South Fork Poetry: ‘To Kneel’

By Kathy Engel

The black men who make wages
from the brutal banging of the skull,
pounding of the knees, arms
reaching like branches in the long
arc of a pass, now kneel.
The muscles of their souls,
the soles of their cleats, stretch
of their thighs speak. Fans and refs
yell, commentators jabber and behold:
one knee, hand to ground,

they kneel, the weight
of their built-up bodies 
pulled earthward as if called 
by those from before 
to kneel now, refusing to salute
this country’s killing field.
Those with the heart to be the lonely
first; their knees sing. Jobs at stake,
they kneel for the inheritors. For the future
dignity of bodies to choose to stand

or touch down. And the joining, too —
some, then flocks, arms threaded,
waving flags of jersey-ed bodies,
an anthem, for the uncountable —
to be counted. And to those
who drop to the knee
only in the recesses of a locked
back room or those who switch and bait
in the light, amid the throngs — or those 
who hide behind their whiteness —

who will be there to kneel for you
when such a time comes, as it will
come? What will you say when
your children or your grandchildren,
their friends or lovers ask
what parts of your bodies 
touched the ground
in the moment of loyalty,
or the moment of betrayal?
What would I?

Kathy Engel is chairwoman and associate arts professor in the department of art and public policy at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts. She lives in Sagaponack. “To Kneel” previously appeared in The Root online magazine, where a video of it being read by the actor Danny Glover and the novelist Walter Mosley, among others, can be seen.