“These black girls need to watch out, ’cause white girls is winning.”
Thus begins the viscerally honest poem, ‘To Be Black and Woman and Alive,” performed at the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational finals in April.
College students Crystal Valentine and Aaliyah Jihad teamed up to recite the poem, and Button Poetry posted a video of their performance to Youtube on Sunday, July 19.
“Puerto Rican, Italian, Bajan, Thai — I know they want me to be everything I’m not,” the poets powerfully recite together at one point during the performance explaining the misogyny, colorism, and constant pressure to be more “exotic” looking that black women face.
The poem perfectly encapsulates the reality of being a black woman, highlighting how ironic it is that while black men make black women feel undesirable, black women are also on the front lines of civil rights issues that affect black men — and rarely getting any credit for it.
One of the last, powerful lines in the poem: “I grew up learning how to protect men who hate me…learned how to be the revolution spit-shining their spines.”
Jihad and Valentine (who also performed the profound poem “Black Privilege” at the event), were part of a six-person team of poets representing New York University who eventually went on to win the competition.
“Melissa Williams,” Aja Monet reads, “Darnisha Harris.” Her voice is strong; it marches along, but it shakes a little, although not from nerves. She’s performing a poem that includes the forgotten names of girls and women who’ve been injured or killed by the police. She finishes forcefully, then pauses, exhales. “Can I do that again?” she asks. “It’s my first time reading it out loud, and … ” she trails off.
Monet had written the poem — a contribution to the #SayHerNamecampaign, a necessary continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement focusing on overlooked police violence against women — earlier that morning. That evening, she’d read it at a vigil. Now, she was practicing on camera, surprised by the power of her own words.
As a poet, Monet is prolific. She’s been performing both music and readings for some time — at 19, she was the youngest ever winner of New York City’s Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam — and her work has brought her to France, Bermuda and Cuba, from where her grandmother fled, and where she recently learned she still has extended family. Next month, she’ll return to visit them. But first, she wants to contribute to a campaign she believes in.
Though she’s disheartened that a hashtag is necessary to capture people’s attention — “I think #SayHerName is the surface level of the issues but beneath that there is the real question of, ‘Why?’” she says — Monet wields her art to achieve social and political justice. While discussing political poetry with a fellow artist in Palestine, he observed, “Art is more political than politics.” “I feel him,” she says. “I think he’s right.”
Can you explain #SayHerName in your own words?
It is us calling out the lack of attention on women of color also affected by state violence. We recognize the power of our voices and so we raise the spirits of our sisters by daring to utter their names.
A recent Washington Post write-up said it’s difficult to even quantify police brutality against black women. How will #SayHerName honor those whose stories are lost?
I can’t speak for what a hashtag will do in the actual hearts of people but I know that anything worth paying attention to these days in America has to be sold and marketed as if worth buying into. We recognize that the attention span of our generation is so short: How else do we make the issues we care about accessible and also relevant? This is what activism has come to. This is where we are at in the age of the Internet. We must be honest with ourselves about how human interaction is now only affirmed or confronted based on the projected world we live in through screens.
I think #SayHerName is the surface level of the issues, but beneath that there is the real question of “Why?” Why do I need to make saying her name a hashtag for you to pay attention? The goal is to use this as an opportunity to redirect the attention of people, to hopefully get folks researching the names and stories of all the women we’ve lost. To educate themselves so we are all more informed on how policing works. Black women’s bodies are the most policed bodies in this country.
Also, I didn’t read the Washington Post write-up, but it seems silly to me. Like, of course it’s difficult to quantify any brutality against human beings. It’s not more difficult when it comes to black women, I think it’s just easier for us to ignore them because if we acknowledge them then we must acknowledge all of the women affected by violence and brutality, not just by police but by an entire patriarchal, racist system. We keep scratching the surface of these issues and neglecting the root, which is this country never loved black people, and of course that meant black women. We who birth the men they also hate. We are an extension of each other.
What inspired this poem, and what inspires your poetry in general?
I was at an event where I read a poem in solidarity with my Palestinian brothers and sisters, and Eve Ensler was in the audience. We spoke briefly after and she admired the poem I read. I was honored and she gave me her email. I followed up immediately the next day and informed her that if she ever needed a poet at any point, I’d be there, no questions asked.
She responded with this vigil for #SayHerName and asked if I’d be willing to read a poem. I have been meditating on this issue of women of color affected by police brutality, but the poem hadn’t quite come to me yet. I started writing a piece for Rekia Boyd but it just isn’t ready to be done yet. So I woke early the morning of the vigil and forced myself to write this poem. I sat with all the names of the women and I asked them that I may find the words to do justice. They came to me hours before I had to meet with you all to record.
And maybe they’ll change, but the process of inspiration is a strange thing. For the most part I call on my ancestors. Not to be all, “I call on my ancestors,” but it’s true. I know I’m not the only one writing when I write. I also know that more times than not inspiration is subjective. You can find inspiration in anything if you pay attention. If you’re careful enough to notice how divine this world is and we are, to be here together, creating.
Obviously you appreciate overtly political art — why do you think political art can be powerful?
I met an artist in Palestine who said “art is more political than politics.” I feel him. I think he’s right.
I think being an artist, you are in the business of telling it like it is. You create of the world you live in, unapologetically. What that means is you aren’t catering to an eye or group or specific niche so much as your own truth as you see fit. Politicians, on the other hand, are constantly determining their worth and issue relevance based on approval ratings and polls. They are always campaigning, which becomes less about the issues we need to be dealing with and more about who can be bought to speak about what you want them to speak about. It’s an ugly game I want no business in.
Art that addresses the business of politics recognizes its power and influence. It unveils the mask of “politics” and gets to the people we are fighting for. It does the difficult work of reaching people’s hearts and minds. No great change takes place without art. It’s necessary.
Who are some fellow poets you currently admire?
Since we are in the spirit of saying her name, here’s a few names: Jayne Cortez, Wanda Coleman, Carolyn Rodgers, June Jordan, Audre Lorde and, of course, my sister, Phillis Wheatley.
Monet’s two books of poetry, Inner City Chants and Cyborg Ciphers and The Black Unicorn Sings are available online.
Sunshine spilled in through the small spaces o f the blinds, finding its way over her body struggling to sleep. As her eyes twitch, fighting off the images beneath her lids, the sun’s invasions intensified whatever was happening in her subconscious mind. Instinctively, she lifted the knitted teal and orange throw above her head, in an attempt to shield away the torturous moment between her mind and mind’s eye. The vibrating sound of her cell phone alarms startled her, but only slightly as she pressed snoozed, eyes still closed. She wiped her eyes as to erase the dream’s journey. Finally, she forced open her eyes, perhaps too full to endure anymore. Routinely, she reached over to her handcrafted nightstand, which held her journal and favorite pen. She sat up, letting her wild locs fall freely, and did what she has been doing since the arrival of these images.
She wrote, tears forming, trapped in the corner of her eyes. She wiped them prematurely as she always did. Afraid the falling tears would bring the written words beneath them to life. She was oblivious, or perhaps in denial, to the fact that reality already occurred. That she has been a living result of a motherless child. Not that her mother was deceased or even absent, not physically at least.
She wrote away at this nagging dream, needing to put the pieces together, where she is running from danger into the arms of her mother. Towards her mother she runs. To safety she needed. To safety she thought.
To Be Continued….
I took a writing workshop class over the summer and while it was helpful hearing other people’s critique of and reading each others’ work, it was most difficult for me to write during the prompts. My mind would just shut down. Perhaps it was me thinking too much and/or comparing myself to the other writers in the workshop, all who are SOOOO brilliant. Any who, this was the first (and perhaps the only) piece that came freely to me during a writing prompt session. I said I’d come back to this and when I do, I will share its growth…
i deleted that email you sent me two years ago
the one that detailed the curve of my hip in the palm of your hand
and how hours of video game marathons were better shared
a compilation of memories made up into a single desire
that reflected the one burning in the cage of my ribs that I refused to free
you broke up with me this last time three days before you remembered
the whiskey-soaked tears on my shoulders that dried by morning
and you repeating “I’m so sad” like it was a secret
i threaded my fingers through your hair and lied to you
saying that we would always be together
knowing that when you sobered up that it would end
you let me go while holding me so tight it almost hurt
the echo of that ache has yet to leave my bones
when you texted me on my birthday, i wanted to scream
instead we discussed the details of the Empire’s beauracracy
and whether Sith Lords get short-term disability
after my third glass of wine, i went searching through the archives
for proof that you had loved me
i only started to cry when i remembered i had already deleted it
the light of the ocean simmered across the space between them
reflecting murky depths brimming florescent diatoms
this kaleidoscope flares with the color of a microscopic moment
that create a memory mosaic out of colored glass and one-celled frames
they look like humans but they’re shaped like sharks
circling around each other in ever-tightening spirals
black eyes flashing as their gazes catch and release
lips part to reveal gleaming teeth; their gills flutter, ready to speak
this is the moment where blood fills the water
this is the moment where love begins
I am a water child who trembles at the thought of drowning
born again in waters too deep to fathom
where secrets linger like the glowing bulbs of angler fish to tempt me into gaping jaws
and so I throw off my seal skin to walk on shards of glass
only to find that my blood is just as red when spilled onto sand
veins become blistered, infection spilling through the organ in my chest
a filter spanning arteries that are slowly chipped away by the flood
should the levy break apart like threadbare promises
I will raise my chin above the crimson tide
my hands reaching out to dry shores that never appear
it won’t be long until I’m dragged beneath, lungs filled with salt and water
drowning in a way that’s like coming home
the rumbling of the train echoes in in my hands
a blur of snowflaked wind swirls on my tongue
as I turn to watch the trees run to catch up outside the window
falling – falling – falling behind in desperate green
it reminds me of the weeping willow behind my parents’ house
where the murmurs of my father’s fists barely whispered through
and the scent of old whiskey and “come here, baby girl”
was washed from my skin like a Monday baptism
a juniper breeze rolls past weathered cherry lips
casting swirls of wet-warm frost on the cold glass pressed against my cheek
fingerprints smearing through pearls of condensation
my hands do not shake as I write my farewell
it was on a soggy July night when my mother told me riddles
a Virginia Slim between bruised fingers tipped cherry red
“If you ever loved me, moonpie, love yourself more”
it’s only when I turn away from the window
facing the stranger whose tobacco-stained fingers clutch at today’s news
tales of nuclear war and the stock market sobbing
that I remember the honeysuckle wind that carried her words
and the mint julep burning truth in my gut
“your heart is a magnolia tree,” my mother sang to me
“don’t let the summer pass you by”
should the stars fall from eyes wider than the universe
and burn onto the pallor of cosmic cheeks
it will be a grief that rattles through the stratosphere
a vacuum torn through carbon dust and the taste of goodbye
leave a last kiss on this milky way mouth
the one that you once said held entire galaxies
drink them down into the burning black hole
where your love for me once burned
a supernova swallowed over awkward silences and cold coffee
they say that it all began with a shout and a bang
the door slams shut behind you and the universe spirals on
“I am enough”
“I am enough”
“I am most certainly enough”
The magic words uttered by Natalie Patterson in her unforgettable poem 10 Things Every Female Should Know. Everyone needs a pick me up. Everyone needs to be reminded of their unique awesomeness. In this amazing and soulful reading, Patterson plays the cheerleader – she is in your corner pushing you on. Forward my comrades, forward! Enjoy.