Arts BLM Book Club Muse

BLM Book Club: Black Feminist Poetry

Kacie Green looks at the important messages behind the poetry of some of the leading Black Feminists of our time.

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Image Credit: Virago Press Ltd, 1986

‘Black Lives Matter Book Club’ is a weekly series, designed  to complement the amazing work of the  UoY Black Lives Matter Book Club. The project was created and is run by UoY Amnesty International Society, Literature Society and Feminist Society. The focus of the project is on education and re-education. Each week, a member of the Book Club will be writing a review of that week’s content, allowing further analysis for anyone to engage with and to hopefully further promote the material and the book club too. Those wanting to join the book club can do so by following along on social media: @uoyblmbookclub on Instagram and Facebook.

For week four of the Book Club, we wanted to change things up a bit. Up until this week, we have been following a schedule of one reading task and one non-reading task per week. However, poetry, specifically slam poetry, is as much a visual and auditory experience as it is a reading experience, and so this week’s primary resources are videos of poetry recitals, by original poets.

Within our choice of poems for this week, all the poems are by Black female poets and the majority include specifically female and black topics and subject matter. We explored this in more depth as we featured Elizabeth Acevedo’s TED talk entitled: ‘I use my poetry to confront the violence against women’.

In her talk, Acevedo touches on how she  wants her poetry to eventually become obsolete, explaining that her poetry acts as a process of memorialisation which keeps collective trauma in the mind’s eye of those who have the power to do something about it.

We kicked the week off by looking at an iconic example of Black Feminist poetry, Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise.’ Originally published in 1978, ‘Still I Rise’ details the joys and successes of Blackness in the face of adversity. Often heralded as a beacon of hope and an anthem for the oppressed, Angelou laughs (quite literally) in the face of racism, and those uncomfortable with Black women thriving.

Angelou criticises those ‘uncomfortable’ with her, but centres her growth in the poem, citing her personal strengths, her ability to still rise despite her personal experiences—detailed in her multiple biographies such as ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,’—and a collective growth historically, or rising up against oppression.

The second of the poets we looked at was Porsha Olayiwola, current Poet Laureate of Boston and winner of the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam, during which she performed ‘Trigger’ and ‘Angry Black Woman’, the two poems included in our playlist. In ‘Trigger’, Olayiwola offers a fiery, flat-out refusal to all those who attempt to demean Black people - particularly Black women—based on the policing of written and spoken language.

This is an issue which finds its echoes throughout the history of the English language. From the efforts of British colonialists to forcibly replace indigenous languages with English across the empire, to similar suppression of both very distinct languages and regional variants of English in the British Isles.

In a more modern space, this dominance of language is reflected in the adoption of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as “Internet Slang” - examples including words such as “bae,” “shade” and “lit,” and phrases such as “real talk” and “not about that life” - erasing the History of Ebonics, most poignant when non-native speakers of the dialect use it incorrectly and obnoxiously.

The power of Olayiwola’s poem speaks for itself in rebutting such arguments that claim marginalised groups’ language is somehow less sophisticated, somehow more childlike than the ‘acceptable’ language which those in positions of power attempt to impose on them. ‘Trigger’ is full of ‘non-standard’ language, but this only reinforces its power as a poem, and as you watch you are left in no doubt that Olayiwola has absolute mastery over her language.

We thought it necessary to include some of Elizabeth Acevedo’s poetry as well, to best exemplify her message. In ‘Afro-Latina,’ Acevedo discusses the clashing sides of her racial identity and the struggle of not being ‘enough’ of either side, a clash shown excellently through the mixture of English and Spanish.

Language, once again, takes centre stage in the discussion, notably in the discussion of ‘losing’ or ‘forgetting’ the language of your parents and ancestors. Acevedo ‘quickly forgets’ her parent’s language, which she refers to as a “gift,” when it is misunderstood by her English speaking peers.

This is indicative of xenophobia and racism towards bi/tri/multilingual speakers in English speaking countries when conversing in languages other than what would be considered native, compared to the double standards of upper-class white children being praised for easily picking up multiple language which is simply to be expected in children of mixed racial or immigrant backgrounds.

The deviances from a linguistic focus bring light to issues of oppression of Latino and Black cultures in the USA, and the racism and xenophobia that exist within the communities towards one another. Acevedo poignantly notes, however, that despite the negativity that she has encountered, she is proud of both her African and Latino heritage.  The poem reads as a celebration of her cultures, as she strongly expresses her pride in her identity.

Acevedo’s ‘Hair’ follows similar themes of micro-aggressions towards Black Woman and Blackness that are discussed in ‘Afro-Latina.’ Following a cyclical structure, the poem starts and ends with the declaration that Acevedo’s mother tells her to “fix” her hair, and the poem explores her journey to finding out exactly what is ‘wrong’ with it in the first place.

Hair is a notable metaphor within Black literature as a whole. With fixed symbolism within novels, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, reflective of the ‘respectability’ politics that surrounds much of Black Culture, amplified by the permanence and time traditionally put into Black hair and hairstyles that isn’t necessary for other cultures' hair.

Hair is at the centre of topics of Cultural Appropriation, employability statistics and even actual political debates - the fact that Michelle Obama’s hair was so widely discussed during her time as First Lady, for example. Acevedo’s pride in her natural hair is representative of a rejection of the idea of ‘respectability politics,’ and the micro-aggressions that are so prevalent that they’ve become normalised and entwined with experiences of Black hair and Black culture, and can come from those as close as your own family.

The last poem in our playlist stands out immediately as it is a performance by not one but two slam poets, Crystal Valentine and Aaliyah Jihad, who also co-wrote the poem: ‘Hide Your Shea Butter’. The poem is initially directed at Black women; it is they who Valentine and Jihad are advising to ‘Hide Your Shea Butter’.

What becomes clear as the performance progresses, is that the poets want to send a definite message to white people: stop appropriating Black culture. Cultural appropriation is a pervasive issue which has, like so many, been highlighted across social media in the past few months as the Black Lives Matter movement has become, so dominant in many feeds (and rightfully so).

The Kardashian/Jenner family, in particular, have been repeatedly called out for their appropriation of multiple cultures, though most notably, as mentioned within Valentine and Jihad’s poem, the appropriation of Black Culture. Incidents include Kim’s repeated donning of Fulani braids of West African heritage and the entire family’s partial responsibility for the mainstream rise of ‘BlackFishing’ (tanning to a point of racial ambiguity, that can also include bodily modifications, the adoption of AAVE and staking claim to traditionally African/African American aesthetics).

The Kardashians/Jenners successfully hide behind their wealth, adoring fans and often even their own Black children and partners to reimagine their appropriation as ‘appreciation’, a notion that is also discussed within the poem. In the case of the Kardashian/Jenners and other prominent figures in popular white culture, cultural appropriation is clearly an issue and one which Valentine and Jihad’s poem highlights, while also being a wonderful work of literature.

You can find all the poems discussed in this article at:
https://m.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLGcgnY2qcY5oKayMVC12UEG6TTy1P6157

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