Against the Current: Collective works on State Violence, identity and Resistance

Poetry of Memory and Resistance: Images of Strong Black Women

Letter to the Reader:

           This collection of poems, six larger poems with several poems embedded inside of them, is the product of my adventure through the fall junior research seminar “Black Radical Feminisms: Writing the Carceral State”. Though there are over fifteen pages of poetry in this collection, I cannot help but to still feel like I haven’t written enough, and that I still have so much more left to say. Originally, I had set out to write twelve poems, each ½ page- a page long, but once I started writing I couldn’t stop. All of the words from the semester came flowing out. Even now, I feel I could double each poems’ length and I still feel I wouldn’t even be scratching the surface. The experience of this class has been of the same nature as we’ve gone over every allotted time period by at least ten minutes, each of us leaving with more to say and itching to talk more on the intense and important topics on the syllabus. With such a great group of people, and such a challenging syllabus with works such as Angela Davis’ autobiography and writings on abolition, Assata Shakur’s autobiography, the Combahee river collective, the documentary 13th, the Panther 21’s writings- this class has been truly challenging and eye opening. I’ve left the class with a vastly different world view, complicated opinions on complex issues, and have been persuaded from liberal to revolutionary in one fell swoop of a semester.

            This project was inspired by Assata Shakur’s poetry in “Assata, An Autobiography”, specifically one poem about a fellow inmate named Eva. Assata, while incarcerated, meets a beautiful and large inmate who has mental illness who gives her so much strength, and tries to protect her at times. Assata’s poetry for me felt like a translation from the critical and informational academic work we read this semester. Assata writes in her poem about Eva;
“They say you’re crazy cause you not crazy enough to kneel when told to kneel. Hey, big woman-- with scars on the head and scars on the heart that never seem to heal-- I saw your light and it was shining… Big momma in a little world…. Black woman. Baad woman. Wear your bigness on your chest like a badge cause you done earned it. Strong woman. Amazon… How beautiful you are. I saw your light. And it was shining” (Shakur, 62-64).

I loved everything about this poem from the moment I read it. It highlights so many themes and messages that really struck me repeatedly throughout the course. The message that the word “crazy” and mental illness are attached with defying and protesting the carceral state that is our government and prison system. Black women without mental illness are called crazy as an act of oppression, and black women with mental illness are often dismissed and thrown away as Eva was. The image of light and beauty that are embodied in strength of black women, shining through whatever nonsense the system might try to ascribe to them. The idea that black women are denied space in this world, and it is an act of resistance to be big in a world that wants you minimized. The aspect of space is something at the core of my collection; I wanted to make space for the influential black women on the page and to push back against the white poetic norms. Assata’s poem in a lot of ways feels like a love poem to me, not in the romantic sense of things, but in a pure heart of the soul kind of way. She writes a poem to Eva out of love, giving her the space on the page that she has been denied in the world, but occupies despite the attempts of the carceral state to contain her.

           I know so many women who deserved a poem like this, beautiful and strong black women who have mothered and fought and pushed back against a nasty world. Women whose stories deserve to be told, who deserve epithets of gold and beautiful verse to try to measure up to their voices and tales of courage and strength. These poems are biographical in nature, weaving the voices of the women they are about with my own, as I try to paint a portrait of them in the poetic form. Hopefully I succeeded in portraying the “structure” or basic aura and sense of who they are as people, even though they are indeed forces of nature that could never be contained onto the page. I appreciate and am so grateful for the four women who I personally know and are in my life that I have written about- I’ve changed their names or reduced them to initials to respect their privacy and also to add an air of anonymity. Elenea and H.M. could be someone you know too, a nurse or a college student who’s determined to change the world. I hope you find an aspect of universality to these poems, and that there’s something that any reader can connect with.
I chose to write poems as the form for this creative project, because of the Assata poem, but also because I knew that I wouldn’t come close to expressing the beauty and strength that are these women. Poems are a wonderful medium because they accept that they are limited in size and description. I felt that through poetry I could take the academic information that we’d been working with in class and transform it into something pocket sized, something easily read on a bus or on your way to work. Where someone may not have the time in their day to read an entire six-hundred-page autobiography, maybe they’ll have the time to read fifteen pages.

And such, our Scalar site is incredibly important in the production of this project due to its accessibility. You don’t have to pay any money to read the works of my classmates, they are free and viewable on your phone, tablet, computer. You don’t have to remember to bring a hard copy text with you and you don’t have the burden of the weight of the book in your bag. We can share our work on our social media pages and through group pages we are a part of, giving the opportunity to engage in our text to you the reader in a convenient and easy manner. In such, perhaps our work will be able to reach a larger audience through the site rather than if we had been distributing it by hand in printed copies. In communicating with you the reader, the site has made the experience entirely possible, and enhances it overall. I was able to embed color images, and format the dimensions of the internet page to fit the space of my poems.

They are thinner than the standard page and so rather than having white space, I was able to adjust the margins of the page to display more of the skeleton image to hug the text. In such, my poetry was able to come to the forefront of the page, in a way it might have been diluted on the page. I hope you enjoy the Scalar site. My class has worked extremely hard in preparing it, and it has been a dream to be able to put further broadcast the messages of revolutionary and radical thought. I did my best to create the arrangement of the poems in a non-linear way. I felt that each story was equally important and that to try to contain them in an ordered hierarchy would be weird. I engineered the circle map on the front page where you can choose to begin with any poem and then you can go back to this page and pick another poem at random. Unfortunately, the site requires you to make a path between poems, and so once you have clicked on one, it does suggest another poem to go to next. Feel free to follow these paths, but understand the ordering was not intentional and has no meaning.

Poems are complex because they give you the bones of the subject at hand, and give you the tools to paint the rest of the picture for yourself. For this reason, I find poetry both very challenging and rewarding, as it requires a higher level of engagement and participation from a reader. Where one could call prose hiking a well laid out path, poetry would be rock climbing where only some of the hand holds had colored markers. This is my thought process behind using the two skeletons as my cover art on my scalar page; these poems are only the skeleton beginnings and representations of the epic stories that are these women.
The skeleton also lends itself to the universality; these could be any women. I chose the afro too, as through this class the importance of the image of the natural hair has stuck with me. These black women are beautiful with their natural hair, without the products of the greedy capitalist system, in their femininity. I chose the image of the skeleton drinking coffee as the home page because it felt very normal; in the sense that each of these women wake up every morning and have a cup of coffee or tea before going on their day to push back against racism, sexism, and to do their daily work. The sidebar picture of the afro-skeleton emerging from the water felt like the accompanying image of war, as she is showing only part of her face, ready to strike from the water like an alligator or crocodile.

The poems are each written in their own style, each poem with a unique formatting that I felt reflected the personality of the women inside the poems. The poetry style is at times radical, as the “fighting lineup” poem is written in prose-poetry form, blurring the lines between the forms. The poetry is entirely written in free verse, using not a single traditional poetry style. As this class was a radical class, I thought it would be appropriate to write in a radical way.  Each poem experiments with line breaks and the flow of language, where voice is intertwined with description and the commentary on the world around them. Each poem aims to undermine and challenge the negative, oppressive world we live in, and expose the system that disadvantages black women at every turn. Though H.M. and Elenea were lucky and got scholarships, they are the exception and not the rule. Miss Arlene never had the opportunity to go to college, and neither did anyone else in her South Philly neighborhood growing up in Philadelphia in the 70’s.

Each poem is dedicated to a single black woman, with the exception of Elenea which is also dedicated to her mother. However, all of them explore complex relationships with other black women and people around them. None of these women stand alone, each is a strong figure among many. Each in her own way acts as a mother/mothering figure and participates in the cultivation of love and life around her. I define motherhood as I was taught by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, in the wonderful anthology “Revolutionary Mothering”, as: “MotherING is another matter [from motherhood], a possible action, the name for that nurturing work, that survival dance… Mothering is worked by chosen and accidental mentors who agree to support some growing unpredictable thing called future… the word ‘mother’ less as a gendered identity and more as a possible action, a technology of transformation” (Gumbs, 23)
Assata Shakur and Ramona Africa both mother the larger cultural movement as figures of strength and guidance. Their survival and contest to the system have been broadcasted across the media and by word of mouth. They mother our culture, trying to support and grow our future on a much more macro sense.  H.M. is shown to be pushing toward this kind of future, with her ambitious goals of interviewing and videography, it’s clear she too, will one day be a house hold name. Miss Arlene, as a security guard, mothers everyone who walks through her gate, she turns what can be a sterile living space into a vibrant home, saying hello to everyone who walks by and conversing freely with all the residents. She, literally performs the survival dance as every shift she can be found singing and dancing and lifting the spirits of all around her. Then Mama B does the obvious work of mothering to two children, where she is forced to confront issues of domestic abuse and racism within her own home. However, as her children grow, eventually the story comes full circle with Elenea becoming a nurse//mother and brother taking on the role of mothering as a new parent.

            In such, mothering brings out other key themes that are also at play in the poems. I chose to write about women rather than “issues” or “topics” as the complicated reality of the experiences of black woman are undoubtedly intersectional and cross many areas. It is not only having to deal with sexism or racism- a black woman may not only be a survivor of sexual assault or domestic abuse but also a queer woman and a mother and a daughter who have. Rather than write a poem about “domestic abuse”, I wanted to write about the women themselves who have survived horrible living situations. They are complex, and they are more than this abuse, it is part of their stories, but it is not their only story. For these poems, I just simply listened to the women (with the exception of Assata Shakur) speak. Once she started, Miss Arlene couldn’t stop talking and every question I asked her was a new journey and waterfall of information.

            And so, in my poems many “topics” and “issues” came up, not out fabrication and a forced spotlight but by listening to the women I talked to. There is a broad range of topics that are covered in the poems, each specific to the poem in question. The Assata and Ramona poems address the themes of police brutality and the direct oppression of the State, and state violence exacted on revolutionary figures. Miss Arlene’s poem addresses the after effects and PTSD of gun violence, and the personal journey recovering from domestic abuse. Mama B also touches on domestic abuse but from the perspective of a mother, and from a multi-race family. Elenea and H.M. touch on issues of black childhood and growing up in a predominately white community, and what black girlhood looks like. When I was listening to each of them tell their stories, it was clear that the thing I wanted to string these poems together with was showing the strength of each of these women, as the first most priority. They are among the strongest women I have had the honor of meeting (with the exception of Assata), and I wanted to portray their strength prominently in these poems. Each of them have faced challenges and some have been dealt a horrible hand by life, but they all have persevered and mothered those around them, pushing for a better tomorrow.

            The major unifying theme that has run through my poems in my quest to highlight the women’s strength has been nature. In every poem, elements of rain and water and land and earth and the wind have come through both in a negative and positive way. There is a balance in nature of the good and bad, and so hurricanes have come to represent oppression and abuse, but water has also been used to represent the force and power of black women as well. I think nature emerged as the common theme as it is the easiest thing to connect to life and truth itself. Assata’s opening poem in her autobiography preaches the prominence of rain and water and truth and blood, as she tells us her beliefs; “I believe in living...I believe in rain and tears. And in the blood of infinity…. I believe in life. I believe in living. I believe in birth. I believe in the sweat of love and in the fire of truth” (Assata, 1). Fundamentally, these poems use the theme of nature to explore the complex realities of life itself. Nature, or Momma as Ramona would call her, is the most powerful thing we know. It acts in both destruction and creation, and whether we attribute positive or negative qualities to it does nothing to define its strength.

            I understand the complexities of writing poetry about black women as a white woman. I understand that I can never fully grasp the impact of the everyday and systemic challenges they face. However, through this class I have done my best to educate myself by listening and reading as much as I could. In such, these poems are for the women they are written about, and they are for any black woman who can see themselves in the poems. They are love poems to you. But they are also poems for the white women and men who do not know your stories. It is an incredible amount of work to educate the world about these topics of racism, sexism, the oppression of capitalism, etc. and I aim to relieve just the tiniest bit of this work for the black women who have other important work to do.

One of the first steps to creating a better world, one where we can have a black female president instead of a cartoon figure, and fill the boards of top levels of society with black women and their babies is telling the story. H.M. is undoubtedly going to run the world one day, and if everyone can read her background now, they’ll be ready for her. In reading Assata’s autobiography, she touches on the difficulty of educating the sleeping and ignorant white middle and upper classes;
“How could they understand someone becoming a Black revolutionary? They had so little to revolt against. They had bought the amerikan dream lock, stock, and barrel and seemed unaware that, for the majority of Black and Third World people, the amerikan dream is the amerikan nightmare” (Shakur, 119).
This is true. Explaining the nightmare that is the amerikan dream to the content rich white community is seemingly an impossible task. But is a job worth doing. I hope to reach just a tiny group of people with empathetic hearts who will hear these stories and think twice about the world we live in. I hope you enjoy these stories no matter what background you come from, and that you hear the truth shining through.

~ Regina Salmons ~

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