#ThrowbackThursday Poetry: Together We . . .

What is there left to say? That is the question we must ask ourselves this final week of BlaPoWriMo. Does black poetry/literature still exist today, and if it does, for what purpose? Well, this poem, originally published February 15, 2016, explains why we still need black poetry…

Photo by @createdbyjarrod from nappy.co

Together We . . .

Together we hood our faces,
stuff our pockets with
Skittles and Arizona tea.

Together we lose the air
to our lungs from cigarette
smoke, forearms curled
around our throats.

Together we put our hands up,
surrender to tear gas
and rubber bullets
on evening news.

Together we are body slammed
in bathing suits, flipped
over school desks, strangled
from showerheads, executed
where children play.

Together we pray for peace—
as strangers wave battle
flags, hide assault
rifles behind Bibles.

—Nortina

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#ThrowbackThursday Poetry: Boycott the Dark Girl

Welcome to Week 3 of Black Poetry Writing Month, the most controversial. Why? Some people might not like what the Black Arts Movement stood for— militancy, radical activism, not going quietly into the night…

But what I love most about this era is that black writers didn’t seek approval or acceptance, but demanded what was rightfully theirs, the innate freedoms due to all Americans. Because we are ALL AMERICANS.

The poets of this generation were unapologetic in their message, they didn’t care who they offended, they didn’t care if their opinions were unpopular. They only cared for the liberation of their people.

In a similar fashion, Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime performance of her song “Formation” was unapologetic in it’s message, and boy did it make some people angry! This brings us to today’s BlaPoWriMo throwback…

Boycott the Dark Girl

Boycott the dark girl!

Don’t tell them about race; Middle America
doesn’t want to face your afros and wide nose,
your full lips and round hips.

Boycott the dark girl!

Rip open your blouse, measure the humpback
on which a nation’s edifices are housed,
count the scars from raw cowhide
whipped in formation of a chokecherry plantation.

Boycott the dark girl!

Mend your heartstrings across the violin bridge,
play an empowering song with the bow of your fist.
Splash shades of brown through the stadium field—
a prism of acceptance, their politics must yield.

Boycott the dark girl!

A call for peace, an end to violence
is an attack, they say.
You were beaten, raped,
your genitals dissected and put on display.

Dance on the boycott, dark girl;

Hatred can’t make them turn you away.
Your purple skin is imperial; reclaim your domain
as you slay on the stage in Black Panther berets.

—Nortina


Originally published February 10, 2016.

Just a Kiss

Even as he stabs her,
she wants to kiss him,
plant her purple lips on
the slick skin of his crown.

Even as he plunges the serrated
end of the flag pole deeper
into her chest, pins her to the
eastern wall of the first baptist church—
rebuilt in brick to withstand future bombings—
twists it, widens the gap in her heart,
she reaches out for him, carresses his
chiseled chin, his blue eyes cool as steel.

Maybe his fear of miscegenation
will make him angry enough
to put an end to her silent love song.

—Nortina

Revolutionary Reynolds

“Mama! I’m so glad you called me back!” I returned to my corner in the lobby next to the ficus tree. The nurse at the front desk watched me out the corner of her eye. That noisy woman spent more time eavesdropping on my conversations than she spent doing her own job. Then again, working the front lobby of a nursing home was probably an eventless endeavor. How many residents had regular visitors? Grandma had been there three years, and I could only remember a handful of guests who came as often as I did—most of them volunteers. I was the highlight of her day.

“What did your grandmother tell you?” Mama’s voice sounded dejected.

“Am I interrupting something?” I asked.

“I’ve been up since five in the morning,” she said.

“I won’t take long.” I blew air through my cheeks. Now that I had her on the phone, I didn’t know where to start. Uncle Richard had already answered the questions I would’ve asked her. What more could Mama tell me about Lindell, anyway? She’d never met him, and she was too young to remember her first five stepfathers after him.

I’d spent most of my afternoon seeking proof of Grandma’s unbelievable stories. Now that I had someone to finally settle my befuddled mind, my only inquiry was why had it taken so long for my family to say anything about our history? Why was I the last to learn the truth? Why did Grandma have to be in a nursing home before she told me?

“When did Grandma tell you about your real father?” It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask, but depending on how she answered, maybe it would bring me closer to understanding why I was left in the dark for so long.

Mama’s breathing picked up, and a steady whistle of wind blew into the phone. She was outside, probably walking to her car after another long shift. “I don’t think she ever really told me,” she said exasperated. The door closed, and I could hear the jangling of her keys as she turned the ignition and cranked the engine. “I found out by accident.”

“How? Did you find it on your birth certificate?” Most people never saw their own birth certificates, but there were few times when it was needed to prove one’s identity. I could only remember twice asking Mama for my birth certificate. The first, when I signed up for driver’s ed. at school, and the second time was when I registered for my first passport.

“No. And my birth certificate has Milton Gregory listed as my father.”

Milton, the man who married Grandma after Lindell died so she wouldn’t face the shame of having a baby out of wedlock.

R“I found out about Lindell when I was about ten. It was right after Reynolds died.”

“Reynolds?”

“He was Ma’s husband after the preacher.”

“Oh,” I said silently. I chuckled at how neatly everyone’s chapter fit so perfectly together—Grandma, Uncle Richard, Mama, even the nurses who’d only gotten bits and pieces. Many different narrators, but still the same story.

“He was a black rights activist. He actually tried to start a Black Panther chapter in our neighborhood. It scared Ma to death. She kicked him out when she found his stash of guns. I know it was only for self defense, but the people in power don’t see it that way. They don’t like it when their status quo is disrupted. That’s why organizations like the KKK and the Neo Nazis still exist, and the Panthers are dust.”

I knew before Mama even said it; Reynolds would suffer the same death as Lindell, rooted in hate and racism.

“He was protesting with the textile workers in front of Morningside Homes when they got him.”

“He was one of the people killed in the massacre?” It was an event that would mar our city for years to come. Morningside Homes, an apartment still leasing today, but who could visit it without being reminded of how demonstrators were killed like wild game in broad daylight—in front of television cameras, broadcasted on the local news—while the police did nothing. I wasn’t there, but I’d seen the videos, listened to the chants of “Death to the Klan!” as cars with Confederate flags on the bumpers circled the block. I watched the Klan members pull up to the curb, take rifles from their trunks, and gun down anyone in their paths. Despite there being video chronicling the whole massacre, every single Klansman indicted was acquitted of all charges.

“Ma beat herself up about it. She kept saying she sent him to his death. I just wanted to cheer her up. I’d gotten into her makeup, and I was gonna doll myself up to make her smile. That’s when I found the picture of her and Lindell.”

“And she told you everything?” I asked.

There was silence on the other end. I suspected Mama was nodding. She was notorious for making gestures over the phone knowing I couldn’t see her. If she would finally upgrade her barely functional flip phone, maybe we could FaceTime. I didn’t see her enough. I missed my mom. New Orleans was too far away, and the flights I worked on went either North or West, never down South, never into the bayou.

“I think I always knew my real father was dead, though. She’d been married so many times, and none of them stayed around long enough for me to start calling them daddy.”

“Except Pawpaw.”

“Except . . .” I could hear a deep sigh. I knew a speech was coming. “Listen, honey. As far as you’re concerned, Daddy will always be your Pawpaw, ok? Don’t let all this new information confuse you about who your family is. Daddy loved you and me like we were his own blood, and he was crazy about Ma.”

I laughed a little in my throat. “Thanks, Mama,” I said. She always told me exactly what I needed to hear.

—Nortina


I’m all caught up! Whoo hoo! Thanks for sticking with me, and be sure to check out more about the A to Z Challenge. By the way, I’ve been trying to put a little history in my chapters, and the massacre at Morningside Homes was definitely a true event. If you’re curious to learn more, click here.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Mask Wearer

We Wear the Mask

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.

Her reaction:

“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!”

Zendaya-Coleman-Arrivals-87th-Annual-Academy-121_dQ8ebayx

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!

Beyoncé performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Beyoncé performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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?

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Activist

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

—Claude McKay, from Harlem Shadows (1922)

 

Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” was written amidst violent race riots in the summer of 1919 which included 28 public lynches. McKay famously used the sonnet form to speak against racism and call his community to action, to fight back.

The beauty of “If We Must Die” is that it’s universal. Even without knowing the history behind it, anyone facing oppression can identify with the powerful message within its lines. It’s even said that Winston Churchill read the poem in the House of Commons during World War II and that many British soldiers carried copies of the poem on their person.

Almost a century later, McKay’s poem still speaks to a generation fighting for their lives. Last year saw a rise in a new kind of civil rights activism, the Black Lives Matter Movement, in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and so many other unarmed brothers and sisters, unjustly slain, killed by law enforcement under questionable circumstances, seemingly with no remorse.

Stephen Lam / Reuters
Stephen Lam / Reuters

Screams for justice rose above the flames consuming cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. While the majority of protests were peaceful, many turned violent, but all were met with stiff police response in full-on riot gear.

Demonstrators put on die-ins in large shopping malls and on the sides of highways, saying, if they must die, they will not leave this earth until the world knows and respects that Black lives still exist and matter equal to every one else.

Today’s optional prompt for #BlaPoWriMo is to write a poem (bonus points if it’s a sonnet) that condemns racism. Write a poem for the contemporary activist who refuses to be picked off by an establishment that views her race as expendable. Write a poem for a people who will not be made victims anymore.

—Nortina