“…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” – Audre Lorde (a Black woman who be knowing)
Wazzup, wazzup, WAZZUP! (in my Martin voice.) I’m really trying to appreciate April. It’s not freezing but it ain’t that nice spring warmth yet. But how does that joke go? April showers bring May flowers and what do Mayflowers bring? Diseased, devilish, thieving ass colonizers. Something like that.
Anyway, April is poetry month and of course, as in anything worth celebrating, we gotta acknowledge and celebrate the Black women who been doing it since doing it has been done. I ain’t gonna lie to you cause I feel like y’all been rocking with me since day one. I have a serious love-hate relationship with poetry. I love it because there are some dope poets both past and present who have allowed me to revisit ideas, reflect on myself and the world and recenter myself. I’m thinking specifically about Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Georgia Douglass Johnson.
Because I majored in English Literature, I also read plenty of White folks’ poetry and honestly, wasn’t too impressed. But shout out to the Romantic poet, William Blake. His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience read side by side is actually quite dope (certain poems).
So where does the hate come in? No, I’m not one of those basic ass folks who say shit like, But it don’t rhyme though. However, there’s a lot of poetry that I seriously just don’t get. And because I’m a low key perfectionist, if I don’t get it the first time, I pass it off as bullshit. But then the perfectionist in me returns and I reread some poetry because I can’t let it beat me. This is not to say that I’m always victorious but it is to say that I try to be open-minded. There are times when I laugh hysterically when I see people mocking Spoken Word poetry (think Jonah Hill in 22 Jump Street) but I enjoy Spoken Word, especially teen slams.
Listeeen, while White folks write poems about landscapes, swans and fuckery, I have to agree with Lorde- for Black folks, particularly Black women, poetry is definitely not a luxury.
I’m gonna put y’all on to the ways that poetry has served me and the Black women who serve it up right. By no means could this ever be an exhaustive list of people, poems or purposes for poetry but it is the way that poetry has showed up for me and allowed me to survive this thing called a Black woman’s life.
Beah Richards, “A Black Woman Speaks”- Poetry as resistance and truth telling
Last month, I attended an event that focused on a group of women named The Sojourners for Truth and Justice (can we just take a moment to put some respeck on the name of this group and the way Black women pay homage to their ancestors?) They were a group of radical Black women in 1951 who laid the foundation for the Black feminists of the 60s and 70s and their primary demand was direct, simple and familiar- White accountability! One of their main complaints were, and I’m paraphrasing, “How the fuck y’all lynching Black men for allegedly looking at a white woman, but White men been raping and abusing Black women since we were brought her in chains and there is no ‘alleged’ in those facts? FOH!”
Let me just take this opportunity to say that K-12 education in this country is trash. Why was I damn near today years old when I found out about these women? But I digress…
One of the women who brought attention to the Sojourners for Truth and Justice was Beah Richards. Her poem, “A Black Woman Speaks” represents not only the pain that we experience as Black women but the righteous rage we have and the resistance needed just to cope and survive. One stereotype I’ll take any day as a Black woman is the idea that we’re loud. You damn right! We loud because White supremacy is always trying to silence us.
In her performance of the poem, she states in a booming voice,
White womanhood, slavery too; only to a different degree.
You were “willing slaves”
Both sold in different ways, and you did not fight.
These lines, while spoken nearly seven decades ago, are so timely especially as we loosely use the words ‘ally’ and ‘co-conspirator’ these days . Ms. Richards spends the entire poem calling out White women for the ways that they are responsible for perpetuating White supremacy and the ways that they cosign the bullshit at Black women’s expense.
The idea of white women as willing slaves is everything. They are also oppressed but there are benefits to White women’s oppression. They are protected and allowed to enjoy the perks of womanhood. This is why White women all too often do not fight. She continues with the line,
You hated slavery but abhorred equality.
And this is what prevents White women from being co-conspirators. Bettina Love defines allies as the Whites who read all the books and use all the right words like ‘equity’ and ‘white privilege’ and ‘gentrifier’; but co-conspirators are the ones who are willing to sacrifice something for the cause. The reason White folks, especially White women won’t come through is while not all of them want us dead, most of them don’t want us to be their equals. Ain’t that a crazy position to be in as an oppressor? Cause you still want control without appearing to be a horrible human being.
That is actually the more sinister approach. At least if a motherfucker want me dead, I know how to move. However, when someone calls themselves my ‘ally’ but will take their ass on the other side as soon as my Black ass gets too uppity, (and believe me, I have experienced this) the blow is much harder.
Beah Richards accurately captures Black women’s disappointment and disgust with White women and their lack of sacrifice throughout history. But it also highlights the fact that White women ain’t as safe as they think they are either. A willing slave is a slave nonetheless. Finally, the title of the poem screams “Fuck you, your ancestors and everything you stand for” because a Black women who dares to speak, and speak truth, is already a part of the revolution.
Nayyirah Waheed, Salt– Poetry as healing
Despite my love-hate relationship with poetry, I’ve also written some stanzas in my day and like a lot of teenage girls, my poetry was created as a result of a fuck boy who tried to play me. I tend to write from a painful place but reading and writing poetry can be very therapeutic.
One of my favorite contemporary poets as healers is dope, Black poetess extraordinaire, Nayyirah Waheed. One of her poems gives me all the feels and I have it displayed in my cubicle at work,
does not want me
It is not the end of the world.
If I do not want me
The world is nothing but endings.
Where the hell was Nayyirah Waheed when my ass was 13, insecure and getting my feelings dragged by raggedy ass dudes? I love the way Black women create the things that they need. Nayyirah is such a dope force because her poems are accessible, raw and vulnerable. She recognizes that people can be trash and that trash harms us but we can only control how we put ourselves back together after we have been harmed. Not only is it within our control to heal ourselves, it is our responsibility to do so.
The secret to healing is quite simple yet the most difficult damn thing to do. The antidote is self-love. Waheed writes,
‘I love myself.’
Say it louder for the broken yet fly ass women putting themselves back together in the back! This is something I have to tell myself everyday because the world won’t always reassure me that I am loved and I don’t want to be dependent on the world to give me value and validation. I be on my Gabrielle Union, Being Mary Jane shit with all of the post-its and affirmations and journaling but I do these things EVERY. DAMN. DAY because love, especially self-love requires consistency and convincing. The world attempts to harm Black women every day by telling us that we aren’t as beautiful, intelligent and worthy of care as White women. It is only through the PRACTICE of self-love that we can get this revolution started off right.
Waheed doesn’t just speak about individual healing but collective healing. One of her poems that I just rediscovered goes like this,
I want to see
Brown and black folks
brown and black eyes
First off, did you catch that eloquent way she basically said, “Fuck the white gaze”? We can’t heal as Black folks if we are constantly being seen in a distorted way by limited ass White folks who don’t seek to understand. If they were interested in us as a people, they would do less looking and more listening. How we heal is dependent on how we control the way that we are represented.
The fact that these things need to be said lets us know that this is not the norm. I was at a workshop last week about equity in the workplace and how we combat racism in our everyday encounters. The presenter said something that not only resonated with me but echoed what I’ve had the good sense to realize only within the last two years and that is the fact that neither of us give a single fuck about the white gaze. He actually said that he rejects the white gaze but same difference.
Every time I see White folks lurking and creeping when they see me with my Black friends especially my Black girlfriends, I just get on my Lil Wayne shit and start rapping, “I see you looking with your looking ass nigga.” Let them think that we’re staging a Nat Turner rebellion; let them think we’re practicing for a twerking contest; let them think whatever the hell they want cause that’s what they gonna do anyway.
And you know what? That’s none of my concern and it’s not helping me to heal in any way. If anything, it’ll just give me more anxiety. This doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of White folks. It just means that I don’t make decisions with them in mind. I’ll pass on them but Nayyirah Waheed is a real one for sharing her thoughts and gifts with us. She also writes about body positivity, cultural pride, migration and other areas that can center healing. Celebrate her this month by reading her work.
Lauryn Hill, “Lost Ones”- Poetry as the Ultimate Clapback
So, I’m gonna slightly bend the rules with this one but Hip Hop is poetry. The end.
But seriously, I can’t talk about poetry and bad ass Black women spitting that shit without talking about Lauryn Hill and her legendary album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. We all have been in a situation where someone has played us, underestimated us and/or devalued us. The weak ones weep but the strong ones weep and clap back.
Hill becomes that chick who gives the ultimate clapback after she has a romantic and professional falling out with her former group mate, Wyclef Jean from The Fugees. On her first track of the album, “Lost Ones,” the artist speaks her truth and makes it clear that she ain’t to be fucked with lyrically or personally.
While I could just throw all of the lyrics to the song up here, I won’t cause that’s what Genius is for so I’m just gonna share a couple of lines that just do it for me:
Some wan’ play young lauryn like she dumb
But remember not a game new under the sun
Everything you did has already been done
So we all know someone who has tried it with us and it’s always the ones who ain’t on our level trying to play checkers in a game of chess. This captures that feeling. It’s sad to watch people you used to call friend/lover who think that they can try to ruin you but they don’t have the tools. They never get the memo that dope people are protected by the universe hunty. She goes on to rhyme…
…Your movement’s similar to a serpent
Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?
Consequence is no coincidence
Hypocrites always want to play innocent
Always want to take it to the full out extent
Always want to make it seem like good intent
Never want to face it when it time for punishment
This is classic raggedy people shit. People want to harm you then clutch their imaginary pearls once you cuss them the fuck out or simply cut them off. Lately, I’ve been re-examining this idea of intent. Everywhere I go I have to hear, assume positive intent. At work, in my daily interactions, from every crooked ass police department in these United States and other institutions that constantly perpetuate racist actions.
I’m not interested in talking about intent anymore since most people can’t prove it in court anyway. Let’s just focus on the impact and the consequence. It has to be understood that if you do some fuck shit, don’t be shocked when the fuck shit is served right back at Serena-Williams-tennis-ball-speed. We have to stop coddling violators.
And finally, the best line,
You might win some but you just lost one.
It’s the ultimate clapback when you know your worth and people try to downplay it. There is no payoff, no prize, no good for people who hurt good people. I believe as Hill raps, that “karma, karma, karma comes back to you hard.” The universe is always at work and it always handles folks one way or the other. I play this song often and I play it in my head when I see the raggedy ass people who’ve wronged me.
Anyone who has lost me has lost a friend, a rider, a therapist, a confidante and a phenomenal woman (RIP Maya Angelou). This is the clapback anthem and like all of the poems mentioned, it’s timeless and universal. As Black folks, we know and understand injustice, pain, and clapping back (in that order.) Don’t get me wrong, I’m not petty; I’m petty adjacent which means I get a kick out of watching other people be petty. The real win is quietly building success and letting the haters watch you do it. This is what Hill does. It’s not just the clapback; it’s the talent that allows Lauryn Hill to have the true victory and we get that in this song.
This isn’t even 2% of the Black women poets/writers who give me life but they’re some of the women who help me cope with the everyday chaos and allow me to access some joy. I’m an educator so I’m giving y’all homework. Drop a line from your favorite Black woman poet/poem and explain.
Read Black women poets.
Heal with Black women poets.
Celebrate Black women poets.
And if you don’t know, now you be knowing.