St. Louis

For Miss Shirley LeFlore

For Miss Shirley LeFlore
(March 6, 1940-May 12, 2019)

By Kevin Powell

I want to say
thank you
Miss Shirley LeFlore
for being a supernatural word 
warrior who 
allowed your poet laureate tongue
to be baked and bronzed by
the smoke-y laughter of
sister-girl hair salons
and the ham-hocked hallelujahs
of ancient Black churches with
Black Jesus in their ancestral bones
just means you
done seen some things 
that you knew
as a little Black girl
resurrected there in the gumbo pot
of African soul they
baptized Saint Louis
that you were born
to witness 
the weary blues
of a people
who made high ways
from no ways
just means
you is fearless
Miss Shirley
you is mad cool
Miss Shirley
you is forever
Miss Shirley
like the sugary taste
of a ripened watermelon
busted open
the way 
your poetry
busted open
your womanhood and your Blackness
and your purple majesty
as the queen 
you were ordained to be
the way 
your momma and your grandmommas
were queens
the way
your daughters
are queens
the way
Black girl magic
is Miss Shirley LeFlore
swinging and bebopping
from World War 2
through the soul struts of Vietnam
and Civil Rights
to the boom baps of hip-hop
and orange monsters in the 
White House with crooked eyes
yes, the way
Ella Fitzgerald
Gwendolyn Brooks
Billie Holiday
Nina Simone
The wash lady
The numbers runner
and the school teacher were magical
‘cuz magicians dare, Miss Shirley
like you dared
you made a march to Washington
you made a commitment to poor people
and the arts and the telling of
“it”
like it is
because you dared to believe
that art was for the people
all people
your people
your beautiful lightredbeigebrownchocolatedarkblack
people
“I am the Black woman”
you said, Miss Shirley
and the people’s church said a-women a-men ashe
go on with your bad self, Miss Shirley LeFlore
teach us how poetry is 
Buddy Bolden cutting a rug
with the blues of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey
while Miles Davis and John Coltrane
blow segregated nightmares into the wind
move us, Miss Shirley
from Saint Louis to New York and back again
embrace the young poets of my generation and the young
poets of today’s generation like they are your equals
make me feel like you are one of my mommas
you Audre Lorde Sonia Sanchez Nikki Giovanni
Mari Evans Amina Baraka Camille Yarbrough Maryemma Graham
sister-girls who survived 
sick and tired of being sick and tired
to become, like that God they call her,
sacred healing women 
keepers of our culture
protectors of our sanity
believers in the spiritual voodoo 
we call freedom songs
Miss Shirley LeFlore is not
good enough for you any longer
you are now dancing with the ancestors
cool jerking and twisting your woman-child
around the sweaty nostrils of the sun
and you are now Saint Shirley
Shirley, yes, same name of my birth momma
you are
Black
you are
Beautiful
you are
Powerful
you are
Unapologetically free
a caregiver and a caretaker to the very end
I cried Saint Shirley when I was told
you left us
on Mother’s Day
but then I smiled
because Black women
like you
are the mothers
of this nation
are the mothers
of this universe
if there were no you
there would be no us
none of us
so take your bow
and your grand exit, Saint Shirley
I see you with your pressed and creased angel wings 
hovering over
Saint Louis
hovering over
America
hovering over
our sobbing hearts
reminding us
to kiss laughter daily
reminding us
that when we channel
rivers of women
we must drink slowly
from their eyes
we must swallow the juice from their tears
so that we can be
free
free
free
as you 
Saint Shirley
always were—


© Kevin Powell 2019


Kevin Powell is a poet, essayist, blogger, filmmaker, journalist, activist, public speaker, and author of 13 books, including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood