Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem of Double Consciousness

Revolution Is One Form of Social Change

When the man is busy
making niggers
it doesn’t matter much
what shade
you are.

If he runs out of one
particular color
he can always switch
to size
and when he’s finished
off the big ones
he’ll just change
to sex
which is
after all
where it all began.

—Audre Lorde

 

“You’re not ghetto/ratchet/black like the rest of them.”

“I like you because you act white.”

“You’re pretty for a black girl.”

I’m not the only one who has received one of these back-handed compliments in some form or another, said by white and black people alike. While I hear them quite often, I’m always taken aback. How exactly does one respond to a person essentially thanking them for being a “well-behaved nigga,” as if a “good” black person is hard to come by? It’s not comforting knowing that someone feels that way about a group of people, or that they felt that way about me before getting to know me. And if they are satisfied that I am white enough for them, would they just as quickly condemn me if I were to suddenly act characteristically “black”—speak Ebonics, curse someone out, refuse to leave the waitress a tip, etc. It’s that feeling of double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois described in his book, The Souls of Black Folk.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

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Audre Lorde’s poem opens with an allusion to a quote from Malcolm X: “What does a racist call a black Ph.D.?” The answer is ‘nigger.’ ” It doesn’t matter your education, whether or not you can properly enunciate your words; it doesn’t matter your size, how athletic you are; it doesn’t matter your complexion, the “one drop rule” still applies; it doesn’t matter your sex—you could be as pretty as a white girl, but you’ll still be black. When someone’s mind is poisoned by racism, it doesn’t matter how well-behaved a nigga you are, it won’t change their thinking. Take for example, former LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, who had employed many black men—players, coaches, etc.—in his career, yet couldn’t stomach the thought of his girlfriend (who herself is said to be half black) being anywhere near them. There are a lot of closet racists out there, many of whom smile to your face in public but drag you through the dirt behind closed doors.

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem of double consciousness. What do others see when they look at you? A stereotype? A prejudice assumption they’ve projected onto you and anyone who looks like you? Which version of yourself do you prefer people to know?

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Strong Black Woman

Credit: Reuters

The Heart of a Woman

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

—Georgia Douglas Johnson, from The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (1918)

 

Black women have been subjected to many harmful stereotypes throughout history: the hypersexual “Jezebel,” the welfare queen, the emasculating angry black woman, the strong black woman who carries the world on her shoulders. Ironically, the last image is probably the most damaging of them all. We can quickly counteract the other negative stereotypes with positive models—the emasculating angry black woman with a woman who uplifts her man and others around her; the welfare queen with a hard-working, financially independent woman who strives for excellence every day; the hypersexual with a classy, educated, modest woman who prefers to be covered up.

Credit: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The strong black woman is arguably a positive stereotype; however, it is still a stereotype, and there is constant pressure to live up to that imagined standard. Single mothers struggling to make ends meet with little to no help, smart women hiding their successes and downplaying their accomplishments so as not to belittle their fruitless husbands, caring women becoming “therapists” to friends, family members, complete strangers who lay all of their problems on her shoulders hoping to get good advice—these women (along with many others) are all considered “strong (black) women.” Unfortunately, they are usually the most lonely, their sacrifices often go unappreciated, and if they ever deviate from the trope, they are severally criticized.

The single mother with the dead end minimum wage job, struggling to feed her children and herself is labeled hypersexual and a welfare queen when she has no other option but to ask for assistance. “Where are their daddies?” “Stop having babies!” “Just get another job!” “American tax payers shouldn’t have to take care of your kids!” the people who once praised her for her strength suddenly sneer.

The quiet wife comes home with news of a raise or a new job, and instead of congratulating her, her husband beats her because, with her higher paycheck, she has joined the white man in bringing him down, taking away his masculinity.

The “therapist,” sick of hearing the problems of people who never heed her advice nor listen to her own struggles finally says enough and is characterized as angry.

So much for the mythological Strong Black Woman.

loveblack

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for black women who lose themselves in the negative and positive stereotypes. Show them their real selves and love them for it.

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the “Dark Girl”

To a Dark Girl

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.

jezebel-large

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.

OK, ladies, now let's get in formation, 'cause I slay . . .
OK, ladies, now let’s get information, ’cause I slay . . .

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.

—Nortina