The World Day of Social Justice takes place every year in February. It presents organizations, schools, and individuals with the opportunity to learn about social justice issues. While learning facts is important, connecting to the more emotional aspects of social justice is just as valuable. Poetry has always been a vital piece of social justice and the fight for human rights. Here are five poems that embrace the principles and meaning of social justice.
This poem’s title refers to a common real estate term. It’s used to describe a house that may not look like much on the surface, but it has “good bones” and can be transformed into something beautiful. Poet Maggie Smith draws a parallel between this kind of house and the world. She speaks about her children and how she wants to protect them from the harsh realities of life. She’s “selling” the world, telling her children that even though there are awful things in it, it has good bones. “This place could be beautiful, right?” she asks. “You could make this place beautiful.” Having hope in the future and working toward a better world is what social justice is all about.
Maggie Smith is an award-winning poet. The Washington Post included Good Bones (2017) as one of its Best Five Poetry Books of 2017. It also won the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry. Smith works as a freelance writer, editor, and as a consulting editor to the Kenyon Review
In this poem, Nye describes how to treat a stranger who shows up at the door. “The Arabs used to say,” the piece opens, that when a stranger appears, you should give them food for three days before asking any questions. This gives the stranger strength to answer, or, because you’re friends, you won’t care what the answers are. The “red brocade” refers to a red brocade pillow given so the stranger can be comfortable. This poem has special resonance when we think of “the stranger” as a refugee or immigrant, a person who faces constant questioning and rejection. It also applies to anyone that might be considered “other.”
The work of Arab-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye has appeared in reviews and journals throughout the world. Her honors include Pushcart Prizes and the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s serving as the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2019-2021.
Written in 1940, this poem is still strikingly relevant today. The poem’s speaker addresses his landlord, asking him to make basic repairs like fixing the roof and the broken stairs. The landlord refuses, saying the renter needs to pay him first. The renter insists that repairs should be made before money exchanges hands. The landlord then starts making threats, but the tenant laughs, saying, “You ain’t gonna be able to say a word If I land my fist on you.” The landlord leaps at the chance to get his tenant out, calling the police. They throw the tenant, who is revealed to be a Black man, in jail for 90 days without bail. The landlord, who was exploiting the tenant, faces no consequences.
Langston Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a time when Black literature, art, and intellectualism thrived. Hughes wrote plays, short stories, and jazz poetry. He died in 1967.
This poem speaks in the voice of people in the US with unclear immigration status. It consists of occasionally fragmented sentences in a unique format, evoking images with natural scenes (a peach tree, birds, grass, etc) and phrases like “laws pass laws with scientific walls” and “detention cells.” At the end of the poem, a man named Alberto is described as “homeless & w/o papers.” He gets on a bus, traveling to places he can work without getting checked. Originally published in 2011, this is the title poem of a collection, which was included in Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Poetry Books of 2020.
Juan Felipe Herrera was the 21st (and first Mexican-American) United States Poet Laureate from 2015-2017. The son of migrant farmers, he moved around Southern California often during his childhood. His art is informed by Mexican-American and indigenous experiences and interest in social justice.
The goal of social justice is a society where everyone is equal. This poem conjures up images of walking or marching. A drum beats out rhythms that never change. The poem’s speaker addresses an unnamed “you” that refuses to hear the message or see the problems. “We have lived a shameful past,” the speaker says, “But I keep on marching forward, and you keep on coming last.” In the fight for social justice, there are always people that resist progress and change. The drum keeps beating: “Equality, and I will be free.”
In addition to poetry, Maya Angelou wrote essays, autobiographies, plays, and more. She was also an activist, using her work to draw attention to racism, discrimination, and other social justice issues. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She passed away in 2014.