Page 1

If I didn’t define myself

Speak for myself, I would be crushed

Into into other people’s fantasies

The and eaten alive.


The seeds for this project were started with my personal lamentation of the media’s portrayal of black women. While the list is extensive, it’s not inclusive. The issue I have is that the majority of what society sees about black women is just a sample of various experiences and beliefs that are serving as a representation of an entire group of people. In that regard, I believe that much of the negative portrayals and beliefs about black women have been perpetuated by people who do not represent us, people who do not have a full understanding of our unique stories. I think that what you say about yourself, what you believe about yourself and your abilities will differ vastly from what another person would say about you. I believe that having someone speak for you can be just as detrimental as having no voice at all. If there were more black female videographers, reporters, musicians, and authors, what would the world be like? There would be more opportunities for black women to tell their stories, and more of a chance that portrayals of black women in any form will not marginalize but reflect their human complexity, vulnerability and inherent value. A variety of choices and voices that come from lives lived, not imagined behaviors, marketing or data. My contribution to this cause is a curated collection of poetry by black female poets. I have chosen this specific group because their voices aren’t heard enough. There have been few opportunities in my academic career to read works that I felt represented or mirrored my experiences as a black woman. I have not had many instances in any classroom where the works of black women have been introduced as integral, important or intrinsic to any literary or artistic tradition. I am painfully aware of how affirming and inspiring it would be to have that experience, because I have felt its void so often. The poems are accompanied by photos of black women. Some of the photos are by black female artists and others, like the poems, depict black women in ways that challenge the dominant narratives. I hope that this collection serves as a platform and a source of inspiration.

Lydia Johnson

"In the interval of Now, the poet and writer affects what will come in terms of the emotional, social and aesthetic values/landscapes of the culture, and does this best when being as representative, as much as possible, of one’s time, having mastered one’s craft as well as one is able. Poets and writers determine what is important in the present, with the hope that what is encapsulated will have increasing value over the passage of time. Some poets write to inspire social change. Some write to document a way of life. Some write for the sheer love of writing, and more. Whatever drives the poet and writer, we represent our Now to those future beings. " -Wanda Coleman “What Does a Black Poem Look Like?”, April 2011

Lineage Margaret Walker My grandmothers were strong. They followed plows and bent to toil. They moved through fields sowing seed. They touched earth and grain grew. They were full of sturdiness and singing. My grandmothers were strong. My grandmothers are full of memories Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay With veins rolling roughly over quick hands They have many clean words to say. My grandmothers were strong. Why am I not as they?

Kwesi Abbensetts “Boulder”

Concerto no. 7: Condoleezza {working out} at the Watergate Nikky Finney Condoleezza rises at four, stepping on the treadmill. Her long fingers brace the two slim handles of accommodating steel. She steadies her sleepy legs for the long day ahead. She doesn't get very far. Her knees buckle wanting back last night's dream. [dream #9] She is fifteen and leaning forward from the bench, playing Mozart's piano concerto in D minor, alone, before the gawking, disbelieving, applauding crowd. not [dream #2] She is nine, and not in the church that explodes into dust, the heart pine floor giving way beneath her friend Denise, rocketing her up into the air like a jack-in-the-box of a Black girl, wrapped in a Dixie cross. She ups the speed on the treadmill, remembering, she has to be three times as good. Don't mix up your dreams Condi. She runs faster, back to the right, finally hitting her stride. Mozart returns to her side. She is fifteen again, all smiles, and relocated to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, where she and the Steinway are the only Black people in the room.

Gregg Delman ItalianVogue October 2013

I am A Black Woman Mari Evans

I am a black woman the music of my song some sweet arpeggio of tears is written in a minor key and I can be heard humming in the night Can be heard humming in the night I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea and I/with these hands/cupped the lifebreath from my issue in the canebrake I lost Nat's swinging body in a rain of tears and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio for Peace he never knew....I learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill in anguish Now my nostrils know the gas and these trigger tire/d fingers seek the softness in my warrior's beard I am a black woman tall as a cypress strong beyond all definition still defying place and time and circumstance assailed impervious indestructible Look on me and be renewed

Ernst Haas Eartha Kitt, New York, 1952 series

“The larger society, observing the [Black] women’s outrageous persistence in holding on, staying alive, though it had no choice save to dissolve the perversity of the Black woman’s life into a fabulous fiction of multiple personalities. They were seen as acquiescent, submissive Aunt Jemimas who showed grinning faces, plump laps, fat embracing arms, and brown jaws pouched in laughter. They were described as leering buxom wenches with round heels, open thighs, and insatiable sexual appetites. They were accused of being marauding matriarchs of stern demeanor, battering hands, unforgiving gazes and castrating behavior.” -Maya Angelou, “They Came to Stay”

For Theresa Nikki Giovanni

and when i was all alone facing my adolescence looking forward to cleaning house and reading books and maybe learning bridge so that I could fit into acceptable society acceptably you came along and loved me for being black and bitchy hateful and scared and you came along and cared that i got all the things necessary to adulthood and even made sure i wouldn’t hate my mother or father and you even understood that i should love peppe but not too much and give to gary but not all of me and keep on moving ‘til i found me and now you’re sick and have been hurt for some time and i’ve felt guilty and impotent for not being able to give yourself to you as you gave yourself to me

Mariela Feliz-Fernandez “Adreena”


Elizabeth Alexander

I get off the IRT in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture after riding an early Amtrak from Philly to get a hair cut at what used to be the Harlem "Y" barbershop. It gets me in at ten to ten. Waiting, I eat fish cakes at the Pam Pam and listen to the ladies call out orders: bacon-biscuit twice, scrambled scrambled fried, over easy, grits, country sausage on the side. Hugh is late. He shampoos me, says "I can't remember, Girlfriend, are you tender-headed?" From the chair I notice the mural behind me in the mirror. I know those overlapped sepia shadows, a Renaissance rainforest, Aaron Douglas! Hugh tells me he didn't use primer and the chlorine eats the colors every day. He clips and combs and I tell him how my favorite Douglas is called "Building More Stately Mansions," and he tells me how fly I'd look in a Salt 'n' Pepa 'do, how he trained in Japan. Clip clip, clip clip. I imagine a whoosh each time my hair lands on the floor and the noises of small brown mammals. I remember, my father! He used to get his hair cut here, learned to swim in the caustic water, played pool and basketball. He cuts his own hair now. My grandfather worked seventy-five years in Harlem building more stately mansions. I was born two blocks away and then we moved. None of that seems to relate to today. This is not my turf, despite the other grandfather and greataunt who sewed hearts back into black chests after Saturday night stabbings on this exact corner, the great-uncle who made a mosaic down the street, both grandmothers. What am I always listening for in Harlem? A voice that says, "This is your place, too," as faintly as the shadows in the mural? The accents are unfamiliar; all my New York kin are dead. I never knew Fats Waller but what do I do with knowing he used to play with a ham and a bottle of gin atop his piano; never went to Olivia's House of Beauty but I know Olivia, who lives in St. Thomas, now, and who exactly am I, anyway, finding myself in these ghostly, Douglas shadows while real ghosts walk around me, talk about my stuff in the subway, yell at me not to butt the line, beg me, beg me, for my money? What is black culture? I read the writing on the wall on the side of the "Y" as I always have: "Harlem Plays the Best Ball in the World." I look in the mirror and see my face in the mural with a new haircut. I am a New York girl; I am a New York woman; I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day. Founders: Anntoinette and Shanti

The Aureole

(for E)

Nikky Finney I stop my hand midair. If I touch her there everything about me will be true. The New World discovered without pick or ax. I will be what Brenda Jones was stoned for in 1969. I saw it as a girl but didn’t know I was taking in myself. My hand remembers, treading the watery room, just behind the rose-veiled eyes of memory. Alone in the yard tucked beneath the hood of her car, lucky clover all about her feet, green tea-sweet necklace for her mud-pie crusty work boots. She fends off their spit & words with silent two-handed twists & turns of her socket wrench. A hurl of sticks & stones and only me to whisper for her, from sidewalk far, break my bones. A grown woman in grease-pocket overalls inside her own sexy transmission despite the crowding of hurled red hots. Beneath the hood of her candy-apple Camaro: souped, shiny, low to the ground. The stars over the Atlantic are dangling salt crystals. The room at the Seashell Inn is $20 a night; special winter off-season rate. No one else here but us and the night clerk,

five floors below, alone with his cherished stack of Spiderman. My lips are red snails in a primal search for every constellation hiding in the sky of your body. My hand waits for permission, for my life to agree to be changed, forever. Can Captain Night Clerk hear my fingers tambourining you there on the moon? Won’t he soon climb the stairs and bam! on the hood of this car? You are a woman with film reels for eyes. Years of long talking have brought us to the land of the body. Our skin is one endless prayer bead of brown. If my hand ever lands, I will fly past dreaming Australian Aborigines. The old claw hammer and monkey wrench that flew at Brenda Jones will fly across the yard of ocean at me. A grease rag will be thrust into my painter’s pants against my will. I will never be able to wash or peel any of this away. Before the night is over someone I do not know will want the keys to my ’55 silver Thunderbird. He will chase me down the street. A gaggle of spooked hens will fly up in my grandmother’s yard, never to lay another egg, just as I am jumped, kneed, pulled finally to the high ground of sweet clover.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” -Zora Neale Hurston

Her Tin Skin Evie Shockley i want her tin skin. i want her militant barbie breast, resistant, cupped, no, cocked in the V of her elbow. i want my curves mountainous and locked. i want her arabesque eyes, i want her tar markings, her curlicues, i want her tin skin. she is a tree, her hair a forest of strength. i want to be adorned with bottles. i want my brownness to cover all but the silver edges of my tin skin. my sculptor should have made me like her round-bellied maker hewed her: with chainsaw in hand, roughly. cut away from me everything but the semblance of tender. let nothing but my flexed foot, toeing childhood, tell the night-eyed, who know how to look, what lies within. —after alison saar’s “compton nocturne”

Eve Arnold Harlem, 1952 Series


for mama Lucille Clifton

remember this. she is standing by the furnace. the coals glisten like rubies. her hand is crying. her hand is clutching a sheaf of papers. poems. she gives them up. they burn jewels into jewels. her eyes are animals. each hank of her hair is a serpent’s obedient wife. she will never recover. remember. there is nothing you will not bear for this woman’s sake.

Renee Cox “Mother of Us All” (2004)

Personal Letter No. 3 Sonia Sanchez

nothing will keep us young you know not young men or women who spin their youth on cool playing sounds. we are what we are what we never think we are. no more wild geo graphies of the flesh. echoes. that we move in tune to slower smells. it is a hard thing to admit that sometimes after midnight i am tired of it all.

Eve Arnold Black is Beautiful Series, 1968

My Mother Enters the Work Force Rita Dove

The path to ABC Business School was paid for by a lucky sign: Alterations, Qualified Seamstress Inquire Within. Tested on Sleeves, hers never puckered -- puffed or sleek, Leg o' or Raglan -they barely needed the damp cloth to steam them perfect. Those were the afternoons. Evenings she took in piecework, the treadle machine with its locomotive whir traveling the lit path of the needle through quicksand taffeta or velvet deep as a forest. And now and now sang the treadle, I know, I know.... And then it was day again, all morning at the office machines, their clack and chatter another journey -- rougher, that would go on forever until she could break a hundred words with no errors -- ah, and then no more postponed groceries, and that blue pair of shoes!

Lorna Simpson “Corridor (Day II)”, 2003

Lorna Simpson “Corridor (Stairs)”, 2003

“I was a young woman with an evolved mind who was not afraid of her beauty or her sexuality. For some people that’s uncomfortable. They didn’t understand how female and strong work together. Or young and wise. Or Black and divine.” Lauryn Hill “They Call Me Ms. Hill” Essence Magazine, December 2013

homage to my hips Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips they need space to move around in. they don't fit into little petty places. these hips are free hips. they don't like to be held back. these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go they do what they want to do. these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. i have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top!

Kwesi Abbensetts #3 Nude Study

I’m Not Lonely Nikki Giovanni i’m not lonely sleeping all alone you think i’m scared but i’m a big girl i don’t cry or anything i have a great big bed to roll around in and lots of space and i don’t dream bad dreams like i used to have that you were leaving me anymore now that you’re gone i don’t dream and no matter what you think i’m not lonely sleeping all alone

Kwesi Abbensetts Untitled

here rests Lucille Clifton

my sister Josephine born july in '29 and dead these 15 years who carried a book on every stroll. when daddy was dying she left the streets and moved back home to tend him. her pimp came too her Diamond Dick and they would take turns reading a bible aloud through the house. when you poem this and you will she would say remember the Book of Job. happy birthday and hope to you Josephine one of the easts most wanted. may heaven be filled with literate men may they bed you with respect.

Renee Cox “Lady of the Night”, 2008

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood .� — Audre Lorde


for Jerry Ward Angela Jackson I am the only one here. I stand in my one place and I can see a good piece down the road. I am yonder, further than the chunk of your stone. Right now, directly, I am persimmon falling free and the prisoner opening up in me. Don’t come through my door and want to run my house. I am the angel who sweep air in and out my own dancing body. I got good eyes. I can see. A good piece down the road. Clear to God murmuring in me. My head is the burning bush. What I hold in my hand is the promised land. I set my people free in me. And we walk without wandering like people named after mere plants, because we are tree and high-stepping roots cake-walking in this promised place. Where I go is where I am now. Don’t mess with me: you hurt yourself. In the middle of my stride now. I am walking yes indeed I am walking through my own house. I am walking yes indeed on my own piece of road. Toting my own load and yours and mine. I tell you I feel fine and clear this morning even when it’s night and a full moon with my thumbprint on it. Everything is clamorous and quiet. I am the only One here. And we don’t break. No indeed. Come hell and high water. We don’t break for nothing.

Robert Cook Zora Neale Hurston, 1939

The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # one June Jordan

well I wanted to braid my hair bathe and bedeck my self so fine so fully aforethought for your pleasure see: I wanted to travel and read and runaround fantastic into war and peace: I wanted to surf dive fly climb conquer and be conquered THEN I wanted to pickup the phone and find you asking me if I might possibly be alone some night (so I could answer cool as the jewels I would wear on bareskin for you digmedaddy delectation:) "WHEN you comin ova?" But I had to remember to write down margarine on the list and shoepolish and a can of sliced pineapple in casea company and a quarta skim milk cause Teresa's gaining weight and don' nobody groove on that much girl and next I hadta sort for darks and lights before the laundry hit the water which I had

to kinda keep an eye on because if the big hose jumps the sink again that Mrs. Thompson gointa come upstairs and brain me with a mop don' smell too nice even though she hang it headfirst out the winda and I had to check on William like to burn hisself to death with fever boy so thin be callin all day "Momma! Sing to me?" "Ma! Am I gone die?" and me not wake enough to sit beside him longer than to wipeaway the sweat or change the sheets/ his shirt and feed him orange juice before I fall out of sleep and Sweet My Jesus ain but one can left and we not thru the afternoon and now you (temporarily) shownup with a thing you says' a poem and you call it "Will The Real Miss Black America Standup?" guilty po' mouth about duty beauties of my headrag boozeup doozies about never mind cause love is blind well I can't use it and the very next bodacious Blackman call me queen because my life ain shit because (in any case) he ain been here to share it with me (dish for dish and do for do and dream for dream) I'm gone scream him out my house be-

cause what I wanted was to braid my hair/bathe and bedeck my self so fully because what I wanted was your love not pity because what I wanted was your love your love

Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia March 1981

A Woman Speaks Audre Lorde

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 mourning. 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

promised I am woman and not white.

Jean Baptiste-Mondino Vogue Paris December 1997

Speak into the void  
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