Poetry We Admire: Black Poets


“I’m particularly inspired by the ways Black artists render Black sociality’s improbable capacity to defy the deadly gravitational pull of white supremacy. The practice of fabulation I am describing is rendered not through narrative or narration, but through the Black body itself, and its extraordinary capacity to manifest something I call Black countergravity. Black countergravity defies the physics of anti-blackness that has historically exerted a negating force aimed at expunging Black life.”

—Tina M. Campt

“I’m goin’ out there to make a life for myself somewhere. You done cheated me, lied to me and killed my brothers. I ain’t got enough interest in you to kill you. But I’m goin’ down there, like I said. And you or somebody what looks like you or thinks like you or is you will find me and you’ll burn me out, shoot me or maybe lynch me. But you know something? You cain’t kill me.” 

—Percival Everett

“When we consider what technologies have already been used to dismantle systems of oppression on a personal level, leisure and adornment are often overlooked, but extremely present in everyday life…Resting Our Eyes highlights these mechanisms for freedom and reminds us of the visual vocabulary of those practices. These reminders help us imagine and affirm beauty, rest, and self-expression as radical and necessary acts.”

–Tahirah Rasheed and Autumn Breon, Resting Our Eyes Exhibit at ICA SF

Assembling the pieces for this Black History Month’s Poetry We Admire, Tina M. Campt’s concept of Black countergravity and Percival Everett’s written representations of it were never far from mind. Near in memory, too, Báyò Akómoláfé’s essay published in the Othering and Belonging Institute’s Democracy and Belonging forum, “Black Lives Matter, But to whom? 

These poems fell together more harmoniously than PWA selections often do. As Akómoláfé writes in his essay, to take Black mattering seriously, “one must perform the kind of mutiny that denies history its absolute claims to exclusivity.” As we read in Amanda Gunn and Alan Pelaez Lopez’s emancipatory poems, what freedom can be found in written representations of embodied being is hard-won, attained less because of the histories the poems are located within than despite them; in spite of them.

And in those histories, Derrick Austin and Joy Priest find what there is that can be loved as well. I spent this last Saturday at the Berkeley Arts Museum and Pacific Film Archive walking through Archaeology of Memory, a retrospective of the work of Santa Clara-born Amalia Mesa-Bains. On display was her “Circle of Ancestors,” an installation art piece depicting seven chairs arranged in a circle. In each chair a mirror and over it an image of a Latina woman who has been remembered for the impact she had on history. The chairs, each decorated as a small altar, face inwards, evoking a feeling of reverence in the viewer and drawing an intergenerational thread of mutual support between one another.

It is such feelings of reverence and threads of mutual support the poems of Austin and Priest evoke, and all the tenderness that comes with them. How intimate we can be with those who give us permission to be ourselves, even across decades and centuries. Intimate also, those who show us through their living that, for a time, as themselves they survived.

Once, you were. Therefore, perhaps, I can be too.

In kind, Janice N. Harrington’s “Spirit Place” concludes this selection, bringing us into the ever-changing present, where so much still needs our nurturing, so much life depends upon our living. “A woman in her garden with a hoe. / Old Death come along, and she would not go.” Countergravity.

In the future, too, we find ourselves in poems. For all the living left, and what’s left of who once lived in us. There’s something for you here.

Operatic, self-possessed, Cherry takes it slow,
plucking tips with her acrylic claw.
Quiet as it’s kept, I bawl.

from "Moments Before Cherry Jubilee Lipsyncs a Phyllis Hyman Classic"

by Derrick Austin in Poetry Northwest

Quiet, too, the cadence and slant of this poem, whose language’s sway imprints itself upon a reader almost (purposively) by surprise. Composed entirely as prelude, Moments Before ushers in the hushed tones of reverence with the very space it creates by concluding. Austin makes from the end of this poem a second beginning. And for those readers who still have the pleasure of hearing Phyllis Hyman’s “No One Can Love You More” for the first time, here it is.

I’m drawn to Whitney like a cardinal on a branch
in winter        Beauty too bright for camouflage

from "When I See the Stars in the Night Sky"

by Joy Priest in Poets

How living, as and in oneself, begets living. How this poem motions towards this (“I love myself / because of her.”), and renders visible the thread of our dependence upon those we may recognize ourselves in, across the years. By the final stanza the poem’s speaker becomes both reflection and responder to Houston: “Our sweet lip sparkling in the flame / light. I went home inside myself too.” Figurative light, light of survival, counter-gravitational light.

On a Tuesday night in spring
I call my mother—not exactly
Not crying:

I think I might be happy.

from "Happy and Well"

by Amanda Gunn in The Offing

“He smiles at me, nothing held in reserve, / no joy socked away to himself / for later.” What touched me so much about Gunn’s poem from first reading is the tension it creates between the banality of the present and the accumulating losses of the past, a tension which gathers momentum throughout the poem as memories are weighed, one by one, alongside each other. Amidst these collecting truths, how strange happiness, how happiness can be.

how dangerous we are to know of our aliveness and pleasure
how criminal we are to experiment with our power, our softness

from "i want to live without the fear of deportation"

by Alan Pelaez Lopez in The Ex-Puritan

I think first of Essex Hemphill’s American Wedding. But, no, the title of this poem is doing something else. Lopez frames their piece within the context of a particular structural violence, and the poem’s magic happens within this framing, the subjects of the piece answering to nothing but each other. Hemphill: “Every time we kiss / we confirm the new world coming.” Lopez: “the world is us, we are the world.” In Lopez’s hands, the subjects of this piece cannot escape their contexts, but they can, together, find joy.

No, not Eden, but a Black woman’s yard.
No, not Gethsemane, only a Black woman’s yard.

"Spirit Place"

by Janice N. Harrington in The Journal

Despite its title, it is Harrington’s dismissal of the otherworldly that lends this poem so much of its power. “No, I have never spoken there with the unseen,” in the fourth line, “Maybe the voice of the unseen sounds like a hoe blade / chopping hard ground or a woman ripping out deep roots,” in the eleventh. In the face of beauty and contentment it is easy to lean in to mystery, to attribute the sources of our happiness to things greater and unseen. Maybe this piece is less a repudiation of those things than it is an insistence upon remembering the importance of the self, how we must be permitted to exist as we want, as we can, to find what is holy in the here and now.

Benjamin Bartu