During a lively discussion one late afternoon, my friend declared thoughtfully, “If ‘Art’ were a band, painting would be the drummer, and poetry the bass.” This sentiment has since stuck with me as I navigate through a time of crisis and cultural upheaval; the bassline, the unending thumpthumpthumpthump, the rhythm that has pulsed through each protest, each march, uniting our hearts, our minds, and our spirits.
Poetry has always had the power to disarm the oppressor and engage the oppressed. One may argue that right now, we are seeing poetry in its barest and rawest form. Quick words sew together, rising from crowds of hundreds and thousands, encouraging even those onlooking to all cry out together:
What do we want? JUSTICE
When do we want it? NOW
If we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN
If we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN
If this movement has taught me one thing, it has taught me this: the Black community will never be muted. Words have a power that transcends injustice and corruption. Words live on boundlessly, passed from mouth to ear to eye to hand to mouth. We need to value our Black poets and writers with a force so strong that they will never again be overlooked. Their voices must never be silenced; their voices will never be silenced.
In this piece, we’ll explore the voices of Black poets, spoken word artists, and writers that are continuously encouraging us to reflect, love, laugh, cry, rejoice, rebel, and above all, listen.
Poetry has always had the power to disarm the oppressor and engage the oppressed. One may argue that right now, we are seeing poetry in its barest and rawest form.
Our selection is centered around Black poets, activists, and organizers who use their written and spoken word poetry to discuss racism, social inequality, and the overall challenges African American women, men, and non-binary folx face in American society. Mahogany L. Browne, a Black writer from Oakland, California, is best known as the author of the poetry collection “Black Girl Magic: A Poem” (2018). She is the tenured host of the “Friday Poetry Slam” at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side. I first discovered her work in 2019 after a colleague introduced me to her poem “On St. John’s and Franklin Avenue” (2019). Her poems are enticingly human; in 27 lines, she invokes the sensuality of Brooklyn streets and what it is to be Black in a gentrified neighborhood. The near-constant reminder that each Black person cannot escape: they are a part of a world that kowtows to the entitlement of white people. Her essay “Dismantling Rage: On Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider” (2019) touches upon the overt racism she has encountered in her own life as a Black woman, alternatively either patronized or perceived as a threat.
Standing five foot eight, eyes eager and observational, mouth set, with brown skin, I’ve frequently heard from people who meet me, “I was so intimidated by you!” I think: I am only Black and alive and breathing.
Kyla Lacey’s “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem performed for “Write About Now Poetry,” was trending on my Instagram a few weeks ago. “We learned your French. We learned your English, your Dutch, your Spanish, your Portuguese,” she denotes emphatically. “You learned our nothing, you called us stupid. That’s White Privilege.” Her words continue to be shared by white and Black friends alike, as she speaks on the multitude of racial indiscretions found throughout not only in American history but present-day society as well. She speaks on Black people receiving 20% longer sentences for the same crimes as those committed by their white counterparts, how it has only been about 50 years since segregation was deemed illegal, and how racism is still alive and well in America, covertly passing as ‘white privilege.’
Lacey is a spoken word poet and blogger whose work has been viewed millions of times. She has showcased her work at “Afropunk,” and across different platforms including “Write About Now,” “All Def Digital,” and Occupy Democrats. Her spoken word poetry is some of the best in the entire country. She has been a finalist in the country’s largest slam poetry competition four times and her work has been published in the likes of HuffPost, BET.com, and ROOT Magazine.
Hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota, Danez Smith is a Black, queer, non-binary poet whose Twitter display name, Abolish Police!, is a nod to the recent call-to-action demanded by the Black Lives Matter-led movement. They received their BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. Their poetry collections [insert] “Boy” (2014) and “Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems” (2017) were both widely received and they are a founding member of the multi-genre poetry collective Dark Noise. As seen in their poem “it won’t be a bullet” (2017), Smith is no stranger to discussing the prevalent violence that Black people face within all aspects of society, whether it is a health care system designed to fail them, or their death splayed across the news for all the world to see.
(quote) in the catalogue of ways to kill a black boy, find me
buried between the pages stuck together
with red stick. ironic, predictable. look at me.
When discussing Black poets that do not shy away from the realism of racial injustice in their art, one would be remiss not to mention Morgan Parker. In an interview between Danez Smith and Morgan Parker for “The Offing,” Parker discusses how poetry has been a ‘catalyst’ for her growth as a Black woman. After completing her BA in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and her MFA in poetry from New York University, Parker returned to Southern California to continue her career. She is the recipient of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for her poetry collection “Magical Negroes.” Her other work includes “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night” (2015), and “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” (2016). From her poem, “The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady & The Dead & The Truth,” published on Harper’s Magazine :
I say casual death, and the half-moon
is my enemy, some uncertain white girl.
I wish I didn’t care. I am myself
shaking hands, so subtle no one notices.
Black poets and spoken word artists have used and continue to use their voices to fuel revolution, to fuel change. Their words create change. During this time of change, the voices listed in this article, as well as the art and voices of so many Black artists, are the ones to listen to, even if it makes you uncomfortable, or sad, or upset. Give them a follow and elevate Black voices!