Three Poems from 'Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color' by Elizabeth Alexander

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"Knowledge"

It wasn't as if we knew nothing before.
After all, colored girls must know many
things in order to survive. Not only
could I sew buttons and hems, but I could
make a dress and pantaloons from scratch.
I could milk cows, churn butter, feed chickens,
clean their coops, wring their necks, pluck and cook them.
I cut wood, set fires, and boiled water
to wash the clothes and sheets, then wrung them dry.
And I could read the Bible. Evenings
before the fire, my family tired
from unending work and New England cold,
they'd close their eyes. My favorite was Song of Songs.
They most liked when I read, "In the beginning."

"Crave Radiance" page 219

"Goodbye"

The mother who packs her daughter's valise,
tucks a Bible between the muslin layers.
The father who shoes horses and fixes
clocks and other intricate things that break
saves coins in their largest preserving jar
'til the day for which they have waited comes.
See Mother wash and oil and comb and braid
Daughter's thick brown hair for the very last time.

Does "good-bye" mean we hope or mean we weep?
Does it mean remember all you know, or
come back as soon as you can, or do not?
Does it mean go now, or I do not know?
Good-bye, Daughter, says Mother. She watches
the horse and buggy 'til it fades from view.

"Crave Radiance" page 220

"Allegiance"

Teacher is bewildered when packages
and letters come from far to say how brave,
how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast
is Prudence Crandall of Canterbury.
Work, she says, there is always work to do,
not in the name of self but in the name,
the water-clarity of what is right.
We crave radiance in this austere world,
light in the spiritual darkness.
Learning is the one perfect religion,
its path correct, narrow, certain, straight.
At its end it blossoms and billows
into vari-colored polyphony:

the sweet infinity of true knowledge.

"Crave Radiance" page 224

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is a poet and professor of African American Studies at Yale University. She wrote and delivered "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Her most recent book of poems is Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010.

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