Mississippi

By E. Ethelbert Miller b. 1950 E. Ethelbert Miller
death surrounds itself with the living
i watch them take the body from the house
i’m a young kid maybe five years old
the whole thing makes no sense to me
i hear my father say
          lord jesus what she go and do this for
i watch him walk out the backdoor of the house
i watch him walk around the garden
kick the dirt
stare at the flowers
& shake his head  shake his head
he shakes his head all night long

yazoo
jackson
vicksburg
we must have family in almost every city
i spent more time traveling than growing up
guess that’s why i’m still shorter than my old man
he don’t like to stay in one place much
he tell me
soon as people get to know your last name
seem like they want to call you by your first
boy    if someone ask you your name
tell them to call you mississippi
not sippi or sip but mississippi

how many colored folks you know name mississippi

none see

now you can find a whole lot of folks whose
name is canada
just like you can find 53 people in any phone book
whose name is booker t. washington

your mother she was a smart woman
gave you a good name
not one of them abolitionist names

what you look like with a name like
john brown or william lloyd garrison
that don’t have no class

your mother she named you after the river
cause of its beauty and mystery
just like my mother named me nevada
cause she didn’t know where it was

Ethelbert Miller, “Mississippi” from First Light: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by Ethelbert Miller. Reprinted by permission of Black Classic Press.

Source: First Light: New and Selected Poems (1994)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet E. Ethelbert Miller b. 1950

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Living, Youth, Death, Relationships, Home Life, Family & Ancestors, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

 E.  Ethelbert  Miller

Biography

E. (Eugene) Ethelbert Miller was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1950. He attended Howard University and received a BA in African American studies in 1972. A self-described “literary activist,” Miller is on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank, and has served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. His collections of poetry . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Youth, Death, Relationships, Home Life, Family & Ancestors, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.