“Bread & Roses” by Hakim Bellamy

In the year of our Constitution, 1787, our country was already over 150 years into the practice of creating FREE & CHEAP laborers for life. And in 1786, printers in our then capital of Philadelphia conducted the first successful strike for increased wages.

Over a hundred years later, in 1902 a former dressmaker and schoolteacher known simply as Mother Jones would be called “the most dangerous woman in America.” 

And over a hundred years to now, we still have a long way to go in a country that democratically elects leaders who genuinely believe that underpaid teachers (and their unions) are the biggest threat to our future. – HB


The very first unions in America
Were brought here by boat
Broken by back
By whip
And rope 

And a bogeyman economy
Do the trick

The only thing scarier
Than labor
Is losing it

Even the House
And Senate
Can come together
Around house
And field
Divide and conquer

Give us power
But not position
Give us personnel
But not privilege
Give us responsibility
But not rights
Or profits
Or shares 

Give us a sniff
Of American exceptionalism
Get us drunk
Off of upward mobility
Put us behind the wheel
Of the American Dream
Until we launch ourselves
Into a windshield
That will not let us eject
Or escape
This cabin 

I come from
A long line of laborers
A lineage of long Black men 

Who nowadays
Only unionize for sport
Who are either
Rich enough to be locked out
Or poor enough
To be locked in

But back then
Were Memphis enough
To get Dr. King
To detour toward death
In the name of fairness

Air Jordan-esque working conditions
Laceless wages
That were begging for straps 

We are Colonial Philadelphia
Convicted of criminal conspiracy 

We are New York (1829)
Workingmen’s Party
When sixty hours
A six-day workweek
Was radical

Every morning
We wake up Knights of Labor
To whistles of work
And whispers of worse

Integrated women
And our own Negro spirituals of sorts
Hold the forts

At a time when mining companies
Would send dynamite husbands
Home in a bucket

And Mothers
Like Jones
Who lived in homes
Rented from the employer
Fed family
With currency
Only good at the company store
Had three days
To replace “Papa”
With one of her sons
So production doesn’t suffer
No matter how young we was
No matter how much she does

We are immigrants
Mollies (1877) pushed too far
We are the children
Worked too hard
The reason Mary Harris marched
From the City of Brotherly Love
To Teddy Roosevelt’s front porch 

We found our own Congress
Of Industrial Organizations
To replace the one
That has forsaken us 

We are sit-down strikes
In the buildings they value
With our bodies
That they do not 

We are wage equity
And wage war 

We are ripped-off scabs
That will not bandage their cuts after we strike

Only band together
Our blood
And heal 

We are still leaping
From ninth floor windows
At the Triangle Waist Company (1911) 

We are Clara Lemlich
We are Dolores Huerta
We are Cesar Chavez
We are Samuel Gompers
We are Gabriel Prosser
We are Lucy Gonzalez Parsons (IWW)
And we are Rosie the Riveter 

We are the hand on the Bible
Denying we’re socialist
We are the witches of Taft-Hartley 

We are holy, Jerry Fallwell
Salt of the Earth
Who forever put love of God
Before love of Greed

You said,
“Labor unions should study and read the Bible
instead of asking for more money . . .” 

But we are pickers
Who reap and sow
And read 

Sirach 34:22
To take away a neighbor’s living
is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wage
is to shed blood. 

We teamsters and longshoremen
And just like you
We ain’t perfect

Proverbs 14:31
He who oppresses a poor man,
insults his Maker. 

We are closed factories
And empty mouths
Auto, textiles, and steel

We are the meek
Who inherit ourselves
We are the lamb
The sacrifice and the carpenter
that said 

The worker deserves his wages.
Luke 10:7 

We are the people
Who power dreams
And profit
And are for granted
And are forgotten

We are the people who brought you the weekend
We aren’t coming home empty-handed
We are back pockets of college tuition
We are stuffed between the mattresses of future Christmases 

We are smiles
On our children’s faces
And even though we are sometimes faceless
We are food in the fridge

We are hero and heroine 

We are coming back
Coming home
Every night
In one piece 

Please, please believe
That we are all hard work
And belief

We are about 5:05
Are bread and roses
For dinner

Author’s note: “Bread and Roses” originated in a poem of that name by James Oppenheim, published in The American Magazine in December 1911. 

© Copyright 2013 by Hakim Bellamy. Originally commissioned in 2012 by the New Mexico Federation of Labor Annual Conference. It has previously appeared on the New Mexico Federation of Labor website.

Hakim Bellamy became the inaugural poet laureate of Albuquerque on April 14, 2012, at age thirty-three. He was the son of a preacher man (and a praying woman). Bellamy has been on two national champion poetry slam teams, won collegiate and city poetry slam championships (in Albuquerque and Silver City, NM), and has been published in numerous anthologies and on inner-city buses. A musician, actor, journalist, playwright, and community organizer, Bellamy’s first book, Swear, was recently published by West End Press.