Who Will Be There to Kneel For You?

Who Will Be There to Kneel For You?

Photo by Keith Allison under a Creative Commons license.


Kathy Engel is a poet who has worked for nearly forty years at the nexus between social justice movements and art/imagination. Books include Ruth’s Skirts, poems and prose (IKON, 2007) and We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon (Interlink Publishing, 2007), co- edited with Kamal Boullata. Her book of poems, The Lost Brother Alphabet, will be published by Get Fresh Books in early 2020. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, most recently in the online journal About Place‘s special issue on Roots & Resistance. She coordinated the ghost fishing installation in the Kimmel Windows at NYU (through Nov. 2), in conversation with the eco justice poetry anthology.

Associate Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, Engel co-founded, led and consulted with, wrote and spoke for numerous organizations and campaigns including MADRE, Poets for Ayiti, Lyrical Democracies, East End Women in Black, Stand With Sisters for Economic Dignity and Riptide Communications.   Her website is: KathyEngelPoet.com

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Photo by Phillipe Cheng

About BMC, Engel says: “I was there at the beginning, the very beginning. The project Moving Towards Home, grew out of the dialogue between Kamal Boullata and me, along with colleagues who weren’t at BMC but with whom we talked regularly the summer of ’82.”

“My husband, Jon Snow, started the garden at BMC. I met some lifelong friends and sister/brother artists/activists. I fell in love with the place and the people. What is stunning to me is the painstaking, deeply sensitive and visionary way that Harriet Barlow built the Center. I am eternally grateful to her and Ben and the team, not only for the gifts to me and my ability to make work, but to our larger communities. It is a sanctuary. And it has not only lasted, but grown into itself gorgeously. It is a unique gem of love and intention in a time of great cruelty and uncertainty.” 

Leah Natasha Thomas’ video based on a choral reading of Kathy Engel’s poem “To Kneel” against the backdrop of dramatic footage is currently live on The Root TV.  The poem is read by Danny Glover, Anna Deavere Smith, Walter Mosley and other artists.  


To Kneel

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?


The decision to create the video “Whowillkneelforyou”  came out of the desire and encouragement from others to share the work with a wider audience than those who may generally read poetry in poetry journals, and to make it accessible quickly. It was suggested to me to record a choral reading with a number of artists. My former student Leah Natasha Thomas, an award winning producer, agreed immediately to work on it and is responsible for the superb production team and the placement on The Root. (see full credits at the end of the video).

PEN America co-sponsored and the Bowery Arts & Science acted as fiscal sponsor. I received a small grant from the Tisch School of the Arts and was able to raise some funds from individuals to continue. A wonderful social media consultant, Mariah McClain joined to help launch in time for Superbowl 2018. The readers generously videotaped themselves with cell phones. It’s been re posted in several places and highlighted on Communications visionary Gwen McKinney’s newsletter and used in classrooms. I had hoped groups would be able to use the video/poem in their work, and also that it would show the ways in which poetry can support social justice efforts. I really want to get it to Colin Kaepernick, so if anyone seeing this can help, please show it to him with my gratitude and respect!

—Kathy Engel

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