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poetry A Line Breaking

On July 27, 1919, the appearance of an African American swimmer near a white beach provoked a citywide pogrom in Chicago. Poet Renny Golden depicts the incident and a wade-in that integrated the shores during the 1960s.

July 27, 1919

Ninety-five degrees, wet, breathless air.  Boy lifts
onto the raft, splashes.  He watches the shore,
turns to check the raft’s drift because he is
a black boy, because the lake cannot be his,

because the city cannot be his, because he must
watch the lines that hold him, pitiless.
The rock-thrower’s aim is perfect. Boy’s head
snaps back and he tumbles into summer waters,

a stain where he goes down. Like storm clouds,
thousands on 29th Street beach. Their voices,
kept in the bell jars of blues, crack the glass.
From Bridgeport, white gangs come with tire irons

and baseball bats. Brownsville children sleep in closets,
their sweat-drenched fathers load army pistols.
Every window lightless, ready.  At first stars, pale riders
advance with petrol under club jackets.

One hundred fire alarms.  Smoke snuffing
out air like an altar boy extinguishing candles.
Suffocation, one way or another. Rumors, of black
bodies in the Chicago River, float like ash.


Rainbow Beach, 1960

Velma Murphy Hill links her arm, trembles.
A ribbon of dark young bodies wade in, hum
“We Shall Overcome.”  On shore watching,
a cinch of whites, the grandsons of 1919.

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Blacks sing, tighten arms, walk into a history—
of no protection from rocks, punches—that they will own.
Velma Murphy Hill takes seventeen stitches.

The next year, one hundred process past beach enforcers
into a communal baptism— and it is sacramental
when they lock arms with white race traitors, march out dripping.

Renny Golden’s latest book of poetry, Blood Desert: Witnesses 1820-1880 (University of New Mexico Press) won the WILLA Literary Award for poetry 2010-2011, was named a Southwest Notable Book of the Year 2012 and was a Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award. Golden is a Poetry Editor with Voices From the American Land Press, based in Taos, New Mexico.