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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

In my quest to become relevant to my students, I read a book of poetry by a rap star who's been dead for almost twenty years. Still, he is still well-known even to the urchins who were born well after he died, enough to correct me when I pronounced his name "two-pack" rather than "two-pock."

Tupac Shakur is one of the biggest-selling artists of all time, even though he died at 25. Many of his albums came out posthumously, which became a grim joke. But he was also a poet, and his collection, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, while not particularly sophisticated poetry, is heartfelt and reflects where the man came from and what he experienced.

These poems also reflect the black experience. Many of them are dedicated to black heroes, like Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X, or iconic victims of white violence, like Yusef Hawkins. In "For Mrs. Hawkins," Shakur writes:

"This poem is addressed 2 Mrs. Hawkins
who lost her son 2 a racist society"

In "Government Assistance or My Soul," Shakur tackles the cycle of government assistance received by inner-city blacks:

"It would be like a panther
asking a panther hunter
4 some meat, all
High school dropouts R not DUMB
All unemployed aren't lazy
and there R many days I hunger
But I would go hungry and homeless
Before the American Government gets my soul"

He doesn't turn a blind eye to self-inflicted wounds of black society. In "Tears of a Teenage Mother" he writes:

"He's bragging about his new Jordans
the baby just ran out of milk
He's buying gold every 2 weeks
the baby just ran out of Pampers
He's buying clothes for his new girl
& the baby just ran out of medicine
u ask money for the baby
and Daddy just ran out the door"

Shakur's politics are stimulating, but his poems about love and growing up are even better. In "The Fear in the Heart of a Man," he writes:

"against an attacker I will bravely take my stand
because my heart will show fear 4 no man
but 4 a broken heart I run with fright
scared 2 to be blind in a vulnerable night"

That a strong black man admits to fear and tears is brave and important.

The title poem is the best of the collection, and though the metaphor may be clunky and obvious, it's still quite affecting:

"Did u hear about the rose that grew from a crack
in the concrete
Proving nature's laws wrong it learned to walk
without having feet
Funny it seems but by keeping its dreams
it learned 2 breathe fresh air
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else even cared!"

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