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John Warner Smith

“Sermon of the Dreamers” by John Warner Smith
Poet Laureate of Louisiana, 2019–2021


Shortly after being appointed the Poet Laureate of Louisiana, I was contacted by the Iberia African American Historical Society (IAAHS) to compose and read an original poem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the expulsion of eight African American leaders in Iberia Parish in 1944. Four of the leaders were doctors. The IAAHS was founded in 2017 to research the long and rich history of African Americans in Iberia Parish, to educate the public on that history through community talks and publications, to commemorate the history through the installation of historical markers, and to preserve local sites that mark the history of African Americans in Iberia Parish.


The commemorative activities of the 1944 expulsion culminated on November 16, 2019 with the unveiling of an official state marker honoring the service of the African American leaders.


In writing the poem, I wanted to capture the historical context of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, as well as the current social, political, and economic struggles of African Americans. The poem is written in two parts, the first of which speaks in the voice of slave masters and the second in the voice of African Americans. The reading was produced as a podcast by Southern Hollows.

In retrospect, the event proved to be the highlight of my two-year tenure as state poet laureate.

I later agreed to pay for the design and layout of a trifold of the poem and donate the flyer to the IAAHS for public distribution. The IAAHS agreed to print the flyer at their expense.



Sermon of the Dreamers

Commemorating the 75th Anniversary

of the Expulsion of Black Leaders in Iberia Parish, Louisiana


Come therefore, let us now kill him,

and cast him into some pit; and we shall say,

‘Some wild beast has devoured him.’

We shall see what will become of his dreams!

--Genesis 37:20


I.


We have the guns.

Let us hunt and cage the Africans,

bestial and void of soul,

plunder their paltry possessions,

strip them of country, language,

birth name and heritage,

sail them far

from the earth they till,

beyond their forests,

hills and shores,

beyond memory,


and dare them to look back.


We have the guns.

Let us own the Africans

until death, brand them

like beasts, use them

to make profit of our fields,

berate and bullwhip them,

silence their drums

and songs of redemption,


and dare them to fight.


We have the guns.

Let us make laws

to keep the Africans unfree.

Muzzle them.

Lock them up.

Bolt our doors.

Banish their leaders.

Bury our books.

Forbid them to seek,

find, and teach

the power of knowing,


and dare them to dream.



II.


We are the dreamers:

African Americans,

Louisianians,

Iberians,

born of fire and rock,

children of a God

who can’t be chained,

a spirit that can’t be broken.


Oh America, our country tis of thee,

come with us.

Walk the fields

of death and degradation

that made you rich and powerful,

the past that portends

your future—our journey

across gut-churning seas

and bitter, blistering plains,

through streams of shed blood,

the past that no night falls,

no deafness, silence or shut eyes,

no brightly gleaming dawns

will ever bury or fade.


Come with us, America.

Trace the bombast and hypocrisy

in godly beliefs and declarations

you spoke, all the gardens not blooming

of seeds you sowed long ago.


Trace the innocence you ravaged,

making fears of our days,

and the poverty you made

of race and color

with walls that smothered hopes

of our families and children.


Oh beautiful, America,

land that we love, follow

all the hell you gave us

over centuries of suffering.

Walk the wilderness

and stony roads we trod,

barefoot and burdened,

through the valley,

to the mountaintop

where we now stand—free,

unbent and unbroken,


standing

for Turner, Tubman and Douglass,

Du Bois and Hamer,

Rosa, Malcolm and Martin,

for Jesse Washington,

Emmett Till, Alton Sterling,

and victims of hate and injustice

of all races and creeds,


standing

for loving mothers and fathers

with children going wherever