Example poetry

What is anti-racist poetry? |

How do you simultaneously make a statement and write a good poem? The question is on the table, and there’s no better time to answer it than Black History Month, when we’re surrounded by stories of continued Black achievement and protest. Moreover, we cannot approach what exactly anti-racist poetry is without first asking ourselves: “What is racism? It must first be defined, so that writers, poets and others can dismantle it.

Of course, I can’t do that easily, but I can offer examples that relate to a third common question, and one that concerns my own life: did you encounter racism in Santa Fe? I ask with particular urgency, as I am a black American who is also the Poet Laureate of Santa Fe and somewhat in the public eye. People have asked me if the stance came with racist retaliation or misunderstanding – a sensitive question, to say the least, and the answer depends on how you define racism. Or, perhaps, the answer illustrates different aspects of racism.

It is not difficult to recognize a thug and a blatant racism, however, thank goodness it wasn’t a common experience for me here in Santa Fe. But it happened. I recently posted an announcement through the Meetup.com website for a poetry workshop. Interestingly, I got a reply (you don’t often get replies via Meetup), and quickly saw the sender’s motive: it was an excuse to send a racial slur – a stereotypical black image accompanied with a caption stating: “[N-word]stop messaging me on Meetup.

I replied shamelessly, “Easy, if you don’t want to receive messages on Meetup, unsubscribe from Meetup.”

Hmm. I was pleased with my relatively temperate response. It was an unfortunate incident, but I don’t think my readers disagree that it exemplifies racism. Enough said. Even so, the most common experience for brown and black people in public office is to encounter condescension, disbelief or skepticism about whether one is the best person for the job or one is legitimate. Take the woman at the market where I used to sell my books who pointed at me and said, “Him? Is he the poet laureate? I might as well have been a museum piece. I was standing less than a foot away, but she never asked for my own testimony regarding my identity. She turned to another person and asked again, looking puzzled and slightly incredulous: “It is Poet Laureate?!”

The incidents described above both provide material for anti-racist poetry. The former inspires outrage, while the latter encourages reflection on the nuances of stereotyping, dehumanization, and occasional social slights. The first story strips the facade; racism revealed in its raw state is atavistic and ugly. In the second case, racism is expressed in a less direct way. It’s like a scale that has a high pitch and a low pitch, and a writer who appreciates both is better prepared to say something important.

It’s the masterful ability to evoke the arbitrary cruelty of blatant racism, alongside less visible innuendo and mundane micro-aggressive behavior that makes Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poem so successful. Citizen: An American Song such a moving read. The historical impact of slavery, whippings and contemporary psychological conflict are simultaneously evoked in this depiction of two co-workers at the wheel when one hurls a racial slur. An argument ensues:

“Why do you feel good about telling me that?” You’d like the light to turn red or a police siren to go off so you could brake hard, crash into the car in front of you, be propelled forward so quickly that both of your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Notice how the “you” in the passage could be either the insulted person of color or the self-proclaimed abuser?

Often, I’ve found, writers during Black History Month write poems of praise extolling the greatness of a black leader, or their love for black music and letters. I can easily name great works, like “Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden, but the genre can be limited. I caution against believing that a poem of praise is always the most powerful example of an anti-racist poem. The danger arises when festive tributes risk simplifying racism to the point of avoiding questioning the subject. I have often come across Black History Month poems written by white writers that begin with “I love jazz” or “I love black dancing,” like laundry lists. If the poet is only concerned with highlighting their awakening upon dropping the name, the poem is the rough equivalent of bragging that “I have so many black friends”. Such plays lack the most important element of good poetry. It’s empathy. If you are marginalized, altered, or oppressed, the goal is to break down the walls and get readers to identify with and empathize with your situation; whether you’re privileged, male or white, the goal is to empathize until your worldview is transformed, and write from there.

How open are you to identifying with the stories I told earlier? Can you imagine me opening an email, expecting to communicate with a poet, and then discovering a racial slur? Can you relate your feelings to history and legacy? Can you resist the immediate urge to dismiss a small incident and instead weigh what it has to say about this place, this time and this country? If so, you are ready to write anti-racist poetry.


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