Black History Month Series (V)

Q: What are the dangers for a Black woman writer of writing first-person-narrator poetry?

A: The White-male-authored “I” of a poem is often seen as a universal spokesperson, a representative of the “human condition”; the White-female-authored “I” is viewed as the puppet of a man-bashing and very self-obsessed girl; the African-American male “I” is the authority for Black America…. This is a throwback to the sexist and racist roots of formal literary analysis. See how far removed the multicultural Black woman writer is?

A: Some readers see it as a personal invite into the “world of the Black female,” viewing the actual poet as a gateway to a supposedly-exotic or previously-forbidden realm. The specific poet/poem is lost or misread.

A: The poet must define subsequent non-autobiographical work as such when employing “I.” (Although this is a minor issue, comparatively speaking, it’s there).

There is the double bind of being Black and a woman opening herself up to artistic critique, for certain readers will focus first on the poet’s physical features, interpreting the term “Black” as purely biological, then mentally translate to African-American, interpreting the culture as “alien” to American-ness in general. Old stereotypes of race, class, and gender invariably combine here to define and confine the multicultural Black woman poet (and, indeed, the African-American woman poet). There’s the art, the artist, the assumed artist, the actual artist, the past artist, the future of the artist—that’s a lot to sort through just to get a poem read.

Considering the negative energy expended by the Black woman poet dodging such ad feminam critique, especially that which is both overly-restrictive and at least vaguely belittling of her own unique experience, voice, and talent, makes it a wonder that so many of us keep writing. And think of all the energy wasted by the reader who could have been simply enjoying poetry. Why buy trouble?

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Black History Month Series (II)

Q: What does it mean, really, to be a multicultural writer?

A: I write as I live, through all of my valued private and public traditions and experiences…as an American. There’s no pie chart for my cultural percentages, and 9 times out of 10, the Black part is not open for discussion.

Blackness is a state of being shaped by experiences, not just a biological “marker,” so when I say “Black” I am not talking about physical packaging—9 times out of 10. Why is that such a difficult concept for non-Black Americans to get, especially women? Is “woman” just a biological fact or marker for them? When a man relates to a woman’s “femaleness” or refers to her as a woman when that specific fact seems irrelevant to the current human communication or interaction, doesn’t that woman get angry, defensive, feel insulted, maybe think “sexist jerk”?

If so, why do I get labeled an ABW or militant for thinking “race-obsessed jerk” when my race is gratuitously or inappropriately “related to” or referred to? When is it inappropriate for another person to refer to my race? 9 times out of 10 that the person is not one of my oldest and dearest friends, and yes, especially if the person is not a Black American and/or of African descent. It’s a cultural understanding thing, complicated by both historical and present racism. I catch a lot of heat for mentioning my own race, asserting that it “makes a difference,” so all non-me’s should have even stricter racial gag orders than I.

Turning specifically to the question of art, when I apply pen to paper, it is not with the pressure of a monocultural agenda. That is, if I’m in a Black state of mind, my pen writes about race, or culture, or racism. When I’m feeling my “woman-ness”, I write about sex, or gender, or sexism. Major holidays bring out my inner American; that’s when I write about friends and family, or mistletoe and pie, or anti-patriots. Some days, when socio-economic inequities are especially noticeable and infuriating, I write about class prejudice. In other words, I write what I write, with neither boundaries nor pretenses of belonging to any one literary tradition. To write with respect for the past, appreciation for the present, and an eye on the future is perhaps my subconscious, apolitical, multicultural agenda. A reader who possesses a monocultural agenda or monomaniacal obsession with any one part of a writer’s personal features or demographic categories (i.e., with her “markers”) will probably find my work disappointing.

Black History Month Series (I)

In honor of Black History Month and the impending publication of my first collection of poems, which are autobiographical, I will be posting a series of personal essays.

Q: What does it mean to be Black, and multicultural, and a woman writing into the 21st century?

A: It’s a race, class, gender tale of nature versus nurture.

Here in the twenty-first century, on the cusp of publication of my poetry, there is still such an unpleasant focus on the biology and social status of Americans that I am stuck under the label “Black,” which I will gladly keep, and “ghetto girl,” which I reject as racist, sexist, and elitist. For I am not from the ghetto, street, or inner city. My inner child is indeed a girl from the ‘hood, but the term is short for “neighborhood,” and it is for me an internalized term, not one that is merely suggestive of a past or current geographic or socio-economic location/status but also representative of a complex now-woman’s identity.

It means that I am confident, sassy, strong, yet love being a woman: wearing lipstick, skirts, and shiny new shoes if I please; being unashamed to have feelings; keeping secrets or indulging in a bit of harmless gossip; saying thank you when a man swings open a door in front of me rather than being insulted. Any so-called “low-class” woman will tell you, there are more manners in the poor and blue collar men of Dorchester, Eastie, and Roxbury than in the Financial District, Newton, and West End. “Class” to me means that one actually recalls having been raised right, with common manners and sense, respect for both genders, and an old-fashioned notion of decency.

How a child was born and raised and who an adult has chosen and still chooses to be and become—two different things. A truly multicultural artist, like me, embraces nature via self-acceptance and spirituality as well as nurture via accepting the best, most interesting, most compatible people, concepts, pleasures, responsibilities that exist outside of the self. For me, allowing the internal marriage of nature and nurture, of high and low culture, has created an identity. It is bothersome, to say the least, to be answering the same questions about my bookish and artsy self that I was answering twenty-five years ago. At 20, I was a confused and misfit girl, student, living in one tiny area of the world. At 45, I am an educated woman who has discovered, and who constantly stretches the limits of, her current power and her artistic and human potential. Recognition of that fact respects the general process of learning, growing, and maturing in a society that is still less than kind to its minorities and its poor. Artists, Black Americans, and women fall into at least one of those categories.

It’s all about the ball

Man, the second and third quarters were snoozeable—but the first and fourth, well, they are why football keeps winter hot.  The 100-yard TD dash, the Fitgerald sprints that said “I’m making you old boys run for your money today!” and that gorgeous Baryshnikov-worthy, tippey-toe TD catch in the end zone.  Aw, baby!

Add music—lip-synch away, JH, you’re still amazing! and the still-steamy rocker babe Boss—and that is how to end football season.  Damn!