[…] black poets cannot convince ourselves / cannot forgive— Momtaza Mehri, "A TABLEAU OF ASPIRATION OR FRANKLIN SITTING ON THE SOLITARY GARDEN DECK CHAIR IN 1973's A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING"
ourselves / for what we are about to do
Like Momtaza Mehri's incredible poem previewed above, I am thinking about the psychic and political work Black poets are asked (and eagerly volunteer) to perform in exchange for publication, profit, prestige, and pleasure in the US, myself included.
And on this occasion—the publication of Dr. Joy James's In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities—I am humbled to think aloud about care, violence, shame, and poetry.
I do not hope to say anything here that hasn't been thought elsewhere or elsewhen, only to gather nodes of thought and offer ways inside the remediative functions of Black poetics.
In "Introduction to Fulcrum," James recounts the murder of her Aunt P, as told to her by her mother. A Black man named Albert gifts 19-year-old Aunt P a car. And after Aunt P, popular with white and Black folks in Holly Bluff, Mississippi, continues to see other (Black) men, Albert murders her with a shotgun. Before any Blacks, including the author's family, could seek anything like justice or revenge or redress, a white mob lynches Albert. That was that.
This story begins James' exploration of how the desires and the shame of the Black living inform if, and how, the stories of our dead are told.
Of Aunt P's murder, James writes:
My family never speaks of the incident that has no heroic content, no collective black rebellion against white violence and black gender violence. In the absence of a coherent and upbeat familial narrative, silence dominates. My family elders do not keep alive a story that is depressing and shame-filled.
Later, James writes that this silence is coerced and compounded, beginning with the murder of Aunt P and concluding with the lynching of Albert:
The lynchers shamed all Blacks with their impunity, their god-like power over life and death, freedom and captivity… What do shamed Blacks do when they are the victim and victimizer? Perhaps, just simplify the narrative.
The simplified narrative of Aunt P's death that the author receives from her family, she notes, obscures the shame of Black people who witnessed both of these murders and lived alongside Albert before that day, and alongside the mob everyday after. Nobody in her family talks about the possibility that, James writes, "[m]ore than one Black soul in Holly Bluff may have cheered the posse," and the shame attendant to this uncomfortable desire is inseparable from the shame of having one's rage prohibited with fatal consequence. "It was permissible for Blacks to rage at Albert," James writes, "but not at his killers."
In a poem, one can revel in anti-logical potentiality and make impossible things appear close enough to touch—not in a distant or unreal universe, but right here. Trained to break open language and syntax with a drone operator's precision and "free" from the constraints of narrative and plot, the English writing poet can summon words seemingly against their usual deployments and prerogatives.
So, if there is one place any of us can't help but survive this world, against our will included, it will be in Some Black Poems which, unlike the story of Aunt P's murder, or any story, need not possess any heroic content in order to alchemize the shame of eulogizing the dead (and the shame in the pleasure of watching) into something that is, disturbingly, alive.
This time, with no shame, and no devil.
Perhaps one of the most read and shared poems of the past few years, I turn your attention to poet and gardener Ross Gay's vivid and successful "A Small Needful Fact."
When I tell a friend that I hate this poem, I wonder if I am simplifying the narrative. Perhaps, so I also tell him that I cried after first reading it. Then, I studied it. Then, I stewed about, repulsed. Then I felt guilty, ashamed. The poem is not an argument, I told myself, it is only an observation, it is only speculation. I am safe, I thought. It cannot get me.
"Jonathan, let the dead Black man become a tree."
But I don't want the dead to help me breathe, even in a poem, and I am desperately looking for rage and shame in the writing of Black people who remain, like the author's family, shamed into being unashamed and raged into being what we are.
In How Poems Think, the white American poet and critic Reginald Gibbons writes, "I want to find a way to free myself to write what I hadn't entirely known how to wish to say."
Joy's writing invites us to say what we wish we didn't know, whether or not it gets us out of captivity, or makes it easier for us to breathe.
Building on the concept of agape, Revolutionary Love challenges the erotic logic of racial fetishism. An examination of Black romance and the politics and libidinal economy of antiblackness in popular culture.
Moving intellectualism from the academic factory into communal struggle, a new roundtable seeks to examine, engage, and interrogate James's subversive attempt to reclaim revolutionary struggle from the academy—and deliver it back to communities.
More in blackness:
The changing seasons are an apt metaphor to talk about the shedding, withering, and falling away that accompanies the most painful parts of grief. Nnenna Freelon takes us on a walk through the woods to contemplate autumn and the possibility of renewal.
A wife for nearly 40 years, Nnenna Freelon now wonders what to make of the term widow when she still feels the significance of her marriage well after her husband's death in Black Widow, the final installment in the season of Great Grief, Wailing Women.
Hair holds our history, personality, identity—and our grief. In episode 3 of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon visits her mother's beauty salon, where generations of Black women have gathered to discuss their hair—the grief over it, and the grief under it.
The weather bears witness: On calamity, rebirth, and Blackness in the face of climate crisis and the chaos of the natural world. "Perhaps in every wind roaring, in every storm raging, our ancestors are not only watching over us, but watching out for us."