Ballad of Pearl May Lee

Then off they took you, off to the jail,
A hundred hooting after.
And you should have heard me at my house.
I cut my lungs with my laughter,
Laughter,
Laughter.
I cut my lungs with my laughter.

They dragged you into a dusty cell.
And a rat was in the corner.
And what was I doing? Laughing still.
Though never was a poor gal lorner,
Lorner,
Lorner,
Though never was a poor gal lorner.

The sheriff, he peeped in through the bars,
And (the red old thing) he told you,
“You son of a bitch, you’re going to hell!”
‘Cause you wanted white arms to enfold you,
Enfold you,
Enfold you.
‘Cause you wanted white arms to enfold you.

But you paid for your white arms, Sammy boy,
And you didn’t pay with money.
You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy boy,
For your taste of pink and white honey,
Honey,
Honey.
For your taste of pink and white honey.

Oh, dig me out of my don’t-despair.
Pull me out of my poor-me.
Get me a garment of red to wear.
You had it coming surely,
Surely,
Surely,
You had it coming surely.

At school, your girls were the bright little girls.
You couldn’t abide dark meat.
Yellow was for to look at,
Black was for the famished to eat.
Yellow was for to look at,
Black for the famished to eat.

You grew up with bright skins on the brain,
And me in your black folks bed.
Often and often you cut me cold,
And often I wished you dead.
Often and often you cut me cold.
Often I wished you dead.

Then a white girl passed you by one day,
And, the vixen, she gave you the wink.
And your stomach got sick and your legs liquefied.
And you thought till you couldn’t think.
You thought,
You thought,
You thought till you couldn’t think.

I fancy you out on the fringe of town,
The moon an owl’s eye minding;
The sweet and thick of the cricket-belled dark,
The fire within you winding…
Winding,
Winding…
The fire within you winding.

Say, she was white like milk, though, wasn’t she?
And her breasts were cups of cream.
In the back of her Buick you drank your fill.
Then she roused you out of your dream.
In the back of her Buick you drank your fill.
Then she roused you out of your dream.

“You raped me, nigger,” she softly said.
(The shame was threading through.)
“You raped me, nigger, and what the hell
Do you think I’m going to do?
What the hell,
What the hell
Do you think I’m going to do?

“I’ll tell every white man in this town.
I’ll tell them all of my sorrow.
You got my body tonight, nigger boy.
I’ll get your body tomorrow.
Tomorrow.
Tomorrow.
I’ll get your body tomorrow.”

And my glory but Sammy she did! She did!
And they stole you out of the jail.
They wrapped you around a cottonwood tree.
And they laughed when they heard you wail.

And I was laughing, down at my house.
Laughing fit to kill.
You got what you wanted for dinner,
But brother you paid the bill.
Brother,
Brother,
Brother you paid the bill.

You paid for your dinner, Sammy boy,
And you didn’t pay with money.
You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy boy,
For your taste of pink and white honey,
Honey,
Honey.
For your taste of pink and white honey.

Oh, dig me out of my don’t-despair.
Oh, pull me out of my poor-me.
Oh, get me a garment of red to wear.
You had it coming surely.
Surely.
Surely.
You had it coming surely.

Note

*Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. The author of twenty-six books, Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, in 1950, and in 1968 she succeeded Carl Sandburg as Poet Laureate of Illinois. While Brooks’s eclectic oeuvre is impossible to reduce aesthetically or politically, she is best known as the leading light of the Chicago Renaissance and one of the clearest and most innovative literary voices of the African American civil rights movement. Many critics regard her work as a path connecting the 1920s Harlem Renaissance with the writers and theorists of the 1960s Black Aesthetic such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Haki Madhubuti. As an American poet, she stands alongside Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes in international influence and reputation. “Ballad of Pearl May Lee,” comes from her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945; it is reprinted here by permission.

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