Sunday, December 27, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: bell hooks, Beyonce, and Audre Lorde

bell hooks.

Yes, she presents her pen name this way, without capitalization. Biographical information about this poet and thinker can be found at this link, and the main thing to know about her for our purpose is that she is a feminist, interested in the intersections between women's and African American identity.

Feminism, despite what you may have been told, is "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities" or is "organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests." Feminism is not one big belief system with static rules; actually, it is a huge collection of on-going, evolving conversations. Some newcomers to the conversations become confused because the discussions include lifting up or recovering of items/behaviors/ideas coded as feminine, like vulnerability and intuition, and the like, AND the discussions also include arguments that people should break down binaries like masculine/feminine, vulnerable/impermeable, and logic/intuition.

Generally, there are three or maybe four recognized "waves" of Western, particularly American, feminism: a first wave (19th and early 20th century) that promoted women's suffrage and legal legitimacy in the U.S.; a second wave (1960s-1990s) that sought to advance women's access to contraception, education, and equal pay; and a third wave (1990s-present?) that seeks to incorporate causes of women of color, LGBTQIA+ populations, incarcerated populations, indigenous women, immigrant women, non-Christian women, non-Western women, and more populations that white feminism has previously overlooked.

hooks states,
“As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism or if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.”  
hooks made headlines in 2014, when she referred to Beyonce as anti-feminist and as a terrorist, in a critique of Bey's use of feminism in her art/product media. So, here's where Beyonce enters the conversation.

The image above shows up 10 minutes and 20 seconds into Beyonce's performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, which you can view below. At that point in the music, words from Chimamanda N'gozi Adichie are featured in the song "***Flawless" and highlighted on the screen behind Beyonce:

We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller
We say to girls, you can have ambition but not too much
You should aim to be successful but not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man
Feminist, a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes

Beyoncé 2014 MTV VMA Video Vanguard (Medley) | Show Performance from terry.harden.mercer on Vimeo.

No matter what they think of Beyonce or hooks, for that matter, listeners cannot ignore that pop culture is involved in the conversations about feminism and African American women. More of the lyrics to the song "***Flawless" include the following:

I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world
Don't forget it, don't forget it
Respect that, bow down bitches (Crown!)
I took some time to live my life
But don't think I'm just his little wife
Don't get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches
Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches (Crown)
Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches (Crown)
H-Town vicious
H, H-Town vicious
I'm so crown crown, bow down bitches
You wake up, flawless
Post up, flawless
Ridin' round in it, flawless
Flossin' on that, flawless
This diamond, flawless
My diamond, flawless
This rock, flawless
My rock, flawless
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
Say I look so good tonight
God damn, God damn
Say I look so good tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn

Momma taught me good home training
My Daddy taught me how to love my haters
My sister told me I should speak my mind
My man made me feel so God damn fine, I'm flawless!

Whether or not readers agree that pop songs are poetry, they can still analyze them in the same way. Note the speaker (I), the significance of the diction, the allusions to her own life and to other cultural commenters (e.g. Adichie), the rhyme pattern, repetition, the fierce tone, and the encouragement to "ladies" who listen to accept themselves and not let others get them down. Notice also the layers of meaning in "I woke up like this"--remember, the theme of our poetry contest is "Get Woke." Here's an example of how others have analyzed the music and video of "Flawless."

To return to the world of poetry as it is more conventionally known, here is a work from writer Audre Lorde for you to read alongside Beyonce's lyrics:

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon's new fury
with all your wide futures
I am
and not white.

These three authors' words leave readers and listeners with lots to think about. Here are some brainstorming questions to consider as you digest their works and follow the embedded links down the rabbit hole...

1. What new words or terms did these poems or quoted lines introduce you to? What are the terms denotations (formal definitions) and connotations (informal cultural, social, or personal associations)?

2. What common themes do these women writers and performers address in their works--be more specific than "feminism," "womanhood," or "the African American experience." Think deeper, perhaps along the lines of body consciousness, sexuality, community and solidarity, exploring/exploding binary thinking, certain imagery, etc.

3. Why is personal, subjective experience so important in these works?

As always, remember to point to specific words or phrases in the works to support claims you want to make.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: James Baldwin and Countee Cullen

I'd like to introduce readers to James Baldwin, if they are unfamiliar with him. First, here is a trailer to his biography so you can become briefly acquainted with him:

My first encounter with him was as an undergraduate when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain in a Religion and Literature independent study. His essays, novels, and poetry provide perspective from the intersections of African American identity, masculine, homosexual identity, and secular identity. 

In "James Baldwin Reappeared Just When We Needed Him Most," Saeed Jones describes Baldwin's posthumously released 2014 collection of poems:
Though Baldwin is perhaps best known as an essayist and novelist, he wrote poetry as well. Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems was published last month by Beacon Press. It has an introduction by Nikky Finney. 
"Staggerlee Wonders," the first poem in the book, which is written in the voice of a blunt, African-American character, is especially striking in light of this week's news cycle: "My days are not their days. / My ways are not their ways. / I would not think of them, / one way or the other, / did not they so grotesquely / block the view / between me and my brother."
One might choose to the excerpted lines above from the perspective of the current news cycle and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to their "About" page,
#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.
#BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.  We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.
Using BLM's description of their organization as a lens, read Baldwin's lines again.

My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways.
I would not think of them,
one way or the other,
did not they so grotesquely
block the view
between me and my brother.

Consider how the speaker, an individual (my, I, me), contrasts with the other people (their, them, they) who "so grotesquely / block the view / between me and my brother." A third person is present, too: "my brother," or the family member of the speaker. With the Black Lives Matter movement and recent events in mind, brainstorm answers to these questions:

1. What does the speaker mean by "days" and "ways"?

2.. According to, "grotesque" is defined as the following:
1. odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.
2. fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms, as in decorative work combining incongruous human and animal figures with scrolls, foliage, etc.
Why does the speaker use this adverb to describe the way that "they" exist between the speaker and his sibling?

3. Examine the diction (choice of words) and syntax (arrangement of words, sentence/phrase structure) of the lines. Is the diction more or less formal? Is the syntax more or less complex? How do they contrast with the sort of diction and syntax used by Baldwin's mentor Countee Cullen in these lines from his poem "Karenge Ya Marenge":

Wherein are words sublime or noble? What
Invests one speech with haloed eminence,
Makes it the sesame for all doors shut,
Yet in its like sees but impertinence?
Is it the hue? Is it the cast of eye,
The curve of lip or Asiatic breath,
Which mark a lesser place for Gandhi’s cry
Than “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Is Indian speech so quaint, so weak, so rude,
So like its land enslaved, denied, and crude,
That men who claim they fight for liberty
Can hear this battle-shout impassively,
Yet to their arms with high resolve have sprung
At those same words cried in the English tongue? 
TIPS: What historical events does this poem refer to? Choose 3-6 of the lines in the poem, translate them into simpler and more concise wording, and then contrast the diction and syntax with Baldwin's lines.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: "The Danger of a Single Story" Paired with "When You See Water"

First, I'd like to return to Angelou's "Still I Rise" for just a moment and examine the diction (choice of words) in the first four lines a bit deeper:

You may write me down in history  (first word is "you," addresses someone overseeing speaker)
With your bitter, twisted lies,   (the authority figure's lying voice/writing has speaker captured)
You may trod me in the very dirt   (even though dominator may step on speaker in the bare ground)
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.  (notice shift word "but" and change in verb tense--may write, may trod--> will rise; also, notice the rhyme at the end of lines 2 and 4)

There's a lot more we could say about "Still I Rise," but I wanted to start by showing you how paraphrasing poems line-by-line can help you notice subtle shifts in pronouns, verb tense, and sounds. These are the small details that make a poem work.

Week 2's workshop features another pairing: writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Alice Walker.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

First, learn who Adichie is at the link in her name and then watch her TED Talk (or read the transcript) "The Danger of a Single Story" at this link.

Next, free write for ten minutes about a story you bought into about a group of people different than you. What exactly made that group different than people you identify with? What did you believe about that group? How were those assumptions challenged later when you learned more?

Alice Walker

Third, read Alice Walker's short poem, "When You See Water":

When you see water in a stream
you say: oh, this is stream
When you see water in the river
you say: oh, this is water
of the river;
When you see ocean
you say: This is the ocean's
But actually water is always
only itself
and does not belong
to any of these containers
though it creates them.
And so it is with you.

Click here to learn who Alice Walker is. Here are three questions to consider about Walker's poem:

1. What are its formal features? Buy this, I mean how many lines does the poem have, does it rhyme, if so what is the rhyming pattern, are there any related words, and how many stressed syllables are there per line? (There are more formal features to list, but those are some good basics to begin with.)

To identify stressed syllables, you can look up each multisyllabic word in the dictionary and see which syllable is marked as stressed, you can read the poem aloud holding your hand a half-inch under your chin and marking syllables you say as your chin drops to your hand, OR you can pay attention to the vowel sounds in the words (stressed syllables usually have fully pronounced vowel sounds, not just the schwa or "uh" sound). For example, my first name is Sara. The stressed syllable is the first syllable "Sa." The second syllable is unstressed. You can confirm this yourself by trying the three tests above.

2. What parallels do you see evident between Adichie's ideas and the speaker's in the poem? Use evidence (quotes) from the speech and poem to support your claim.

3. In Walker's poem, why did she compare the listener's identity to liquid rather than, say, solid or gas?

Happy Reading and Writing!