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In the style of all things that debuted in the year 2020, america, Mine, Sasha Banks' first collection of poetry, fiercely troubles the received myths at the core of American identity.
Standing in front of Harriet Tubman's Grave, the speaker in the book poses a question to the great matriarch of freedom:
I wanted to ask her
how to make a
warning of your blood
to paint the threshold
of your enemy; how
to bite off the head
of hatred;how to love a country
that hated you first.
This 31 poem-collection published by co•im•press, is itself an experimental gesture at an answer.
For Banks, who was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta and currently lives in Texas, this work is a culmination of the poet's Southern roots and her experiences as a Black woman.
america, Mine uses a Southern Gothic lyric to recreate America as a hologram. Its poems project the country's haunting history and unacknowledged memories across familiar geographies. We're taken on both a psychic and physical journey.
Draw a map of america from memory—don't include the state lines.
Draw a picture of Abraham Lincoln from memory.
Draw a map of america from memory, place a star in the general area of the nation's capital.
The first poem, "Recollect," is an opening that moves through time and history, and rattles our sense of self. Seemingly unassuming directives guide and invite us to participate in an imaginative form of play, and then pivot unexpectedly. The simplicity of the directions lure us in until we are no longer playing, but confronting the origin story of America and our role in maintaining its white supremacist underpinnings.
Tell the story of how George Washington chopped down the cherry tree if you don't know it, make it up.
Banks goes further,
Please name all 56 signees of the Declaration of Independent—if you don't know then, make them up.
Draw Thomas Jefferson's family tree.
Questions then follow, blurring the lines between the classically taught written history of American and those erased histories which our ancestors whisper.
Can a land be cursed? If so, can a curse be broken off of the land? Draw a map of Uhmareka.
Banks' choice to render America in the lowercase and with a phonetic spelling disrupts our visual sensibility and—perhaps most importantly—interrupts the readers' attachment to memory. Banks draws from the style of poet Ntozake Shange, notable for her use of creole dialects, Black English, and the ways she takes liberties with the conventions of English.
In an interview with Neal A Lester, Shange said, "I'm a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people's lives." Writing down the phonetic spelling invites the reader to consider a new way of talking about America as valid.
Banks warns the reader, "don't overlook the emphasis on (and sometimes heavy-handedness of) undermining this country and giving its history the same treatment it's given to the histories of Black, brown, and indigenous people. Don't overlook the fact that nothing and no construct is too holy or sacred to be critiqued, especially when it has been elevated to be more important than the people."
Each page performs similar emotional and psychological interventions. Every poem is a call to action, a call to a de/reconstructive journey.
We travel with Banks in dreams to the Delta, and we witness self-love emerge as she iterates through locations of trauma to redefine what it means to love a place as flawed as America. For example, the series of poems "Sasha Fells the Wildwood," "Sasha at Monticello," "Sasha's Blade on Mount Rushmore," and "Sasha Waltz on the Wreckage" present intimate portraits of the author. We see her vulnerable, as she is entangled and threatened with the symbols of American history.
But the most stunning series happens midway through the book, where the book becomes an art object. The pages turn translucent. The reader experiences the poems as specters. The text, blacked-out lines, lyrics, and titles layer and collage each other. The title of one poem begins "Prissondenshull Urder," morphs into "Presidential Order," and eventually terminates as "resident Order."
Banks is painting with poetry. Her technique reminds us of how Kara Walker draws out subversive histories through her use of black and white montages. However, Sasha Banks' work moves beyond the shock and horror of spine chilling silhouettes; it is pleasurable to decode this section. According to adrienne maree brown, the author of Pleasure Activisms, pleasure is an essential need for inquiry of social constructs. Seeing through the pages creates momentum, enticing the reader to continue this journey with the author.
Sasha Banks' debut collection stands in the literary tradition of Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, and Audre Lorde. Each demanded the right to their pleasure and their pain with such ferocity that they forced us to confront our fears and ask questions. Only through confrontation and playful audacity can we begin to renegotiate these traumas and histories.
Our communities are grappling with a cultural paradigm shift as we imagine perhaps for the first time an america which is truly ours. america, Mine provides a meditative and daringly pleasurable space to process this pivot towards a new and equitable consciousness.