Responding to our call out for blogs from Black disabled artists, Dee Dickens examines the relationship between poetry and the ongoing struggle for racial equity. What makes this artform so popular among activists and how are its impacts felt?
From Shakespeare to Maya Angelou, the idea that not all are born equal has been pervasive in literature, and yet, so has the idea that we should be. A rose by any other name still smelling as sweet is the old, ‘we’re all part of the human race,’ and ‘still I rise’ encompasses Black Lives Matter in a single line.
Poetry has always been a way for the masses to express themselves. When the working classes were massacred at Peterloo in 1819, the response that still resonates, and is indeed still recited at trade union events, was Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy,’ with its central message of the oppressed masses being roused to “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number—” (Shelley, 1819). It is a call to arms for revolution in the face of what seem to be overwhelming odds that brooks no dissent.
But what of modern-day activist poetry? Well, despite the buy-in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has finally achieved from white allies, it is difficult to scroll through Facebook* without seeing denunciations of All Lives Matter ranging from: comparisons to carrots mattering not affecting the vitamin content of broccoli, (yes, really) and broken legs not meaning that everyone needs to wear a cast. We black writers have been telling you our stories for a very long time.
Here’s the thing: Black people have always been persecuted by an oppressive white supremacy. Langston Hughes (1902-1967) said, “I’m so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?” in 1930, and Maya Angelou (1928-2014) told us, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them” in 2010.
Another thing we have always had is a strong oral tradition. As enslaved people we sang in code to give instructions and information about when the next escape was going to happen. When we were banned from speaking our own language, we told stories to pass along our traditions. The Yoruba were poets before they were stolen and poets they remained.
In 2020, you do not have to look far to see and hear black poets pouring their love, anger and frustration into their words. When Eric Garner (1990-2017) uttered “I can’t breathe” during his murder, it resonated. Three simple words that, for him, literally meant that the air was leaving his body, gave us a message that would go a long way to poetically describe the fight we Black people have been having to control the very air in our lungs for as long as we can remember.
In response, we have had poets sharing their experience of being alive while Black. William Evans tells us, “My wife is shaped like I married a man, not a memorial, not a Facebook movement.” Dear Dirty Hipsters by Kai Davis and Safiya Washington called out well-meaning comments like “I don’t see colour” voiced by people for who “your privilege is still the most prominent thing about you.”
The shift comes from poets no longer just addressing Black people. There is a directness in speaking to everyone in a way that makes Black audiences nod in recognition and white ones say things like, “Some poems will help you understand a few things. Some poems you might understand a bit too much and it will leave you out of breath.” This is the reaction UK Slam champion, Tyrone Lewis, engenders from his readers when they read his collection Blackish.
So, why poetry, and why now? One answer is its resurgence as a popular art form. It is short, snappy, accessible on YouTube, and is written in a language that we can all understand. Not that it has been dumbed down, not at all. Rather, in an age of globalisation, where South Korean pop stars are singing in a mix of Korean and English, where subtitles are the norm rather than just seen as something to be added on, those three little words, “I can’t breathe”, have hit us where we live.
And they hit us again when George Floyd (1973-2020) said them as he was being murdered this year. In response, poets did what poets do, they channelled the anger, frustration, and despair that the global Black population have been feeling forever and fired it back at society in a way that was unapologetic, easily accessible, and in the language of the masses, not of long dead white men.
Throw in a global pandemic which has driven people online in greater numbers and given them the time to search out content, and you have a perfect storm of a movement gaining momentum through likes, shares, and threads. There is a whole new generation of activists who are very much at home in a digital age and will utilise platforms in a way that had previously been unheard of. While the ‘Silver Surfers’ are still looking for the button that gets them on the web, black poets, and their allies are putting the message out that just saying “Black Lives Matter” is not enough. Their poetry is easily memorisable and captures what we want to say for those who may have the feelings, the anger, and the emotions, but lack the words to express them. And we are standing our ground, too. We are flushing out white guilt and demanding that our allies actually do something this time.
Black people have never had the privilege of being able to speak without interruption. Black poets know this. Luckily we are adept at saying much with few words.
“Teach me, dammit,
teach me how to learn about
my history when the books
have been liberally splashed with
whitewash. Teach me how
to take it in without
upending every desk and
smashing all the windows
with them; screaming a name
I never knew, in a language
that was denied to me.”
(From Teach Me by Dee Dickens, 2020)
*other cesspits of well-meaning atrocity are available.