Sunday, February 14, 2016

A window into someone else's pain

I need to remember that I don't like reading poetry. It's not that I hate poems, it's not that I think most poetry is bad, it's that poetry requires intense concentration and a tremendous amount of emotional literacy that I think I'm lacking.

In spite of that I did find myself enjoying Wanda Coleman's African Sleeping Sickness, and I found myself being wounded by it.

Coleman didn't write this book for me to understand. She didn't mean for this to be a collection of anecdotes for middle class suburban white feminists to fawn over and feel connected to the issues facing black women. Wanda Coleman wrote this book because she'd been hurt, badly, by the world and by people who should have been helping her instead of striking her down over and over again.

And for all that Coleman wrote of her pain I'm sure she wouldn't give half a shit for people using it as an excuse to wallow in white guilt. So instead I'll focus on what is so powerful about her poetry: she doesn't glorify, she doesn't make-pretty, she doesn't tidy up her world before sharing it. She speaks the truths she knows and some of those truths are sores. And many of those sores are weeping.

Coleman published these poems between 1972 and 1990, and it's painful that so many of them still speak ugly, relevant truths in 2016. "Emmett Till" is Coleman's mournful, furious poem about the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. Her poem was written in 1986 and thirty years later the same awful rage and loss and sadness could be applied to the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, or any of the hundreds of black boys killed by white supremacy since Coleman wrote her poem. It is wrong that these boys keep dying, it is wrong that black girls and women kept being left behind or overlooked by society, it BURNS that the kind of injustice that Coleman railed against is still so prevalent in American society.

African Sleeping Sickness was daunting to read. It demanded attention and respect, it sighed with exhaustion, it felt alternately defeated and defiant. It made me sick of a world that is sick and it made me wish that there was anything I could do to show Wanda Coleman some kind of improvement in the world - but there hasn't been much improvement in the world since Wanda Coleman wrote about it.

Coleman died young, younger than she should have at any rate. I don't think the Black Lives Matter movement would have surprised her, nor do I think she would have been overly optimistic about it, but I do think she would believe that the movement is vital. I don't want to speak over black voices, I want to use my white privilege in a white supremacist country to uphold the voices of people who need to be heard more than I do, so I'll end this post with Coleman's voice instead of mine:


what's looked for is many bleeds ago
may never have evah

what you don't see is what you get/an unrepentant
unresplendence of abortions and too-lates
what's dangling status post lynching: the overweight, the
hanky-head, the dead on her feet (aka fat forty and
fucked up)

zero in on the left laughing eyeball, the right orb
bloated, purulent with hate

talk about reparations? hahaha

besides, there ain't cash enuff

Coleman, Wanda. African Sleeping Sickness. Black Sparrow Press. Santa Rosa: California. 1990.

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