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Connecting past to present, revealing the ripple effect of discriminatory systems — and the fixes.


Poetry and the struggle for justice

During the antebellum period, newspapers and magazines featured poems that advanced a wide range of causes, including women’s rights, peace, and temperance.

Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, former president of NAACP Cornell William Brooks, and cofounder and executive director of Black Voters Matter Cliff Albright are arrested the Capitol Police during a “Brothers Day of Action on Capitol Hill” protest outside the Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in July.Alex Wong/Getty

On the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, a 201-year-old poem reminds us that the struggle for justice has been ingrained in American history from the start.

Ghostly, to you, tho’ I’m speaking,

Deign to lend a list’ning ear,

To your duty now awaken,

Hear my pleading spectre, hear.

These lines come at the end of a poem called “The Ghost of Justice,” which appeared in the August 1820 issue of The Emancipator, the nation’s first newspaper devoted entirely to abolitionism. In the poem, Justice herself rails against the system of enslavement as a betrayal of the spirit of the American Revolution.

Loud your fathers, then complained

Of the yoke of British thrall;

Loudly too, they then maintained,

Freedom is the right of all

At a time when the last revolutionary soldiers were dying, this appeal to their defense of liberty came naturally. In laying out her case, Justice recalls that the nascent United States was enjoying heaven-granted abundance and renown among nations only to disgrace itself by inflicting “horrid” misery and “oppression” on “Afric’s helpless sable sons.”

The voice of Justice in the poem is anything but calm. Claiming that the enslavement system has effectively murdered her, she threatens to “doom to endless sorrow” those who violate her rights unless they listen to her now and relent:

Freedom give to the oppressed

Loose him from his heavy chain;

Hear the groans of the distressed

Soothe his sorrows, ease his pain.

Verbs in this stanza prescribe not just a change of attitude but a course of action: give, loose, hear, soothe, and ease.

During the antebellum period, newspapers and magazines featured poems that advanced a wide range of causes, including women’s rights, peace, and temperance. For this reason, no reader of The Emancipator would have been surprised to find “The Ghost of Justice” in a paper mostly devoted to essays, letters to the editor, reports from antislavery societies, histories of the human trafficking of Africans, and accounts of lawsuits filed on behalf of enslaved people. To these genres of persuasion, poetry added vivid images and precise language that allowed readers to hear voices calling them to their better selves.

When Amanda Gorman delivered the inaugural poem on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, she assumed her place in the long tradition of poetry written for truth’s sake.

Recited two weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, she insisted “the norms and notions/of what just is/Isn’t always just-ice.”

It was the same point the anonymous poet of “The Ghost of Justice” made in calling on the nation to “set the world a fair example” by fulfilling the promise of democracy.

Paul Lewis is a professor of English at Boston College and editor of “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820.”