Dolores Kendrick

Dolores Kendrick

“Danced in the evening. While the super cooked.
Whooped in the morning. Danced again.”

Dolores Kendrick
Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 2004

Dolores Kendrick was a poet, playwright, and educator, whose work appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Indiana Review, Open Places, and numerous anthologies. Author of Through the Ceiling (1975) and Now is the Thing to Praise (1984), she received greatest acclaim for The Women of Plums (1989). This book won the Ansfield-Wolf Award in 1990, listed as the New York Public Library Best Book for Teenagers in 1991, and was the inspiration for an original production by Karamu Theatre in Cleveland. The poem “Peggy in Killing” from The Women of Plums was adapted for an opera which opened in New York in the spring of 1995. Following the 1994 conference, Kendrick published her collection Why the Woman is Singing on the Corner: A Verse Narrative (2001). Kendrick also recorded her poetry as a part of the Contemporary Poets’ Series by the Library of Congress and read for The Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, and the Gertrude Whittall Series. She received a special Fulbright Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Education and Literature, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and a National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Award. The first Vira I. Heinz Professor Emerita at Phillips Exeter Academy, Kendrick passed away in 2017.

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Hattie on the Block

Remember me?
	I’m the woman you nailed to a tree
		after the twilight died.

Carrie, you be still, now,
	don’t make no noise.
Mama will protect you
	from all the shoutin’ an’ screamin’
	an’ biddin’ that’s goin’ on
		right now. Hold on. Hold onto Mama.
	won’t be long now,
	they done had they lunch, 
	an’ somethin’ will happen to take
	the fear outta your bones
		an’ the sweat off of your eyelids
	an’ drain them to the sweet winds
	for the birds to eat. Somethin’ will happen:

Happens that I be a slave woman,
maybe that makes me property,
not a human bein’ like all
you who come to buy me,
see if I’m sturdy, can hold ground,
can withstand the elements, bear fruit
when the seed is in me, like the Lord’s land, 
sing for my supper when the seasons come,
give death the mortgage on my bones.

Don’t come near me! Stay away!
I’m not buyable yet, 
I’m a bit unleavened.

Still, Carrie, be still, child. Don’t cry, 
	don’t let them see you cry, honey, 
there’s a victory in that. Keep the tears
	inward, outta they sight.
Hold onto my apron, tear it, if you want,
	hold hard while we crush the evil
pushin’ its way through that crowd of shoppers
	yellin’ before us an’ standin’ there
mockin’ us with money an’ all the changers
	in the temple, but they all look good,
	don’t they? Nice coats an’ trousers, 
	bright shoes, sturdy hats. Ever seen
	a finer lookin’ peoples than that?

Evil be pretty sometimes, don’t it?

Money look good, even if it be for your soul. 

Souls cain’t be bought. 
I won’t be of much use to anybody
who buys me without my Carrie here. 
I be crippled, needin’ crutches: who gonna
pay for them? Or I will have to work 
the fields limpin’ about with my mind
catchin’ butterflies, when I should be
pickin’ cotton, ‘cause my soul be amputated
when you bought me without my Carrie
for a few dollars cheaper?
No, don’t, I beg, you, don’t touch me!
Stay back. I cain’t leave this block
in holo-cust!

That’s it, Carrie, hang tight; 
	My, your forehead be hot,
fever comin’ on I ‘spect, an’ your
	mother’s fever gone cold
makin’ it more dangerous when 
	it be exposed to the elements
that gather up ‘round her now, 
	this early, bright mornin’ 
spoiled an’ festerin’ in the mouths
	of all these happy buyers who need
the disease of your Mama’s wrath
	so they can recover from their own

Dyin’ today if I be sold without my Carrie. 
I promise you that. 

Look on us before you lay
your money down. What we cost? $2500?

Good price. Buy what you breed.

Masters, Owners, Buyers, Fathers, Sons, 
Take vengeance on your dollar! 
God help me, I be His maidservant, 
I be His witness to this sale of womanflesh
in the twenty-eighth year of my delivery!

Carrie, look! Wipe up your eyes, child. 
See. They finished the biddin’. Money
be paid. We’s together, God heard my 
haltin’ words through the ears of these
deafened people; you an’ me from this strange
pulpit. Look lively, child. We be sold, 
but we ain’t bought. 

Peggy in Killing


They done found me,
Lord! The done found me again!
I’m dead and they don’t know it.
Sometimes I don’t either.

Except the Spirit come
creepin’ in my body
like hot fire
and I burn and burn
all inside
turn to dust
blow away out over
they heads when they 
finds me cryin’ in a sack.

I listens
and listens:
I’m travelin’ in my bones
and the Spirit who swooshes out
before I get a chance to say 

Oh, the wind! the sea!
I’m dead on this boat.

Go ‘way. Go ‘way, nigger! they says,
so I goes. Don’t touch me yet!
Got to get home to my mother!
Ain’t that what the Lord say 
when He rise from the dead?
Goin’ home to his mother?

Won’t somebody row this boat
out of hell?


Can’t be no slave forever,
not me! and my children 
all pretty and soft
all wet in they skin
moist like the sea air
they be buryin’ me in.

Can’t be no slave forever,
make way, Lord, here I come!
Here I am!
This heah boat they put me on
with my children
‘cause I tried to escape
from they dark breaths,
they glories, hallelujahs!
they fine houses and sweet fields,
they murders murders murders!
they coffins strechin’ in they smiles,
they come heah Peggy,
dress my little one,
then fix her somethin’ to eat,
maybe some cake and milk,
and mine’ sittin on the stairs
in the cold, in the dark,
waitin’ to do some waitin’ on
waitin’ for the milk to sour
and the cake to crumble,
hearin’ all this
without a word, a whimper,
eyes freezin’ in they dreams,
hungers freezin’ in they dark,
takin’ they dreams to supper
like candles meltin’,
after ‘while no more light,
they walkin’ softly
makin’ sure they seen and not heard
and they dreams screamin’
in they bright, soft eyes.

My soft little ones!
My children!
My John and Mary and Lottie,
brown and golden-black,
listenin’ in the dark,
bright in they Black!

But it be a gift, a gift!
Out of the misery 
I become blacker than the skin
of a tree in the rain, 
and I be rooted
in the rich black earth.
Out of me flies the swallow.

Lord, I’m here ‘cause I went:
with my little ones; we’re
all goin’ to somethin’ better.
They has to be somethin’ better,
and my death give me a chance.


Cain’t be no slave forever, 
No, Lord!
I’ve got wisdom and hope
and I don’t think about it, 
don’t believe it
don’t not believe 
don’t carry them around
in my misery
like sick animals.

Gotta let go! Gotta live inside death
in a wheelchair, if i must,
there must be some energy left in that!

Caught me in Philadelphia,
put me in a boat
down, down in the hollows 
of its ribs, in the hollerin’
of the sea
with my three little ones
cryin’ to me:
no, I lies.
They be silent,
no tears, no murmers,
no moans, no sighs.

And I knew then
that death gave me a chance,
a great salvation, 
a fine, early night.

So I waits. 

In the dark and dampness
I sat there ‘till my skin broke
and I held my children close.

The Killing

But that boat wasn’t meant 
for nothin’ but glory, 
and when it crashed into the sea,
I entered that water
like I was being baptised, 
saw my John’s head
stretch among the waves
and near him Mary
and near her Lottie, laughin’.
Oh, Lord! What a sight!
Baptized to the death!

I denounce you, Satan!
I denounce this unfree callin’,
I denounce shackles, bondage,
escape, darkness,
the quiet of the pain 
in my throat when I scream
for nothin’, nothin’ at all,
when I watch my children
sit on stairwells
in the dark
and ice forms
in they mouths,
I denounce the evil of rememberin’. 
I denounce pieces of property, 
pounds of pain. 

Nothin’ be free, but the misery.

My hands over they heads
was such a little matter,
‘jes takin’ them under
puttin’ them there
for the water to purify
for they own bloomin’
under the sea.

Lottie, she kicked a bit, 
but that be all. 
It be over. 

They be flowers under the water now,

Lord, how cleansed I be!
When the water come rushin’
beatin’ ‘gainst my bosom
through me to them, 
I feel like I be givin’ suck
and the sea be my milk, 
and my healthy babies be fed
and wholesome and warm forever.

The Last Vision

I’m here now
in this place
don’t know it
but it moves, 
and they be water about:
‘nother boat. 
I can see a tiny window,
but the light hurts
and wants the dark.
Now and then some peoples
come and look at me, 
ask me if I wants to eat,
leave me some cornbread
and cold tea. 

They be crates and trunks here, 
like the other boat, 
and I think we be movin’. 
They found me in the water, 
I reckon, brought me again
in a backward time. 

I’m dead.
I know it ‘cause I’m happy. 
The children are flowers now, 
baptized in joy and hope; 
I shiver when I think 
of they beauty. 
Cain’t cry, ‘cause I be dead,
this old tarp ‘round me, 
my flesh rottin’, my bones
dryin’ out, my eyes movin’ 
through some kind of cheesecloth, 
like a fog. 

I’m goin’ to reach out now, 
so my death
will stay away from my babies:
cain’t upset them now!
They’s pure. 
And these ghosts that come
and watch me in the night?
I’ll sing to them, 
like a star. 

The Agony and the Bone

Chicago shanks…..
	Hung along the lake
		like churches; the rib awake

			the groin of fasted days
			for Lazaruses raised
			from shanty towns, a phrase

	of her like stitching wounds can make;

	raw, the freshly killed alone
		the young obscenity of

			weening in the streets
			the sacrificial bleats
			of slaughters, meats
	for mayors. She like love: the agony and the bone