I've been a professional writer for more than 30 years and still felt like I didn't belong there.


Two years ago, this same organization invited a Nigerian novelist to town to remind us of “the danger of a single story.” Chimamanda Adichie said: “A single story can be true, but it’s not complete, and if a story is not complete, what’s the point?” Other accomplished black writers have come to visit Portland, too, at this organization's invitation. But even from the lectern, they see what I saw at this prestigous event: a void of mirrored images, a single story where people of color are peculiar visitors, not inhabitants of the literary landscape.


What's the point? I became an award-winning newspaper columnist because a black newspaper columnist in Chicago planted the seed of possibility within me when I was still in college. I became a poet because the words of black women poets like June Jordan, Audre Lorde and Rita Dove reminded me that my words, experiences and perspectives deserved a place on the frontlines of literature and were even quite necessary to inspire those who still need to learn that their words have power.


I deeply appreciate the intention of the literary organization I am referring to. But, the subtle message of its homogeneous, single story surged such a depth of sadness within me that the ache for those voices of color on the periphery who don’t yet realize their words deserve applause, too, churned within me all the way home, into the night, and stirred me from my bed before the dawn. So, I write. I write. I write….

If Only Black Folks Could Read

(c) 2014 S. Renee Mitchell

if only black folks could read

let alone write

maybe then

our words would matter



our tales would be told

behind microphones

our lyrics put to music

& sung with measured tempo

like they were almost worthy

of celebration

just because


if only black folks could write

we might not be so invisible

so out of view

missing from the landscape

like an ex wife trying to make a point

about how she never loved u anyway


u were barely suitable

as a consolation prize

after the one she really loved

left town on the midnight train

so u would do

until you didn’t

& she won’t miss u one bit

no way

in fact, she can’t even see u

no more

only the scissored edges

of what once was

until it wasn’t


if only black folks could write

we’d be comparing

our tragic lives to crystal stairs

& our dogged resistance

to the lovely way

that caged birds sing

we’d spell trauma

a thousand different ways

& put it to a beat

u could swing yr hips to


we’d know how to describe

a dream deferred

the unique rhythm of our lives

the color of purple


wouldn’t that be something


if we could only find

an adequate way

to express ourselves


we just might


renaissance villages

of inconspicuous individuals

aching for understanding

with lines, lyrics & librettos

that linked to our lives

so deeply

we would find ourselves

sitting in silence

just a-humming

happy humble grateful

that we finally


felt heard


if only


blacks had enough imagination

to articulate

how the masks we wear

to hide our heartbreak

grins & lies


if only blacks could write

we could make jeremiads

sound like love making

we would pen

praise songs for presidents

we would become

lyrical catalysts for social causes


if only we could read & write


we could teach our children

that words have power

& poetry of the people

is written by the people

for the people

& unless & until

we intentionally


seek tales from the lion

we will always believe

the hunter’s story

is the only one


to be told


if only black folks

could read



indivisible truths





wouldn’t we

have some stories

to tell

© 2020 by Renee Mitchell Speaks. All Rights Reserved.

   "Words have power.

Choose them wisely."