By Zeina Azzam
For millennia, poetry has provided a powerful way to capture society’s imagination. Poetry has served as a recorder of history, a source of pride of civilization, a unifying cultural story, a way to praise the living and eulogize the dead and so much more. From the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh and the ancient Greek Odyssey and Iliad, to pre-Islamic Arabian poetry, the Old English Beowulf and the epic of Sundiata of the Mali Empire to Shakespeare’s sonnets – to name a few salient examples – human history is rife with beautiful verse that people hold up as remarkable aspects of cultural production.
It makes sense, therefore, that poems are offered at important ceremonies and commemorative events that are meaningful to a society. In a recent interview with Smithsonian Magazine, the newly installed US Poet Laureate Ada Limon said, “I really, truly believe with my whole body in the power of poetry, and in the power of poetry to heal and bring together community, and celebrate the interconnectedness that we all have with each other.”
Her words echo the principles that Alexandria’s commemorations of the city’s historic events aim to accomplish: to educate about and face the past, and to take steps to act and heal together as a community.
It was an honor for me to contribute poems to the two lynching commemorations that the city held on April 23 and Aug. 8, for Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas, respectively. These two Black Alexandrians were tortured and killed by white lynch mobs in 1897 and 1899. City authorities and officers of the law failed to stop the murders and in McCoy’s case, the mayor displayed a complete dereliction of duty. When Alexandria’s Black community tried to protect Thomas, the mayor ordered them to go home; and when they refused, they were arrested and fined. Yet, no white person was imprisoned, fined or held accountable in any way for these two youths’ deaths.
We ask ourselves, how do we as a collective group, one that seeks justice and understanding, make sense of these violent aspects of our history? Is there a way to redeem ourselves today, in view of the dark legacy of our ancestors? What are meaningful ways to make amends to the Black community?
Such events offer one way to unearth and learn about this little-known history; it is important to educate Alexandria about the brutal ordeals of the victims and uplift their names. Indeed, Alexandria’s Black History Museum Director Audrey Davis noted in a Washington Post interview, “If we’re going to tell accurate history, you have to own the terrible parts of your history.” Poems at these events not only speak of the injustices perpetrated against McCoy and Thomas, but they also tug at what Rev. James G. Daniely, pastor at Roberts Memorial United Methodist Church, asked at the ceremony to collect and memorialize the soil from the places these men lived and died: “What will your response be? Will it be another monument that’s tagged on a wall somewhere, or will you really be moved to fight for justice?”
To be sure, our messages should go beyond the remembering and telling of grief; they must urge listeners to continue to act, as racism is still deeply embedded in our society. For Joseph McCoy, I wrote the following lines in my poem:
Let’s educate our youth, open eyes, ears,
so inhumanity is not replayed.
A Black man was lynched in our city, here.
We must face history, bring justice near.
And my poem at Benjamin Thomas’s remembrance event offered these ending lines:
May our grief over his cruel loss impel us to action.
May his memory nourish our resolve.
As a poet, I am grateful that the City of Alexandria understands the power of poetry and continues to integrate the writing and reading of poems in many commemorative events and milestones of our history. The presence of a poet laureate in the city helps to reinforce the powerful nature of poetry and encourages its reading and writing in the community. I am proud and honored to have this role at present.
Penny Hill Cemetery in Alexandria holds the unmarked graves of the two men who were lynched in the 1890s, Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas. Write a poem in the form of an epitaph, an inscription on a tombstone in memory of the deceased, for one of these young men. You can start the poem with “Here rests…” or you can approach writing the epitaph in your own way. To read more about Alexandria’s two documented lynchings, click the link above. If you would like to share your poem with the poet laureate, please email it to [email protected]
The writer is the City of Alexandria’s poet laureate. To read Azzam’s poems, go to https://www.alexandriava. gov/cultural-history/soilcollection-remembrance-event