Poem #23: At the Closed Gate of Justice by James David Corrothers

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleAt the Closed Gate of Justice

James David Corrothers

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


To be a Negro in a day like this
    Demands forgiveness. Bruised with blow on blow,
Betrayed, like him whose woe dimmed eyes gave bliss
    Still must one succor those who brought one low,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this
    Demands rare patience—patience that can wait
In utter darkness. ’Tis the path to miss,
    And knock, unheeded, at an iron gate,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this
    Demands strange loyalty. We serve a flag
Which is to us white freedom’s emphasis.
    Ah! one must love when Truth and Justice lag,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this—
    Alas! Lord God, what evil have we done?
Still shines the gate, all gold and amethyst,
    But I pass by, the glorious goal unwon,
“Merely a Negro”—in a day like this!


It's unclear what specific day that Corrothers is speaking to but this poem appeared to be published in the early 1910s, so I'm assuming that the "a day" here is more about the times, the early 1900s, which after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case ruling "separate but equal", white America was further empowered to make life even more harder and deadly for Black people.

The repetition of the line "To be a Negro in a day like this" with the final like "'Merely a Negro'--in a day like this" is an ironic refrain that Corrothers reflects back to the reader at a time when legally and culturally white power drove to undermine and devalue the many challenges of being Black in America (and to be clear, these are still with us today in myriad ways). But these lines are there as fodder for the lines inbetween them as Corrothers, briefly, highlights the deep and powerful things that Black people carry with them each day in America:  forgiveness, patience, and loyalty in the face of violence, imprisonment, and disenfranchisement.  In part, because the goal is bigger than the country and has more spiritual aspirations of honoring God, despite the troubles they face.

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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