Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem that Starts a Conversation

On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person

Emphasize the “h,” you hignorant ass,
was what my mother was told
when colonial-minded teachers
slapped her open palm with a ruler
in that Jamaican schoolroom.
trained in England, they tried
to force their pupils to speak
like Eliza Doolittle after
her transformation, fancying themselves
British as Henry Higgins,
despite dark, sun-ripened skin.
Mother never lost her accent,
though, the music of her voice
charming everyone, an infectious lilt
I can imitate, not duplicate.
No one in the States told her
to eliminate the accent,
my high school friends adoring
the way her voice would lift
when she called me to the phone.
A-ll-i-son, it’s friend Cathy.
Why don’t you sound like her?
they’d ask. I didn’t sound
like anyone or anything,
no grating New York nasality,
no fastidious British mannerisms
like the ones my father affected
when he wanted to sell someone
something. And I didn’t sound
like a Black American,
college acquaintances observed,
sure they knew what a black person
was supposed to sound like.
Was I supposed to sound lazy,
dropping syllables here, there,
not finishing words but
slurring the final letter so that
each sentence joined the next,
sliding past the listener?
Were certain words off limits,
too erudite, too scholarly
for someone with a natural tan?
I asked what they meant,
and they stuttered, blushed,
said you know, Black English,
applying what they’d learned
from that semester’s text.
Does everyone in your family
speak alike?, I’d question
and they’d say don’t take this the
wrong way, nothing personal.

Now I realize there’s nothing
more personal than speech,
that I don’t have to defend
how I speak, how any person,
black, white, chooses to speak.
Let us speak. Let us talk
with the sounds of our mothers
and fathers still reverberating
in our minds, wherever our mothers
or fathers come from:
Arkansas, Belize, Alabama,
Brazil, Aruba, Arizona.
Let us simply speak
to one another,
listen and prize the inflections,
differences, never assuming
how any person will sound
until her mouth opens,
until his mouth opens,
greetings familiar
in any language.

—Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life (2003)

 

A couple years back, I wrote a poem inspired by Allison Joseph’s “On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person.” It addresses an issue that many young black students might have faced in school: being accused of “talking white.”

How does one “talk white”? Does one have to use big words consistently in sentences, as if a walking dictionary? Does one have to enunciate their words? Or is it the inflection of one’s voice that makes them sound “white”?

What are the requirements for speaking like a black person? Is it like yin and yang? Everything opposite of white? Should one use small words, short, choppy sentences? Should one slur vowels, treat ending consonants like d or g as if they were silent letters? Speak loudly, with a deep, threatening voice?

What’s basically being said here is that white people innately are supposed to talk “smart,” while black people by nature are ignorant and unintelligent, and therefore should speak as such. Why are we still believing these horrible stereotypes?

Anon1244479975-YoAreYouActingTooWhiteOrBeingToo257992_lgMy language has just as much to do with my race as my ability to dance, or how athletic I am, which, if you were measuring my race by stereotype, you would conclude that I am white in every way—except for the fact that I am very much BLACK, and I am not an anomaly.

It’s time we stop judging people by assumptions we’ve heard about them based on race and ethnicity. White, Black, Muslim, Latino, etc. We are all people. Open your mouths and talk to one another!

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that starts a conversation. Speak English, Spanish, French, Cajun, Gullah, Ebonics, Patois. Language can be a culture, yes, but it’s not limited to race, ethnicity, or even location. Let your poem be a Rosetta stone for your speech.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem that Promotes Self-Love

Black Bourgeoisie

has a gold tooth, sits long hours
on a stool thinking about money.
sees white skin in a secret room
rummages his sense for sense
dreams about Lincoln (s)
conks his daughter’s hair
sends his coon to school
works very hard
grins politely in restaurants
has a good word to say
never says it
does not hate ofays
hates, instead, him self
him black self.

—Amiri Baraka

 

The primary objective for phrases such as Black is Beautiful, Black and Proud, Black Girl Magic, Black Lives Matter, Black Girls Rock, and many others is to promote self-love in a society where hatred of the black body is the norm. They are also meant to combat self-hatred, which is very common within the black community.

Self-hatred stems from the internalization of others’ opinions about ourselves. Let’s look at hair as an example. For years, black women have put dangerous chemicals into their hair to alter its naturally kinky texture because the dominant society has said their hair is too “nappy,” too “ugly,” and too “unprofessional.” Today, many black woman are tossing those assumptions to the wind and embracing their natural hair, which is beautiful. However, there are still a lot of people, men and women, in the black community who don’t like natural hair, whether it’s preferring loser curl patterns over kinkier ones, or “liking” natural hair but still thinking the afro is unkempt.

woman-with-natural-hair

Another example would be the contempt that upper (or middle) class black folk (or the black bourgeoisie) often have toward those from the lower class. They think they’re better. They may have a degree and a good paying job and so assume that all blacks who live on minimum wage are lazy. They may view all black men who wear oversized clothing and talk slang are thugs. They may try their hardest to fit into society and pretend they’re not as “colored” as those loud, ghetto blacks over there. They may spend most of their time trying to prove that common stereotypes associated with black people applies to ever other black person but themselves. They may prefer to socialize with white people or people of other ethnicities over blacks because blacks “don’t know how to act” in public.

All of these are forms of internalized self-hate. While some may not see it that way, we have to remember where assumptions like the “too nappy” afro hair or the “loud, ghetto, don’t know how to act in public” black person originated. It wasn’t from blacks, but after hundreds of years of being beaten down and oppressed by slavery, and later by Jim Crow, black people have unknowingly accepted those horrible stereotypes about themselves as truths. Now, we’re doing the jobs of the racists for them, putting ourselves down. It’s time we break that cycle.

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that embraces black beauty and promotes the love of all black people—relaxed and natural, quiet and loud, well-behaved and party animals, educated and street smart. Let’s break the cycle of self-hate.

—Nortina

#BlaPoWriMo: Push-Up (poem)

I push myself off the ground,
neck muscles, upperarms
bulging under weight of
restless earth dancing
between shoulder blades.

—Nortina


Written for BlaPoWriMo prompt: write a poem for the Strong Black Woman