Blackbird* by Terrance Hayes

for Charleston


Say hello to the little boy
Whose poor head is filled with noise
For I’m the bird he’s fixed to kill
For singing this song in the field

Blue Blackbirds, Blue blackbirds
Hear what is done to the singing birds

His hands around my wondrous wings
Plucked feathers my mother once stroked
I held the song within my throat
I sang after my body broke

Black bluebird, Black bluebird
Hear what is done to a singing bird

And now to make my music still
He took a stone up from the field
I sang to the stone like a lover though
For none could not my crush my trembling throat

Poor small boy, poor small boy
Hear what you did to a singing bird

His blows beat down upon my song
But the song remained when I was gone
When the boy walked home
To a lonely room trees heard the tune he hummed



In the hall of my grandmother’s house
Stood an old upright piano.
Wherever I touched the keys sound

Sang and sprang out.
I never called anyone nigger,
I never stood at the edge

Of a choir afraid to sing out.
Behind my white face I wear the mask
Of a black woman’s face.

I am lonely enough
To murder. I am lonely enough
To hate everything in my face.

Once I found a blackbird
with a broken wing in the field.
The black bird lay next to a stone

Like a lover with her arms thrown open
And her small mouth opened
Around a song I did not know.

Inside the Mother Emanuel African
Methodist Episcopal Church
Nine beautiful niggers prayed in the pews

Like birds. And I said Jesus
Fucking Christ to myself
And my gun was heavier

Than the weight of a breath.
I thought the black bird
Was a mask of feathers

Struggling to lift from the field
At first. The stone I lifted
Was as large as my face.

I never called anyone lover
Or nigger. When I stoned the bird
I was covered in the color

Of awe. When I got home
From the field and went to my room,
I sang out a song of inevitable sorrow.

When I looked in the mirror
I saw the eyes in a black face,
Murder is filled with sorrow.

I don’t know who cares. I don’t care
Who knows I am lonely.  I am lonely.
I am lonely. I am lonely enough to hate.



After their deaths, the black men, women, and children, I wanted to sing
The song I’d heard once about men killing a poor old horse in a tanners yard
Except I wanted to make the horse a small black bird and the men a white child,
And I wanted to sing it before American ears. After singing

Black lives matter, Black Lives Matter, in the end I couldn’t articulate,
Not to mention sing, much more. My voice cracked. I sang the words
With fear or some adjacent feeling, the small black bird beneath the stone

The small white boy slammed down made the sound of a human voice in the field
Beyond his house and my voice cracked. But what I wanted to ask
Is whether it matters whether it is a poor old horse or a blackbird
Whether the men are little more than boys, whether their parents were too kind

Or cruel with them, whether some mean or indifferent black person
Threatened or abused them, though that I think it’s unlikely
I can’t think of any stories about adult blacks bringing harm to white children
Though I suppose it could have happened. Anything is possible

After one has lived for a little while. After a white boy turns his gun
On a roomful of children and then upon himself, I suppose
You have to assume God is wild to let the devil run wild. I wanted to know

Whether you think it matters whether it’s a horse or blacks in the south
Whether it’s elementary school children in the north or a small black bird
Whether madness, grief, stupidity, fear, or some adjacent feeling comes
Before violence. After trying to talk about it, I want to sing for a little while.


* “Blackbird” by Nina Simone (Nina Simone with Strings, New York: Colpix Records, 1966.)


Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry.

This is part 6 in the series Fallen at Charleston, guest-edited by Brenda Marie Osbey.

Fallen at Charleston

“How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way” by Martín Espada

“Notes on the State of Virginia, III” by Safiya Sinclair

“What a Fellowship” by Afaa Michael Weaver

“Black 101” by Frank X Walker

“Black Bird” by Terrance Hayes

“Live Oak” and “Riposte XIV” by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

“Fallen at Charleston” Introduction by Brenda Marie Osbey



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