I love you for your brownness
And the rounded darkness of your breast.
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eye-lids rest.
Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk,
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
—Gwendolyn Bennett, from Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927)
Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman is recognized today as the first video vixen, probably the most degrading “first” of an African or person of color in all of history. Similar to the video vixens of today, who shows off their bodies to the pleasure of men in raunchy (usually rap) music videos, Saartjie Baartman was paraded around Europe in a traveling circus, her body put on display under the title, Hottentot Venus.
Black women’s bodies have always been a topic of discussion; since Saartjie Baartman, they’ve always been “on exhibit.” European explorers marveled at the African woman’s larger breasts, buttocks, and labia. They described their physical traits as abnormal to that of white woman. African women were characterized as hypersexual while white women were viewed as pure and delicate. White men put their wives on pedestals—frail, virginal angels, barely able to withstand childbirth—while at night they snuck into the slave quarters and lived out their sexual fantasies with the “jezebel” slave women, usually without consent.
This why so many slave mothers dreaded having daughters, because they knew the stigma of their bodies would force them to grow up too fast, that their masters’ eyes would soon be wandering. This is why fugitive slave and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, hid in an attack for seven years before finally escaping to the North. This is why Margaret Garner, the inspiration behind Toni Morrison’s Beloved, killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than allow her to be recaptured into slavery.
After her death in 1815, Saartjie Baartman’s body was dissected, her genitalia and buttocks analyzed as if they were scientific specimens. Her skeleton and body cast was put on display until 1974 and 1976 respectively when feminist argued for its removal on the grounds that it was a degrading representation of women. However, her remains weren’t returned to her home soil in South Africa until 2002, after endless legal back and forth.
I love Gwendolyn Bennett’s poem because it pays homage to the Dark Girl like Saartjie Baartman. She was physically characterized as abnormal and ugly, and was exploited as a sex object, but she is still a Queen. From her brown skin, to her round buttocks, to her full lips and wide nose, she is still beautiful. From the pain and depravity she had to endure while enslaved, she has only grown stronger. This is why Beyoncé’s new song “Formation” has quickly become and anthem for black women. Like “To a Dark Girl,” it expresses racial pride and affirmation of black female beauty.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the dark girl. What delicacies do you see within her that the world has historically turned a blind eye to? Now is her time to be raised up on a pedestal. Debunk all the stereotypes. Admire her for her royal, brown elegance and grace alone.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
We smile, but O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream other-wise, We wear the mask!
—Paul Laurence Dunbar, from Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)
April, 2015– After the questionable death of Freddie Grey, resulting from a spinal cord injury he obtained while in police custody that left him in a coma for seven days, the city of Baltimore erupted into flames in violent protest.
A blond coworker of mine, one who I must describe as sadly ignorant based the many questions she has asked me about past and current racial issues in this country, wants to know what caused the riots in Baltimore.
So I tell her.
People are angry (notice, I don’t say black people) at yet another mysterious death of a black man at the hands of police.
“Oh my god! Get over it! They’re making it bigger than what it is. It’s not that serious. Cops aren’t racist! Everything’s not racist! They’re just doing their job!”
And while my palm is itching to slap her up and down this office, because despite what she thinks, it is in fact about race; because if the past two years have proven anything, it’s that minorities, specifically BLACK MEN, are more likely to become victims of police brutality; because a black man is more likely to get shot six times in the back for a busted taillight; because a black kid who smokes weed is labeled a thug while a white kid who shoots up a church is “troubled”; because a black grandmother had her face beat in on the side of a highway; because at ten years old, I’d come to accept the fact that cops are trigger happy around black men.
Instead, I put on the biggest minstrel act I can muster.
“You’re right! Everything’s not racist. We overreact to everything. It’s silly, really. You remember when Atlanta Hawks GM basically called Luol Deng a sneaky African? Or when Giuliana Rancic said Zendaya’s faux locs smelled like marijuana? It wasn’t that serious. It was funny, right? I laughed. I thought it was funny. Ha-ha-ha!”
Dunbar’s poem is very real to many African Americans. Too often we pick up the mask and put on a wide, “good Negro” grin because we don’t want to be called thugs, or “angry black people.” Even though we know that something’s not right, that this action by this person, this group of people, or this system was most definitely driven by racist and ethnocentric thinking, we keep quiet because we don’t want to offend the white people (even though we’re offended); we don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable (even though we’re uncomfortable); we don’t want them to think we’re calling them racist (even though if the shoe fits . . .)
This happens all too often. Black people get offended because of something blatantly racist, and then white people get offended by black people for being offended. Let’s take Beyoncé’s Superbowl 50 halftime performance for example. In her new song “Formation,” she embraces her blackness and marvels at black beauty.
My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma I like my baby heir, with baby hair and afros I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils
Unfortunately, some people had a problem with her use of the word “negro.” Others didn’t like her indictment of police brutality in the “Formation” music video, in which officers in riot gear surrender and hold up their hands to a black boy wearing a hoodie and dancing. And some thought it was in poor taste that her dancers were dressed as Black Panthers. Beyoncé snatched off her mask. She took the Superbowl stage and made it her platform against systemic racism and injustice. She professed that she was proud to be black, that her black IS beautiful. Let’s put our fists in the air with her!
Yet, there is talk of boycotting?
*sigh* (Gon, be a gud lil’ nigga. We mus’n’ offend massa.)
For today’s #BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem about a time when you had to wear a mask, when you had to swallow back feelings of oppression and put on a demoralizing “good negro” song and dance so as not to offend the ignorant. Will you take off your mask now? Will you force the world to see your tears, your pain, your bleeding heart?