Down by the Riverside – A Poem by Kezia Roberts with Photography by Ocean Morisset

Introduction by Thomas Allen Harris:

Last month I was invited to participate in a panel exploring the intersection of Diaspora with contemporary art practice. The panel included presentations by Canadian filmmaker Shanti Thakur, author Michael Thomas, ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin and myself, followed by a lively discussion about the meaning and importance of Diaspora and identity as expressed through cultural expression. The talk was part of a series entitled Politics, Policy and the Arts hosted by the Arts Across the Curriculum and The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. Following the panel there was the Student Awards Ceremony with the Brooklyn Museum Director, Anne Pasternak, presenting the awards. I was really impressed by both the talent of the Hunter arts students as well as the social engagement of the work which crossed the disciplines of performance, visual art, digital media and writing. After hearing award winner Kezia Roberts recite her poem, “Down by the Riverside”, a meditation on her experiences on the NYC subway, I was inspired to approach her about creating a piece for our blog and she agreed. I had been following the photography of Ocean Morriset on social media and some of his images were still floating through my head. So I decided to put these two creative folks together, reminiscing on the collaboration between legendary photographer Roy DeCarava and master poet Langston Hughes on the ground breaking Sweet Fly Paper of Life.

Gratitude to Hunter College Art Department whose good work and great students helped to make this possible!

Down by the riverside

By Kezia Roberts

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Photography by Ocean Morisset

On the F train they are selling negro

spirituals: the tourists are amused, the

natives divided— the men sing in low

baritones of rivers and water and

fields of white fluff, all the south was ever

known for. The white man sitting across

is tapping a leather capped foot in time

to the ragtime, he has caught the old spirit:

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Photography by Ocean Morisset

his feet are a-tumbling down, shoulders shuffle,

head nods— the tourists take their cue to clap,

crumpled dollar bills and loose change abound

into the shiny green gift bag as they

shuffle through the car, dodging bags and feet.

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Photography by Ocean Morisset

They leave, onto the next car of captive

audience. The tourists look around most

pleasantly surprised and now alert to

a secret of New York City: revealed.

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Their eyes turn to me, widened as if to

say: and what about you, other dark one?

What do you do? I slump into hard plastic

and close my eyes against the burning in

my cheeks. The train hurtles through black tunnels

and history, into the new darkness

where black men lay invisible unless

they are singing, begging for their freedom.

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Photography by Ocean Morisset

Time upends itself in a continuous loop

where nothing moves forward, but repeats

itself, car after car. Again and again.

The train pulls into 34th street.


This collaboration between photographer and poet brought to mind one of the greatest collaborations of this kind, between the Poet Langston Hughes and Photographer Roy DeCarava who brought us the now, very rare and historically significant book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. I culled from my archive, photos I’ve taken in the New York City subways over the last few years. In my selection process, I was careful not to choose images that translated Kezia’s poem directly, but one’s that captured the very spirit in which her words are written, and that convey the overall mood of the piece.“- Ocean Morisset


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to Down by the Riverside – A Poem by Kezia Roberts with Photography by Ocean Morisset

  1. Lori McDonald December 19, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

    Excellent, excellent!

  2. Susan Obrant December 20, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    A collaboration beyond images and words!! More…!soon……..

  3. empress m. December 20, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Words cannot express the awesomeness of this collaboration. it’s as if you and the poet are of one mind. Profound words to complement your powerful images Ocean. Bèl Bagay!

  4. Maek Montague December 22, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    i really enjoyed this. have you considered doing a “spoken word” version, and slide show combination? great collaboration~!

Leave a Reply