How do you simultaneously make a statement and write a good poem? The question is on the table, and there is no better time to address it than Black History Month, when we’re surrounded by stories of Black accomplishment and ongoing protest. Furthermore, we can’t address what anti-racist poetry is, exactly, without first asking ourselves, “What is racism?” We must first define it, so that writers, poets and others can dismantle it.
Of course, I can’t easily do that, but I can offer examples that relate to yet a third common question, and one that pertains to my own life: Have you encountered racism in Santa Fe? I ask with particular urgency, as I am a Black American who is also the Santa Fe poet laureate and somewhat in the public eye. People have asked me whether the position has been accompanied by any racist retaliation or misunderstandings—a sensitive question, to say the least, and the answer depends on how you define racism. Or, possibly, the answer illustrates different aspects of racism.
It isn’t hard to recognize thuggish and blatant racism, though, thank goodness, that hasn’t been a common experience of mine here in Santa Fe. But it has happened. I recently sent out an announcement through the website Meetup.com for a poetry workshop. Interestingly, I received a response (you don’t often receive replies through Meetup), and I soon saw the sender’s motive: It was an excuse to send a racist insult—a stereotypical Black image alongside a caption reading, “[N-word], don’t send me any more messages on Meetup.”
I unapologetically responded with, “Dummy, if you don’t want to receive messages on Meetup, unsubscribe from Meetup.”
Ahem. I congratulated myself for my relatively tempered response. This was an unfortunate incident, but I don’t think my readers disagree that it exemplifies racism. Enough said. Even so, the more common experience for Brown and Black people who assume public positions is to encounter condescension, disbelief or skepticism about whether one is the best person for the job, or whether one is legitimate. Take the woman at a market where I was selling my books who pointed at me and said, “Him? That’s the poet laureate?” I might as well have been a museum piece. I stood less than a foot away, but she never requested my own testimony regarding my identity. She turned to another person and asked again, sounding puzzled and slightly disbelieving: “He’s the poet laureate?!”
The incidents described above both provide material for anti-racist poetry. The first inspires indignation, while the other encourages reflection on the nuances of stereotyping, dehumanization and casual social slights. The first narrative strips away the facade; racism revealed in the raw is atavistic and ugly. In the second instance, racism is expressed in a less direct way. It’s like a scale that has a high, and a low pitch, and a writer who appreciates both is better prepared to say something important.
It’s the masterful ability to evoke blatant racism’s arbitrary cruelty, alongside less visible innuendo, and commonplace micro-aggressive behavior that makes Claudia Rankine’s highly successful 2014 book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric such a jolting read. The historical impact of slavery, whippings and contemporary psychological conflicts are simultaneously evoked in this description of two colleagues driving when one makes a racist slur. An argument ensues:
“Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both 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-entitled aggressor?
Often, I’ve found, writers during Black History Month will pen praise poems extolling the greatness of some Black leader, or their love for Black music and letters. I can easily name great works, like Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass,” but the genre can be limiting. I caution against believing a praise poem is always the most powerful example of an anti-racist poem. The danger comes when celebratory tributes risk simplifying racism to the point they avoid challenging subject matter. I’ve often encountered Black History Month poems by white writers that begin, “I love Jazz,” or “I love Black dance,” like laundry lists. If the poet is only concerned with highlighting their wokeness while name-dropping, the poem is the rough equivalent of bragging how “I have so many Black friends.” Such pieces lack the most important component of good poetry. That’s empathy. If you’re marginalized, othered or oppressed, the goal is to break through the walls and have readers achieve identification and empathy with your situation; if 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 narratives I told earlier? Can you picture me opening an email, expecting to communicate with a poet, then discovering a racist slur? Can you relate your feelings to history and legacy? Can you resist the immediate urge to dismiss one small incident and instead weigh what it may say about this place, this time and this country? If so, you’re ready to write anti-racist poetry.