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“the beautiful, needful thing”: in memory of Dr. Dorothy Height

By Camille Dungy

Dr. Dorothy Height

This morning in the nation’s capitol, mourners said farewell to Dr. Dorothy Height, a life-long Civil Rights activist to whom this nation owes a debt of thanks.  Rather than end my blogging stint on Harriet describing some of the revolutionary things that National Poetry Month has allowed this nation and its poets to accomplish, as I had originally planned, I have decided to dedicate this space to the memory of Dr. Dorothy Height.  This is fundamentally about poetry, too, because I am curious about the ways we have and can and will memorialize the women and men who make this world the sort of place in which I want to live.

In his remarks at her funeral this morning, President Obama said, “Progress came from the collective effort of multiple generations of Americans. From preachers and lawyers, and thinkers and doers, men and women like Dr. Height, who took it upon themselves — often at great risk — to change this country for the better.”

I want to read the poems that honor this legacy.  Poems like June Jordan’s “For Beautiful Mary Brown: Chicago Rent Strike Leader” that talk about the “little people” who help to foster major change:

…She listens to you and she sees

you crying on your knees or else

the dust drifts from your tongue and almost

she can feel her father standing tall….

But Dr. Height was not a figure in the background of civil rights activism.  She sat on the podium the day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his Famous “I Have a Dream Speech”;  she helped found the National Political Women’s Caucus with Shirley Chisholm,  Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan; she is the recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal; she had a well-documented and highly succesful legacy of social activism that spanned over 80 years.

This March I attended the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, a Washington D.C.-based gathering of writers who believe “poetry can act as an agent for change: reaching across differences, considering personal and social responsibility, asserting the centrality of the right to free speech, bearing witness to the diversity and complexity of human experience through language, imagining a better world.” It is from groups of writers such as this that I hope to hear more and more poetry honoring the goals and accomplishments of figures like Dr. Height.

I want to read poems about women like Dr. Height that resonate with the power of this magnificent Robert Hayden poem in homage to one of American history’s best known civil rights activists:


Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

by Robert Hayden

Among the many things that move me about this Hayden poem is the urgency of the language, and the way in which Hayden makes it clear that Douglass’s mission, though still absolutely necessary, is as yet not fully realized.  By replacing the line “this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro” with any other (take, for instance: “this woman, this Height, this world changer, this hero”), we keep the goals set forth in Hayden’s poem alive into another century.

And whose will be the as-yet-unknown names to replace these names we already know?  Whose will be “the lives grown out of [t]his life, the lives fleshing [t]his dream of the beautiful, needful thing”?  And who will write the poems for these souls?

Farewell, Dr. Dorothy Height.  Thank you.  May your legacy live on with us in word, in deed.  Indeed.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 by Camille Dungy.