Race in America: My Reflections on “The Present Crisis”

Poetry is all I have to offer today when my country is in such turmoil. I write a lot about race unity, hoping to spread hope. Wherever there is a thought of hate, replace it with a thought of love. We can do this. We will reach the promised land. Keep the faith.



On Restitution and Absolution

(Reflections on James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis”)


From the cauldron that’s America, now in full rolling boil,
Feel the heat of convolution, smell the stench of bubbling oil.
Arms reach out from bloody soil, for relief of human mis’ry.
Mingled voice of white and black call on heaven to take pity
On the people of this nation, ‘cross the heartland and the cities.

Where the sheet-covered figures now march by light of day,
And by night roam the youth gangs seeking unsuspecting prey.
Where retreat into tribalism is our new found insanity,
Self-hate and righteous bigotry reach a level of profanity
And America is drowning in its own inhumanity.

Race relations in America, it’s like entering a maze…
The racism in our fibers is a cancerous malaise.
In some hearts there’s deep despair, and the poor hope no more.
‘Neath the barely restrained violence dwells a lust for retribution.
There dwells an anger deeply rooted in unjust persecution.

While a hoard of TV pundits poke the wound in fascination,
Mesmerized by all its festering, paralyzed by complications,
A new wayward generation can’t transcend its own confusion.
The past beckons ever-present, calling out for resolution,
While the future looms so imminent, with the threat of no solutions.

The momentum of decay is now measured by the hour
As the race-related incidents descend in steady shower.
Each assault deals loss of hope, each new verdict heightens panic.
Feel the fall of a great country, sinking like the great Titanic.
Rearing now for its third gasp, as it drowns in the Atlantic.

One great canvas holds the anguish now reflected in all eyes,
Our faces all turn upward, voices question darkened skies:
“Who will give us restitution?” “Who will grant us absolution?”
“When will come illumination, and an end to tribulation?”
“Do we even have volition to break with our tradition?”

White sister, black brother, come to table, eat your supper.
White father, black mother! Cool your anger, ease that hunger.
Cast the load and sit you down! Break your bread and pass it round…
Hush your mouth and do some lis’ning! Drink the gall of our own history…
Humbly look into each eye. Bow your head and eat your pie…


The gang children of today, you see, who live by hatred’s rule
Only mimic what was learned in our forefathers’ school.
When they led that Cyclops, Slavery, where our trusting feet did play,
To the offspring of that monster they did sentence us as prey.
They enslaved their children’s children in a trackless round of hate.

They defined the most great issue that would challenge us today
As we struggle to retrieve our wounded children from the fray,
From the claws of Slavery’s offspring, Indifference and Self-hate,
We glance behind to roads long forgotten in dismay,
Where the bare bones of history, show both greatness and disgrace.

‘Twas the portion of the white man to be this land’s oppressor,
Blundering into this great drama oft to plunder and divest her.
And now even when immigrating lately to the scene,
He is burdened as accessory to our forefather’s sin.
Now he totes a weary load in the color of his skin.

And it fell to the black race to be sacrificial lamb
Then the victims free of sin on the stage of this our land,
But like the children of the Israelites when freed from their bondage
Some went wandering in the desert, some went turning to idolatry,
Seduced by every idol, now the tools of their own carnage.

So while white man’s soul did battle with the demons in his head,
The black man had to wrestle with the dragon in his bed.
While the one lost his faith by succumbing to his greed,
The other reaped his grace overcoming evil deeds.
For even ‘neath oppression can the spirit wander free.


At this pass, this great juncture, when the stars are all aligned
And the fruitage of our actions have all ripened on the vine
From the forces of the universe we must question this convergence.
We must ask the divine purpose in the cyclical resurgence
Of Moses’ children’s bondage and Pharaoh’s people’s scourges.

On the shores of this new nation were we destined here to meet?
Some came chased here by intolerance, some came shackled by their feet.
Are we then to chart a path through God’s primordial maze?
Meant to play out age old themes upon this nation’s stage?
Search the meaning of the cosmos through kaleidoscope of race?

Could it be our Revolution, from which our freedom grew,
Won the privilege of dignity only for the few?
And the truth we found self-evident but still chose to deny
Entombed in our constitution a poison laden lie,
Incongruity we’ve struggled ever since to rectify?

For as each century came full circle we came inching towards the truth.
By the strife of good and evil our thirst for freedom grew.
Fighting for emancipation our whole nation agonized.
Marching for desegregation we were further purified.
It but remains to ask the present hour where our crisis lies!


For our country’s schizophrenia there must be a resolution
Lest the strain of our disunion prove our final dissolution
Into shards of shattered principle, into stripes of shredded dream.
What began in incongruity must forever be made clean.
In the river tide of history we may never swim upstream.

To redeem our great nation, from the brink of its destruction,
And retrieve its mangled soul from the pit of its corruption,
Let us wade in the water trusting ever in His grace.
And thus, coax a resolution from the iron teeth of fate
Where we all gain restitution for humanity’s mistakes.

In America’s march triumphant t’wards our spiritual evolution
One brother’s restitution is the other’s absolution.
The one who shows forgiveness heals the wound in his own soul.
And his mistrust, once relinquished, severs slavery’s last hold,
Breathing peace where resentment has taken heavy toll.

The other, who through trial, overcomes his own denial,
And wrenches from his gut that unconscious racist bile,
When desisting of supremacy, his redemption does attain.
In becoming brother’s keeper he wipes from his hand the stain
Of the slaying of poor Abel by his wandering brother Cain.

Thus, for each man and race to its challenge overcome.
To determine what its station, in the darkness or the sun.
To the measure each man caters to his love or to his hate,
Or voices by his silence his collusion with the race,
Turns the tide of this great nation and of our commingled fate.

As we’re merged blood with blood, our destinies can’t be parted.
As two saplings grown entwined who cannot be divided.
By the sheer sweat of sinew, by the act of conscious will,
Must we turn our sights up mountain, scaling back on back until
We plant the flag of oneness on the peak of highest hill.

As we’re made from the same dust and dwell in the same land
We must become one soul, be the lion and the lamb.
We must eat with the same mouth and walk with the same feet.
Till the signs of our oneness make the round complete.
And though darkness be upon us we dare not accept defeat.

For a glorious vision beckons, in the prophecies of old.
Of a day when former enemies will willingly take hold
Of the weapons of their hatred, gladly to transform,
Into instruments of healing. To remove that crown of thorns
From the brow of all their brethren, and be to peace reborn.

And America’s share in breathing life into this vision
Is to heal the wound within, to cure its own division.
For our ever-present crisis is mirrored in all nations
Where old enemies now rise in burning conflagration.
Dare we raise up the first prejudice-free generation?

A global race committed to advance civilization
And ransom all of “those who have trespassed against us.”
For leading by example is our only global power:
With each of our soul struggles we are hastening that hour
When humanity, AS ONE, yields this planet’s finest flower.

By Rhea Harmsen

Copyright 1996

About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
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