Coal Bins

Chicago, the South Side,
long before Barack Obama

those I’d love see live
anywhere they like
are those so black
they up long planks
in the heat of summer
wheelbarrow coal
so bright it pours
in a silver seiche
down chutes
through windows
of bungalow basements
crashing in coal bins
of new masters

–Donal Mahoney

Poet’s note:

This is a poem based on fact, if memory serves, because only the blackest men delivered coal to the bungalows on the far south side of Chicago when I was in grammar school.

The time frame for this poem was roughly 1948 to 1952 in a neighborhood of white immigrants in Chicago. There was no overt racism toward the black man wheelbarrowing the coal into the coal-bin basement window. The coal truck would pull up and the white driver would dump a ton of coal and the black guy would be left to spend the day taking the coal, a barrow at a time, up a plank down the gangway to dump it into the window.

I used to watch these men when I was in grammar school. I couldn’t get over how hard they worked. The sweat was like a flood. They all wore a version of the so-called do-rag to absorb the sweat. But the one thing they seemed all to have in common was the degree of their blackness. I never saw a mulatto or octoroon doing that kind of work.

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