A rousing new video connects the Jim Crow-era activism of famed American poet Langston Hughes to the activism of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The video, published online Wednesday by the group Color of Change, has actor Danny Glover reading Hughes’ 1938 poem “Kids Who Die” over a series of haunting images: the Cleveland park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by police, the Oakland train station where 22-year-old Oscar Grant was also killed by cops, and a group of riot officers with their guns aimed at a black protester in Ferguson, Missouri, among others.
“This is for the kids who die,” opens Hughes’ poem. “Black and white / For kids will die certainly / The old and rich will live on awhile, /As always, / Eating blood and gold, / Letting kids die.”
“August 9th is a big day for the movement,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, said in a statement announcing the video’s release. This Sunday marks one year since the death of Michael Brown — the black, unarmed 18-year-old gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His death touched off riots and peaceful protests in the St. Louis suburb.
The date “also symbolizes the incredible volition and power of the people of Ferguson and the birthing of another movement centered on Black lives,” Robinson said. “But it also shows how the brutal assault of Black people did not end with the Jim Crow era, it has only shifted and adapted to take on a new form of oppression and violence that has manifested in rampant killing of Black people at the hands of the state.”
Underwood Archives via Getty Images
It’s been 77 years since Hughes first published “Kids Who Die” in the communist-backed pamphlet of poems “A New Song.”
“It’s very much an interracial anthem that celebrates young blacks as well as whites, in the struggle against fascism, capitalism, and racism, especially in the American South,” Stanford University professor Arthur Rampersad — whose book, “The Life of Langston Hughes,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 — told The Huffington Post.
“I have no doubt that Hughes would strongly approve of the poem being used to protest against anti-black violence even if he intended it for a much broader purpose,” Rampersad said.
Media consultant Frank Chi co-produced the video with Terrance Green. Chi told Mic.com that the pair “wanted to make a video that brings together the brutal images of the past year — seeing Eric Garner choked to the ground, Walter Scott shot in the back, Sandra Bland dragged out of her car over a cigarette — but display them in a way that pays tribute.”
“We wanted to inspire people to keep fighting,” he said, adding that he first time he read “Kids Who Die” was on Twitter after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of 18-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The video ties particularly searing lines in Hughes’ poem to real-life events and characters today. When Glover reads “sleazy courts,” the viewer sees footage of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announcing that Officer Darren Wilson would face no charges in Michael Brown’s death. The “bribe-reaching police” are NYPD officers turning their backs on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The “blood-loving generals” are militarized police in Missouri.
And when Glover reads “money-loving preachers,” there’s footage of a wild-eyed and bloviating Bill O’Reilly, the conservative Fox News host.
Like Hughes’ poem, however, the video ends on a hopeful note. Ultimately a tribute to the success of the #BlackLivesMatter movement — which has helped initiate widespread criminal justice reform over the past year and reshaped how America talks about race — the video ends with the final lines of Hughes’ poem read over footage of massive, peaceful protests across the country.
“But the day will come — /,” it says. “You are sure yourselves that it is coming — / When the marching feet of the masses / Will raise for you a living monument of love, / And joy, and laughter, / And black hands and white hands clasped as one, / And a song that reaches the sky — / The song of the life triumphant / Through the kids who die.”
You can read the full poem below. (As Professor Rampersad notes, the version Glover reads in the video is edited and has some key omissions. The most notable are Hughes’ references to two well-known activists of his era: Karl Liebknecht, a German socialist assassinated in 1919, and Angelo Herndon, who was arrested in 1932 when he was just 19 for leading an interracial protest in Georgia.)
“Kids Who Die” by Langston Hughes
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.
Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people —
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people —
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together
Listen, kids who die —
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come —
You are sure yourselves that it is coming —
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky —
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.