Picture of a Black Child with White Doll

A poem by Thomas Merton for Denise McNair, one of four children killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963.

Picture of a Black Child with a White Doll

Thomas Merton*

Your dark eyes will never need to understand
Our sadness who see you
Hold that plastic glass-eyed
Merchandise as if our empty-headed race
Worthless full of fury
Twanging and drooling in the southern night
With guns and phantoms
Needed to know love

(Yet how deep the wound and the need
And how far down our hell
Are questions you need not
Answer now)

That senseless platinum head
Of a hot city cupid
Not yet grown to whore’s estate
It glories and is dull
Next to your live and lovely shade
Your smile and your person
Yet that silly manufactured head
Would soon kill you if it could think
Others as empty do and will
For no reason
Except for that need
Which you know without malice
And by a better instinct
The need for love

So without a thought
Of death or fear
Of night
You glow full of dark ripe August
Risen and Christian
Africa purchased
For the one lovable Father alone

And what was ever darkest and most frail
Was then your treasure-child
So never mind
They found you and made you a winner
Even in most senseless cruelty
Your darkness and childhood
Became fortune yes became
Irreversible luck and halo.

denise mcnair


* Thomas Merton, Collected Poems (New Directions, 1977), 626-27.

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