To know a Black woman is to let her story resonate with you. In the second installment of The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, poets and editors Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds and Jamila Woods group an array of fresh verses from the pens of black women.
Each chapter of Black Girl Magic opens with a quote by a single notable black female writer, from Assata Shakur, Edwidge Danicat and June Jordan. Upon opening the book, readers are met with a quote from poet Sonia Sanchez, emblazoned in bold script form:
“I shall become a collector of me/And I put meat on my soul.”
The “meat” soon transforms into an abyss of sonorous word crafting by modern black female poets, based on outside critiques of black hair (“my afropuffs”, “Question and Answer. Or: Pirate Jenny Shit Talks With Her Employer”), objectification of black women (“Piece”), and enduring verbal lashings for having a lighter hue (“Offwhite”).
“Instead of listing the authors in alphabetical order or organizing the sections by specific themes, we titled each section with a quote by a legendary Black woman,” said Woods in an interview with Okayplayer. “The way readers are able to draw their own connections between pieces and have a more expansive notion on how the poems relate to each other and to the title quotes.”
Despite a majority of Black Girl Magic being centered on individual ruminations of black women, there are also light spots in the compilation. In “Ode to Fetty Wap (written after strip club)” by Roya Marsh, the writer humorously aligns club hopping on a Saturday night, to church-going the next morning, with rapper Fetty Wap being the soundtrack to Marsh’s discovery of self-love:
as we scream SQUAAADDDD!
/the weight of that bass
/like Gawd’s tears
/landing on /glow in the dark floors
/‘cause Gawd does not just “cry”
/He makes it rain
/on a crowd of women
/in heels higher than most GPAs
/dancing their way through nursing school
/&out of some deadbeat’s
/roach filled 1 bedroom.
Black Girl Magic is masterful at proving that black women are multidimensional, not only with personal narratives, but also reaching into the past to divulge in stories untold. In “SARA BAARTMAN AND I NEGOTIATE VISIBILITY,” writer Xandra Phillips shares a fictional moment with the offensively titled “Hottentot Venus” attraction Sara Baartman. The poem becomes a revelation of the male gaze upon black women. Using a ripe eggplant as a symbol for the male subject’s erect penis upon seeing Baartman’s backside at a Laundromat, both women are both horrified and amused by the sight, with Baartman tossing the man a dollar bill for the display.
The anthology is female-centric, but there are also poems in which the stage is openly shared with black men, with standout piece “Meat” capturing the hunting and brutalization of black men from systems meant to protect us. Poet Camonghne Felix uses images of a Trader Joe bag with an illustration of a gun-toting white man and the symbolism of butchered meat as a cross-connection with black men being demonized in society:
White girl says,
“when they stare or say things to me on the street, it makes me feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel like a piece of meat,”
/A piece of meat gets shot in the face on a doorstep while seeking help after a car accident.
/A piece of meat is shot 11 times on a residential street corner.
/A piece of meat is rolled up dead, left to expire in a gym mat.
/A piece of meat is shot blind in the middle of the night.
/The dead pieces of meat are left to slow bleed on public platforms, like trees or highways and street corners.
/This is how the butchers’ display their prime cuts with pride.
As another snapshot the life of black men, the poem “waves” by Woods is less scathing than “Meat,” giving young black boys a sense of pride with the tidying of their spiraled tresses:
“tie it up in black silk
/for safekeeping, the way God
/wraps his waves in the night sky”
While there are affirmations for black men in segments of Black Girl Magic, I had once been thrust into a conversation with a black co-worker that was quite the contrary, as he openly shared his disdain with dating black women. Forcefully swallowing my thoughts on his mindless opinion, he expresses how his preference for solely dating white women came about. Mentioning black women’s “facial disproportion” and “attitudes” as reason behind his flagrant thoughts, his blatancy leaves me wildly flustered, not only because he’s saying this to me, a black woman, but also because his logic is flawed.
This same absurdity blares in the poem “Supremacy” by Ariana Brown, in which the guilt trip and degradation of black women is shown through Brown’s point of view:
i’m ready to talk about white women
/how the lyft driver
/black man, blames his black girlfriend
/for his inability to pay rent/how he breaks
/open his saliva to drown my body, says
/“i’m just gonna get me a white woman
As the Lyft driver’s impudence against black women in “Supremacy” exposes a grim reality, it’s Brooklyn-raised poet Aja Monet, whose piece “#SayHerName” serves as a celebration of black femininity, a memoriam of our fallen sisters, becoming a linchpin of Black Girl Magic:
How dare we speak anything less than, I love you
/We who love just as loudly in the thunderous rain
/as when the sun shines golden on our skin and the world
/kisses us unapologetically
Art is often reflected throughout the book, and while reading “Sonnet (47)” by Nikki Wallschlaeger, her interpolation of George Washington’s presidency as a founding father, as he honed in on slaves to withdraw their teeth for his dentures, reminded me of the photograph “Nation”, captured by artist Deana Lawson. In the image, a two black men sit on a leather couch, with one of the men having a gold torture-like devise in his mouth, perhaps being gagged. George Washington’s dentures reside on the top right hand corner of the image, a juxtaposition between past and present.
With a bulk of the collection being written in long-form, there are also abbreviated pieces, including “Purgatory Room” by Diamond Sharp, in which police brutality victims Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd discuss their deaths. Sharp observes both women get a kick out of sharing red hot chips and crossing over to the afterlife, reflecting on how their untimely fate was met.
The shorter poems in Black Girl Magic truly make the most gut-punching impact, with erasure poetry being a prime occurrence. Browne’s shortening of singer Frank Ocean’s essay following the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando shows the imbalance between acceptance and homophobia at the hands of a gunman. It is also “alleged (erasure).” by Candice Iloh whose downsizing of a news article gets straight to the point on the rape of a 19 year-old girl by a group of men in Panama during Spring Break:
This, to be women
/in a culture of hate hard
/enough/people stood just feet away
/and taped it
/with their cellphones
Through the pangs of despair, neglect and frustration within the societal mistreatment of black women, Black Girl Magic is a womb of restfulness when we feel alone in our war against the world, and within ourselves.
Editor’s note: The BreakBeat Poets Vol 2: Black Girl Magic was published on April 17.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer from Columbus, OH with a voracious hunger for arts culture and all things vegan. While she thinks Jaden Smith has the answers to everything, she fares well as a contributor for local-based publication (614) Magazine. Jaelani doesn’t have a website (yet), but you can catch her endless ramblings on Twitter @hernameisjae