By Oludamini Ogunnaike
An elegy is a poem typically written to mourn the dead. I wrote this elegy to lament the death of George Floyd and all victims of white supremacy, and was inspired, in part, by Professor Bilal Ware’s excellent recent talk on the topic. It borrows heavily from the Arabic and West African traditions of qaṣīda poetry and elegy, particularly from the famous elegy of al-Khansā’ (d. 645) for her brother and those of the Sokoto scholar, Nana Asma’u (d. 1865). In keeping with the conventions of the qaṣīda tradition, the poem begins with a nasīb, an opening lament contemplating natural scenery and local geography. This poem draws on the famous openings of the mu’allaqat of Imru’l-Qays (d. 544) and qaṣīdas of Ibn al-Fāriḍ (d. 1234) and Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975), as well al-Buṣīrī’s Burda, in its nasīb.
On the night that I composed this poem, thunderstorms raged throughout the Midwest and Eastern United States, while our TV screens and windows glowed with images from fires and sirens of the protests and attacks, thereby setting the scene for the poem’s opening. This elegy contains many other conventions of the qaṣīda genre, including references to Qur’an, hadith, other poems, stock images, a closing supplication and the repetition of the first verse at the end; but it also contains many allusions to current events, African and diasporic songs, poetry, speeches and historic figures. Our hope and intention is for these verses to honor George Floyd, his family, and the host of martyrs he has joined, to comfort the oppressed, soothe the grief in our chests and add our voice to the chorus of prayers and cries for justice.
An Elegy For George Floyd
Did lightning just flash from the far northern plains?
Or is it thunder crying out with their names?
Is it from recalling our beloved slain
that tears mix with blood in the hot, heavy rain?
Or has the tear gas on the smoked southern breeze
brought news of strange fruit, from new, mace-perfumed trees?
Is that dawn in the West? Or the midnight firelight?
Has the sun finally set on this nightmarish life?
Red sky in the morning, old soldiers take warning
You strike a rock and the earth quakes in mourning
The long night withheld its sweet sleep from me
Like grains in my eyes are the bitter killings
His murder made ev’n the driest eyes weep,
the heartless of this age ripe with mis’ry
Our tears fell like rain, as vast as the seas
but vanish in their desert’s sympathy
How then to write, for George, elegy?
my only ink’s tears, my paper’s burning
My grief has made me a pillar of salt
the water’s run out, but the sobs will not halt
On God, I’ll mourn you as long as there’s talking
as long as the flesh on my bones moves with longing
How can I praise you, when we cannot breathe?
When there are no more words, what words do we need?
Bring music, light fires, let them see us bleed
What can we say now, except, “now you fly free.”
He cried for his dead, ‘cause the living were deaf
But where were you, God, at his hard, last breath?
—We are closer to him, but you do not see
I was sick, you ain’t visit; hungry, nothing to eat
And dying, you choked me, ‘till I couldn’t breathe—
But what of the murderous devil, his knee?
—take refuge from all such dark shadows in Me—
God, your lovers are fine but your fan club’s a mess
and I’m honestly not too sure ‘bout the rest
the earth’s choked with so much injustice and greed
Where is there left any humanity?
What shrouds can we stitch with shreds of decency?
Is it only in death that we can be free?
There’s none like him in life, and there never will be
but in death, he joins a vast company:
Ahmaud, Breonna, Trayvon, and Sandra
Philando and Alton, Atatiana
Amadou, ‘Umar, and Fatoumata
Biko, Cabral, Emmett, Lumuumba
Breffu, Boukman, Makandal, Dandará
Tamir, Tony, David, Walter, Mujinga
Takyi and Jati, Bouna, Eliza
Michael and Eric, our mothers and fathers
Huey, Fred, Medgar, and Malcolm and Martin
Millions more—names lost—but they, not forgotten
For you, I will weep as long as doves cry
As long as the stars and the moon in the sky
brighten the way of a kind passer-by
As long as the truth stands out from the lies
As long as there’s water and light in the eyes
and warmth in a hug, soft strength our thighs
I’ll never make peace with your enemies
There’s no truce for light with shadows of fleas
We fight and we struggle, how? By any means.
’til the sun’s burned to ashes, all cold and unseen
’til we reach that home where life’s just a dream
What’d we do to you, Death, that you do us like this?
I know life’s unfair, but where’s your justice?
My heart’s well of tears is rising higher
they toss bodies in, our souls catch fire
They trample and curse, spit, shit all on ours
and just like the earth, we keep feeding them flowers
It seems some evils even time can’t devour
because they refuse to repent ’til the Hour
Time’s gnawed at this wound, and bit me and cut
it’s about damn time, even Hell says “enough!”
No doubt, we’ll beat those who’ve forgotten defeat
their bloody idylls are perched on clay feet
Their idols all stained by the lives of the meek
as they sacrifice us for their cannibal feasts
Their laws and their order are causes of murder
the jaws of their jails filled with dreamers deferred
The Big House is built on our ancestor’s bones
bricks baked with their blood, sweat mortars each stone
What ghouls could ever call such places home?
Only the most hungry, amnesiac ghosts
But with all of these bodies in the wall
this house built on crimes is bound to soon fall
Like ‘Ad and Thamud, like Rome, Babylon
this piled-up dust will be scattered and gone
God bless all those brave and desperate souls
thrown out in the fields, shivering in the cold
Nothing left to lose, no more fucks to give
they give all the fire to stand up and live
The comfortable kneel and pray for taut peace
but real ones are out here stirring up a breeze
I envy the birds, I envy the trees
they’ve never seen such from their own species
Our hearts are broken, now smash theirs, diseased!
return them to form, or destroy the donkeys!
Come down now Moses! Your people are dying!
Ditch the palace, come run with the lions
There’s no time to wait, no place for hiding
Kick off your shoes and come take us flying
Part the waters, make Sinai’s climb
Bring down the light and the fire this time
You were sent as a mercy to the Red and the Black
Now our black blood runs red from the stripes on our backs
from the blows of the Pharoah’s warlocks and their staffs
Deaf, dumb, and blind, will they never go back?
Intercede now and heal us, they’re on the attack
Have we not always sheltered the people of Haqq?
They lie on our skins, dance and feast on our pain
And then pretend to care, liars without shame
Their faces like death, armored, masked in hate
The Legion Christ cast into pigs now renamed
God give us the strength, and please keep us sane
Please grant us justice, and keep us humane
From Oakland to Addis, London to Brisbane
We ask by our best, your Mightiest Name
Have mercy upon all of our friends slain
by poverty, hate, by illness and Cain
they’re not dead, but living, in skies and our veins
Bless all our mothers, and our sisters in pain
Bless our fathers and our brothers in chains
Bless all those who stand with us not for fame
And grant us a good end, free of any shame
But now we’ll still shout and still dance and still sing
the desperate joy of the last human beings
Did lightning just flash from the far northern plains?
Or is it thunder crying out in our pain?
Shawwal 12, 1441
Oludamini Ogunnaike is an Assistant Professor of African Religious Thought and Democracy at the University of Virginia specializing in the intellectual and aesthetic dimensions of West African Sufism and Yoruba oriṣa traditions. He received his PhD in African and African American studies and Religion at Harvard University and his A.B. in African Studies and Cognitive Neuroscience from Harvard College. He is the author of Poetry in Praise of Prophetic Perfection: A Study of West African Madīḥ Poetry and its Precedents (Islamic Texts Society, 2020) and Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions (PSU Press, 2020-forthcoming).