Being a Black poet is being stuck in this in-between, an inherently political place to be.
TW/CW: mentions of homophobia and murder
“In every human Beast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” – Phillis Wheatley
When I heard the news of Giovanni Melton, who was murdered by his father last month at just 14 years old because of his sexuality, I felt a tenseness pour over my shoulders. The tenseness moved its way through my arms, slid over my wrists, and touched my fingers with a painful thud. This was not just a mere tenseness, rather a rage. I knew what I had to do as if the Prophet himself told me to do so: write. Write for my self, for others, for “the movement.” It doesn’t matter what or who I was writing for in the moment, I just had to turn the feeling into poetry. I felt that I was stuck in an in-between, wanting to write for the sake of my healing and understanding of the violences surrounding me, but also feeling the need to write for those who may need to read it as well.
Being a Black poet is being stuck in this in-between, an inherently political place to be. We have a strange role in “the movement,” one that we ironically often struggle to put into words. We don’t wish to be “political poets,” we simply wish to write poetry, and we stand on the shoulders of warriors like Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde who found themselves standing in the similar in-between. We are tasked with the role of carving space into the world of literature to talk about our interpersonal problems, our pain, while at the same time talking about that of the Black community at large. Everything we say and everything we write, my small notes scribbled in my poetry journal to Giovanni, is not just for us but has to be for everyone.
In her poem “Power,” self-described Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, and mother Audre Lorde’s opening lines state “the difference between poetry and rhetoric/ is being ready to kill/ yourself/ instead of your children.” True to this nature, Black poets dwell in the space where rhetoric is too afraid to go, and where artists very rarely reach: the space where wounds are opened, whether by choice or necessity. We have to — as Lorde herself would say — make the personal political, and we have to do it masterfully; we as poets have to stitch words together, like thread through brown skin on wounds to stop bleeding, while also welcoming new wounds to open up and bleed themselves for as long as they’d like. We have to choose which wounds to let dry and which to bleed out. And we ourselves have to, at times, be the festering wound that you cannot stop picking at. We have to, without choice, place fingers inside bloody wounds pull out bullets. We, as Black poets, are doctors, surgeons, nurses, and first responders.
We do not dwell in Black death so much as we deal in Black rage, which often resembles death, and wears death’s clothing, and speaks in prose similar to death’s style.
And, in the nature of “being ready to kill ourselves,” Black poet’s have to deal several hands in death, seemingly unavoidably. I recently read a piece that said Black poets die too much, and when I read that line I instantly understood it on a visceral level. I understood that we are dying daily, Black poets, but I struggled putting into words how and why. I couldn’t quite figure out how to conceptualize the ways in which Black poets put Black death into letters, and I admittedly struggle to form paragraphs to define how we create such imagery of Black death; until I realized, we never do this.
We do not dwell in Black death so much as we deal in Black rage, which often resembles death, and wears death’s clothing, and speaks in prose similar to death’s style. We deal with wounds — entry wounds, exit wounds, festering scabs, bleeding wounds, fatal wounds—and these wounds are another way of resonating our rage to the world. So as I scratch away at the paper with my pen, trying to examine the wound that took Giovanni’s life, I am communication rage to the world.
Sonia Jones, who was Giovanni’s foster mother, said that the dad “would rather have a dead son than a gay son.” I sit on that quote for a while, chewing on tears in the back of my mouth. It was never an either/or situation; he never had to choose between having a gay or dead son. Because now he has a son who is both gay and dead, who, thanks to violent homophobia of this world, probably lived some large part of his life feeling dead inside due to his dad’s reaction. Many homophobic parents who want us dead, who see the cure to gay existence as gay death, fail to realize that so much of our existence is dealt in death; some of us spend many years walking around dead inside, hurt and hollow by a parent’s rejection of us.
I wonder how many violently homophobic parents realize that if they’d rather have a dead son than a gay son, then many of us would rather have dead parents than homophobic parents. And then I think about that conclusion, and where it leads me, and how I could only express something like that through poetry, through wounds hidden and not admitted.
We know all too well how wide a not admitted wound grows, wounds not admitted to our selves or to the world, so we take to task telling the world how beautiful, and righteous, and at times painful, and worthy, and necessary the wound of Black rage is. Our method is an action of admitting the wounds and rage that rhetoric and lyric rarely has the language to do properly, where rhetoric and lyric may have failed others like Giovanni in the past.
Black poets have to tell the world how it is, or how it should be, or at least give a glimpse at how things could be. This is why so many of the Black poets around us in the world are queer and trans people; we feel a rage resonating that is a uniqueness to the Black community, similar to how our own identity and small space we are carving is incredibly unique. Our experiences, like our rage, are something rarely communicated correctly unless through our own mouths ourselves. Poetry has the special ability to not only show the world’s darkness, but to also illuminate it. To take emotion and turn it into thought, and from thought, eventually theory. Lorde told us that poetry steps in to fashion the language that does not yet exist, and that poetry is not a luxury. Surely that is true, and even more so the Black poet steps in to exist in the spaces that words historically have had trouble existing. Not just the Black poet, but the poetry itself steps in to re-fashion and re-define where words have failed to exist for Black trans death, where words have discounted a world of Black Marxisms and radicalisms, where words have never been uttered on middle-passages, bones salvaged, and women’s necks. This is why Black poetry takes so many forms; liquid, gas, solid; writers, artists, rappers. Black poets morph between language, form, and space, filling in rage where needed while creating the fire the coldest spaces lack.
You know of the origins of Black rage, and no matter the amount of lie-bumps that arise on the corners of your tongues, you know that your pretensions of non-clarity on Black rage are bullshit.
The world hands Black poets a mountain of Black rage and says, “put it into words.” And we do our best, often times failing, but never without an honest try. We die every day, and we fail even more. We navigate through the exploitation and devaluation of our work for the sake of our passion, for the sake of the art of rage.
And what of Black rage is misconception? Do we realize the chains around our ankles leave bruises? Have we gotten used to white supremacy’s grip on our necks? Did Kapitalism’s game of “stop hitting yourself” finally wear off? Was the bullet that killed Malcolm cousins with the ones that went through Assata’s chest, and friends with the one that aimed at Martin? Did slavery learn the art of code-switching and rename itself Prison? Have our siblings who colored gender’s whiteness purple not been drowned in the blue of violence? You know of the origins of Black rage, and no matter the amount of lie-bumps that arise on the corners of your tongues, you know that your pretensions of non-clarity on Black rage are bullshit.
When Amiri Barak wrote that the black artist’s role in America is “to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it,” you should have realized right then that Black rage, carried by Black poets, is the only logical weapon to manifest this destruction. Our hands, our words, our stanzas, lines, and indentations are the protests that will eventually lead to the destruction of this rage-machine. You understand who and what Black rage is targeted at, and you understand the beautiful fire that often rises behind it. And if you understand these things, you should be able to understand why Black poets are so detrimental in the process of putting that fire onto paper, why Black rage cannot be placed behind glass and framed, even if we try.
My first exposure to Black poetry and the rage within it that I remember is when I first heard “UNITY” by Queen Latifah playing in my dad’s car, then again the first time I overheard my cousin read Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” aloud for a class presentation. And then another time, when my head was barely higher than my mother’s hips in height, I learned that art had the capability to communicate the same poetic rage when I saw Basquiat’s “Irony of The Negro Policeman” hanging in an art gallery. All three of these things moved me for many reasons, and at such a young age, they all three felt like poetry. I saw the painters brush as a stanza and heard the hip-hop beats resemble poem. I learned that hip-hop was Black poetry, and when the rappers got angry, or when they wrung their head in sadness, or when they displayed some Black joy and owned their own bodies in their music videos, these were all revolutionary acts. More than just revolutionary acts, these existed in the same rage, even if it was presented a bit differently, as Audre Lorde, Lucile Clifton, Amiri Baraka, and countless others. These rappers were doing the same thing I was moved to do upon hearing the of the murder of Giovanni Melton, or Dexter Pottinger, with whom I share a home country. I learned that the act of creating, like the intentional act of remembering, when done within a space of joint blackness and rage, is a political act.
I sit here contemplating, wondering if blackness will be exonerated in the afterlife, or if even in heaven there are still Black poets trying to make sense of the destruction and violence they see around them.
So I sit here, stitching up someone else’s wounds while the stripes on my arms drip red, the names Giovanni Melton, and Dexter Pottinger, and Matthew Murrey, and Earl English, stirring around in my head and heart, and I wonder about all the different ways in which this essay could have played out. I sit here contemplating, wondering if blackness will be exonerated in the afterlife, or if even in heaven there are still Black poets trying to make sense of the destruction and violence they see around them. I sit here thinking about Black poetry, and other Black poets. I think about Maya and Amiri, Aurielle and Langston, Basquiat, Nayyirah, Tariq, Nikki, Claude, James and Assata. And I wonder how I can learn from them to get better at turning the Black rage in my arms into art. Into poetry. Into something that resonates for the soul of Giovanni, as if Jimmy Baldwin himself came back to write the obituary.
I wonder how much longer we will be able break down the concept of rage and turn it into a beautiful Sunday hymn, and when our words will finally run dry and there will be nothing left but revolution itself. And I come to the same conclusion, a depressing and sobering one that I have come to before. Someone once said that beauty is its own reason for being, and based on that, I am lead to believe that Black rage, too, may be its own reason for being. Maybe Lucile Clifton was correct in stating that “its all blood and breaking,” and even more correct when she describes the act of making ourselves again “out of flesh out of dictionaries.”
Again, I return to the tenseness, now swelling within me like an overstuffed gourd. It is my job to write. It is my job to dwell chest-deep in rage. And it is my job to bleed from it, to create my self again from flesh out of dictionaries.