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Invisible to Whom?: Poetic Responses to Invisible Man Black Bird

Lorelei Williams, 2022

In celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Cave Canem commissioned three ekphrastic poems on the novel and Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison (2003). The commissioned poets include Cameron Awkward-Rich, Kadeem Gayle, and Lorelei Williams.  

In addition to these poems, on March 1, 2023, Ellison’s birthday, the public program “Invisible to Whom? A Dialogue in Verse" will feature the poets in discussion at the Schomburg Center.

Elizabeth Catlett, Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison, 2003

“We were just felt like the end of the world..they will find a way to put a bruise on you”
~ Chaos and Cruelty in Louisiana Juvenile DetentionCenter,

”“Everywhere I've turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my own what point do we stop?
~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man


ripped sheet rope rings my throat
I leap and lean into the wide white
wing and fly

this one joy I claim
my last breath my own
now you will know my name

the veil is thin, then gone
in this place I can be loud
wild, freed, fierce and seen

too late to cut me down
the guards dig a dawn grave
spit and swear no one will miss me

but you write down my name
(conjure) me back in black print
let me speak so the rest can live


I was twelve my first year in this hell
called New Hope where they hide
girls like me: broke, Black, too free

Deuce, 13, stole a cell phone
Jazz, 14, stabbed her stepdad
Meek, 15, sold keef to a narc

I did not know Blue stole the car
just that they were fine and it was fun
to ride shotgun, top down, on Oak Street

cops chased us through five red lights
shot Blue point blank dead
booked me for grand theft

the judge sent us all to this jail
his friend built, got paid for each bed filled
told my mom she raised a thug


when you come they trade your name
for code   strip search   thumb print
barb wire, red peels, steel cot

the walls bleed   we are home
sick   cry for days   lose our
songs can’t breathe head spin

spell of psych meds blurs ache
in time I come to crave the pills
that melt on my tongue like Pez


first time a guard rapes me
I’m too scared to scream   he takes
me in the back room I can not sit for weeks

he comes each week, snaps nude pics
chokes me in blind spots till I pass out
chains me to pipes, writes my name on his thigh

four months turn to two years
in this cage I grow tits learn to trade
tricks for food   hooch   books

they make us fight for sport   drill
us to be hard   take hits crack
bones   pin us to the floor

black-eyed blues ooze blood   Black skins
bruise plum with welts   when I feel
like dirt I write kites, dream of birds


I miss my mom but it's too far for her
plus she has to work   phone calls cost
a tusk so we just talk on (birthdays) now

we earn 13 cents an hour to stitch sheets
pads cost too much so we bleed through peels
sick off our stink   guards hose us down like dogs

I get sent to the hole   raw days blur to weeks
too long to count   I’m not the same
when they let me out

at what point do we stop?


when you broke the news that I died
my name made front page with two more like me
Deuce drank bleach, Jazz jumped off the

roof   we had to die   to be seen
we are three of 64 (suicides) at New Hope in two years
plus   91 kids who ran to the woods

when dogs tracked them back, they
begged for psych wards, grown up jails
any where but here

folks been known New Hope’s sins
once a nurse snitched on the sick shit guards did
but the jail den forced kids to lie

bucked state rules, bribed OIG, fixed cell logs
sealed files so New Hope got no charge, no fines
no one else talked till you inked proof


now they know my real name: Eve
born June 16   Ray and Trina’s girl from State Street
string bean bow-legged   box braids   praline

firebrand   sweet tooth   loved to blade, write and rap
only child   easy smile liked to dance   wild streak
locked up age 12   gone at 14


dig up my bones and say my name
let go my limbs and let me fly
now I got wings   I ride the wind

go set the others free
say their names while they still live
close the jails   and   let us breathe

Lorelai Williams Poetry Bio

Lorelei Williams

Lorelei Williams is a poet, philanthropic strategist, and proud mama. She currently serves as Executive Director of the Warner Music Group/Blavatnik Family Foundation Social Justice Fund and has spent her career committed to Black liberation and social justice movement building across the United States and African Diaspora. Williams’s writings have appeared in Essence, Meridians, Feminism, Race and Transnationalism, and African Voices, and in the anthologies Be the Dream (Algonquin Books, 2003); Beyond the Frontier: African-American Poetry for the 21st Century (Black Classic Press, 2002); Cave Canem III (Black Classic Press); and Guerreras y Cimmaronas (University of Houston Arte Publico Press, 2012). She is a graduate of Yale and Harvard universities and a member of the inaugural class of Cave Canem poets.

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