The 21st Show

U of I professor Ruby Mendenhall pours pain into writing as Urbana’s new poet laureate

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor Ruby Mendenhall, the 2024-2025 poet laurete of Urbana.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor Ruby Mendenhall, the 2024-2025 poet laurete of Urbana. Reginald Hardwick/IPM News

Ruby Mendenhall is a dynamic figure at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, teaching sociology and African American Studies and serving as an associate dean at the CARLE Illinois College of Medicine And for the next 12 months, Mendenhall will reign as the city of Urbana’s poet laureate.

Editor's note: this post was updated on March 31, 2024 with corrected text from the author.


Ruby Mendenhall

Professor, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in sociology and African American Studies

Associate Dean at the CARLE Illinois College of Medicine

The city of Urbana’s poet laureate

©Ruby Mendenhall March 2024

(Dedicated to Mothers Who Have Lost Children to Gun Violence)

The hardest part was to lower you into eternity, as I remain mortal

To watch you slip away from me into the Forever portal.

My heart torn into strips of black and blue blood, as part of it went with you.

I cannot breathe, I cannot eat because I am your mother, without you.

I carried you in my womb for nine months, protecting you through the seasons.

Now, I must select the vessel to carry you beyond my reach, beyond rhyme, beyond reason.

Your journey is beneath my feet, beneath this ground, and into the realm of the ancestors.

So now, where do I belong in this world? My soul aches and needs to sequester.

- Ruby Mendenhall


'Michelle Obama and Black women as Alchemists'

Black women Alchemist have special liberation elixirs

Made of golden threads and ties that bind

Crushing the coils of the constrictor

Francis Watkins despised slave masters oppressive and ‘fearful alchemy’.

As they transform Black babies’ blood into gold coins,

greed from stolen wealth, drowning out their cries of agony

She demanded 'bury me not in the land of slaves.'

‘Where mothers shriek of wild the despair’

And stand above tiny child-size graves.

This Alchemist challenged government with and pen and poems

Transforming chattel slavery into mercury read abolitionist songs.

The Alchemy of Ida B. Wells Barnett lynching statistics

‘Awaken conscience’ to a Copper tone ‘human principle’

That these blood orange crops of strange fruit must be resisted.

Gwendolyn Brooks children were ‘of the land’,

A frustrated alchemy of ‘mode, design and device’

Platinum jewels, fighting to transform inside their mother's hand.

Alchemy continues with Melvina in a slave’s blouse

The First Lady's great great great grandmother with cobalt blue dreams

Transforming inhumane slave quarters into America's White House.

She planted tomorrow's full of hope and without trauma

Allowing survival of generations and the acceptance of love

From the future first Black President, Barack Hussein Obama

A first lady with deep brown beauty reflecting smiling eyes

A mind trained by masterful Alchemist, leaving nothing wasted

Transforming Black womanhood, dancing to my Angelo's ‘Still I Rise’.

We stood up and ran to her health and wellness call of ‘Let's Move’

Hearing ‘What's going on?’ and other Marvin Gaye old school grooves.

When the music stopped, a ‘Hidden America’ emerged on ABC.

Her heart encased in sadness from children gone too soon.

Beautiful, young, lifeless bodies out of their mother's tortured reach.

Michelle Obama said of children's blood that ran in the streets,

'Hadiya Pendleton was me. And I was her’

Death is warmed over too many times in this Chicago heat.

She said in this city, we are not in a zone of war.

Yet, our babies constantly faced these hell hot flames.

Even when asleep, stray bullets rock the cradle opening death’s door.

She compelled the country to invest saying ‘resources matter’.

The price is all of our humanity if we settle for failure

And cannot prevent the blood of children from splattering.

The first lady's audacious alchemy is an international stage and the ears of billions

Admonishing the world to end gun violence and to

Embrace all of our neighborhoods and every last one of our children’.

- Ruby Mendenhall