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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