Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a day to reflect on the civil rights leader's example and his legacy, and for poet  Richard Blanco, it's also a time to pause and evaluate the state of civil and human rights in the United States.

In the latest installment of "Village Voice," Blanco examined one of his own poems from the book  "Boundaries,"titled "Easy Lynching On Herndon Avenue." He was inspired to write it after seeing a present-day photo taken of Herndon Avenue in Mobile, Alabama, the site of the last recorded lynching in the United States in 1981. (The street was  later renamed after the man who was murdered, Michael Donald.) 

Blanco was shocked at the street's quiet, ordinary appearance — "as if nothing happened here," he wrote in an email. It made him think about, as he writes, "the hidden racism in America."

"The focus is on this as a figurative way to discuss how racism in America is at times swept under the rug, invisible," he wrote.

"When Barack Obama was elected, we thought that maybe we had turned some kind of corner in the United States, and of course what we've seen in the last year is that there's all of this hidden, deep-seated racism [and] prejudice that started bubbling up, through a series of events and out of the mouth of our own President," Blanco explained on Boston Public Radio.

The process of writing the poem made him think about the instances when his own silence or complacency allowed a racist comment or action to go unpunished.

"This poem was hard to write and hard to read, because it makes me sort of acknowledge the ways I have been passively, in a way, condoning racism by not speaking up when comments happen or things happen," Blanco said.

The poem is also about acknowledging a painful history that many would rather forget.

"[Racism] is there in the way the street is there, and we can drive by it, but there it is," Blanco said.


Present-day photo at the sight of the last recorded lynching in the U.S.


What I’d rather not see isn’t here: no rope,

no black body under a white moon swaying

limp from a tree, no bloodied drops of dew

on the twenty-first of March 1981. That’s

in another photo, like a dozen other photos

I’ve gaped at wanting—not wanting—to turn

away from the snapped necks of the hanged,

and the mob’s smug smirks, asking myself

How could they? Why? Questions not here,

not in this photo—a crisp and tranquil snap-

shot—murder washed out by time, history

left uncaptured. What’s left now is easier

on our eyes: only pale morning light seeping

blue into the sky—a backdrop to the necks

of tree boughs bowing like swans, innocent

of any crime on Herndon Avenue, pictured like

any other street: clean sidewalks (no blood),

utility poles strung with wires (no rope), a few

pavement cracks (no broken-boned body).


Easier to imagine only this: groomed children

waiting for the school bus grinding to a halt

that March morning, the twenty-first, 1981.

Their backpacks zipped with undoubtable

history and equations, cartoon lunchboxes

filled with fresh ham sandwiches and sweet

grapes. Sport-coat fathers dashing to work,

worried about paychecks and the greenness

of their lawns. All-day mothers left tending

silk pillows never fluffed enough, scrubbing

sinks never white enough, wiping windows

never spotless enough. Easier not to ask if

anyone saw him, if anyone knew the boy

whose mama had named Michael—Michael

Donald. Easier to think no one was friendly

with Mr. Hays and Mr. “Tiger” Knowles who,

on the night of March twenty-first 1981,

drove around looking for something black

to kill at random. They spotted him, age 19,

walking home (the body), strangled him first, 24

then slit his throat (the blood), chose a tree

to hang him (the rope) on Herndon Avenue.


Why? Which tree was it that shook with

his last breath? Easier not to look for it, not

find it, not make ourselves imagine Michael

still hanging on Herndon Avenue, his death

still alive since March twenty-first, 1981.

Easier not to look at his shut eyes, wonder

what his favorite color or superhero was, if

he liked to skateboard or draw, if he heard

his mama’s cries: My boyJesus, my boy!

Easier to believe the last words on the lips

of his murderers must’ve been: Forgive us,

to trust this kind of thing doesn’t happen

anymore, stay blind (no rope, no blood,

no body) to the life of a boy named Michael

invisible in this photo, that is, until we dare

to look hard and deep and long enough.

Richard Blanco joins Boston Public Radio twice a month for Village Voice. He’s a Presidential Inaugural Poet and a professor at Florida International University teaching poetry. His latest project is the fine press book "Boundaries," a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler.