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poetry To Kneel

As the moguls of the National Football League coerce the athletes to abandon their protests against racism, Kathy Engel’s poem reminds us of the larger stakes for us all.

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To Kneel

By Kathy Engel

The black men who make wages
from the brutal banging of the skull,
pounding of the knees, arms
reaching like branches in the long
arc of a pass, now kneel.
The muscles of their souls,
the soles of their cleats, stretch
of their thighs speak. Fans and refs
yell, commentators jabber and behold:
one knee, hand to ground,

they kneel, the weight
of their built-up bodies 
pulled earthward as if called 
by those from before 
to kneel now, refusing to salute
this country’s killing field. 
Those with the heart to be the lonely
first; their knees sing. Jobs at stake,
they kneel for the inheritors. For the future
dignity of bodies to choose to stand

or touch down. And the joining, too --
some, then flocks, arms threaded,
waving flags of jersey-ed bodies,
an anthem, for the uncountable – 
to be counted. And to those
who drop to the knee
only in the recesses of a locked
back room or those who switch and bait
in the light, amid the throngs—or those 
who hide behind their whiteness—

who will be there to kneel for you
when such a time comes, as it will
come? What will you say when
your children or your grandchildren,
their friends or lovers ask
what parts of your bodies 
touched the ground
in the moment of loyalty,
or the moment of betrayal?
What would I?

Kathy Engel is a poet, organizer, educator, cultural worker who, along with a group of women, founded the women's human rights organization MADRE, in 1983, and has co founded, led and consulted numerous other social justice, human rights and peace efforts for nearly 40 years. Her poems have appeared widely, most recently in Poet Lore and the eco justice poetry anthology Ghost Fishing (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2018). Her books include Ruth's Skirts, poems, 2007, and We Begin Here   Poems for Palestine & Lebanon, which she co edited with Kamal Boullata.. She is Chair and Associate Arts Professor in the Department of Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU.