Reparations begin in the body: A look at why the first and most crucial poetic gesture for a black poet in the West is a knowledge and mastery of her body
Look for me in the whirlwind
She teaches us that voodoo was used as a means, during slavery, for slaves to break free from the slave master. When the slave wanted to break free from the master, the only way to get out a lot of times was to die. That’s right, to die. And they had an antidote in voodoo that would cause the body to stop, the heart to stop, and all that, the consciousness to leave the body and move to the nervous system, and the slave master would just come to check to see that the slave was dead, check the pulse or whatever, and let the slaves bury them, but the family would be in and knowing that nah, he’s not dead, or she’s not dead. We’re just faking out master, so we can get him or her off the land, so that they can go get us some help so we can break free from the plantation. (Excerpt from Hollywood Forever)
This is not life! This is death disguised as life. I know what life is. Life is s p l e n d i d! Sun Ra riffs in a gorgeous, generous poem /\ song somewhere between inheritance and transcendence. And what if he’s right. Would we worry, or zombie a little less, or invent more verbs, or honor the restlessness lurking in our performed domesticity; if we knew we were involuntary participants in a grand and oh-so-fatalistic suicide culture that began with black bodies as capital/ real estate, and fantasizes about ending there or in a carefully disguised eternal return we name entertainment, sports, mass incarceration—would we opt out or go harder?
It seems the evidence is everywhere. We earn our continued oppression day by day, labor for it. What a genius mystic like Sun Ra accomplishes with his urgent call, is naming it, creating a double entendre for so what, and etching a map toward the exodus that devalues ‘progress’ as we know it, an understanding of the casual merits of an ancient future, a scoffing in the face of exclusivity, an overturning of the toxic myth that we have somehow ‘made it,’ or been civilized, when it’s clear that we’ve deteriorated as spirit beings, and physically: been degraded, degraded and diluted ourselves, become puppets for our own subjugation. And then one day we kneel for the national anthem before a football game and this is protest?, and then the next the new Drake anthem is out, started from the bottom… now we’re … at rock bottom.
But to have been seduced into acting as agents of our own devolution as a people, we had to be given words, phrases, an entire syntax and meaning factory and way of moving through space and time, in the service of that steady diminishing. Where do those words hide or how are they glorified or embedded in common action so deeply that we miss them? How did we manage to become so disembodied that we lost track of what life is? How do you expect to write effective poetry from outside of yourself, always gazing on your own spirit as ‘other’ and looking for ways to contain it with art as opposed to using this cryptic and encrypted English language to liberate the spirit?
Henrietta Lacks’s Cells
Henrietta Lacks was a cervical cancer patient at Johns Hopkins hospital when she unwittingly became the queen mother of stem cell research. Without any informed consent, her cancer cells were cloned and survived the arduous cloning process. For years researches had been trying to clone the cells of white men and women, and failing. It was discovered that the cells of black people are so resilient that, even when cancerous, they can survive the cloning process and replicate interminably. After her cell line, deemed the Immortal Cell Line, was successfully cloned in 1955, its traces became staples in cosmetics, household products, and all areas of medical research. In order to patent a semi biological substance, it must derive from cloned not original cells, so yet another form of free labor was born in this transaction. Decades later the adulteration of Lacks’s body was acknowledged first by Morehouse College and then by additional institutions. Her family has not been paid for the secret harvesting of her cells that continues today as an open secret. Henrietta Lacks’s cells know what life is. It never bows…
Okra and Hog Calling
After having been abducted and transported across the Atlantic at manifold angles and velocities, and upon arrival on the auction block and then at the miserable slave quarters on their respective plantations, African men and women refused to eat the food they were given by their cannibal captors. Scraps of dead animal flesh, meals of blood and starch, were bitterly, indifferently, refused. Hunger strikes are among the most natural responses humans have to trauma; they reflect the integrity of our impulse to heal. When you are sick, or made sick by circumstance, food only deepens the illness, and codes itself with the suffering one is enduring while eating, becomes about emotions more than nourishment, and negative, desperate emotions at that, the opposite of its purpose in nature. When lost, the prophets fasted, when ecstatic, the prophets fasted, when suffering, the prophets fasted; feasting was the symbolic exception.
But Africans had been stolen and tortured at sea only so they could provide the free labor that would build and sustain the parasitic economies of the Americas, so starving themselves was not an option for their captors. The mentally ill plantation owners had discovered the boundaries of their persuasion, and had to return to Africa for Okra and fonio, wild rice, greens, whole indigenous uncultivated foods and herbs, to keep their human capital from starving. It was only after distorting the contents of scripture, which instructs to only eat the flesh of animals, and only the animals who are herbivores themselves “the clean animals” in times of flood, famine, or dire need, it was only after converting slaves to Christianity and linking the religion with the West’s putrid dietary habits, that slave masters managed to create a race of primarily flesh and starch eating slaves whose thinking would often reflect those misguided tastes. Who would relate to one another using those tastes as their foundation. Around this same time degenerative diseases sprung up in the African slaves, who were slowly becoming American in culture and psychology. And doctors purchased some slave solely to test new surgeries and medicines on them with no thought of anesthesia or side effects. Now with the new science of Epigenitics we are learning that these kinds of traumas are handed down in the genes, memories are genetic, déjà vu is no myth.
Even the quality of sunlight in North America contributes to the undermining of black bodies. It is unlike the light in West Africa, or near the equator. The UVB rays needed to melinate bodies and to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D only hit North America (with the exception of Florida, Georgia, and Southern California) between April to September, from 11:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon, and are only absorbed if you are 60 percent naked in those places at those times, and not overly calcified with dairy and other toxins. And yet with all of this working against most of us, the immortal cell line comes from a black woman who had cancer. Life is splendid.
A self-taught black man and master herbalist from Honduras cured dozens of AIDS patients in the 1980s, removing all traces of the disease in them, and most all other diseases he was asked to help heal, by first declaring them non-existent, figments of our covetous western thinking, and then weaning his patients off of all that slave food and the slave mentality that came with it. He even made it onto Worldstar, echo W O R L D S T A R! head start for half stepping, his teachings almost went mainstream. He was mysteriously arrested and killed for his work, along with more than 50 additional holistic practitioners just this year.
We know that blackness is just condensed light and that every nigga is a star © Kendrick Lamar by way of Boris Gardner. Light and sound are our first nutrients and all true food and water is just different densities and frequencies of light and sound translated into electromagnetic energy and given form and lifeforce by its own unique dynamic between electricity and magnetism. We know that this planet is not our home, nor this country, that we are diaspora here, and that on every level we are the custodians nonetheless. Do we know that we come from star matter, that our role here is to translate the light into information like plants do, do we know that niggas don’t need electricity because we are electric, and so too our food must be. Normativity will not save us. Justice is not the right to consume what the oppressor does, that is injustice at it’s most advanced and clandestine. Why are we destiny? Because we know what life is. We know what light is.
Curfew in Charlotte
The history of the West is the history of everyone but black people, realizing that we are its most valuable resource, that our bodies are superhuman conductors, our hearts, brilliant minds, and our language visceral and poetic even when used absentmindedly. Melanin is a technology that renders the black body masterful but can also turn on it if not acknowledged. Without adequate light and proper sounds you can turn a nation of demi-gods into demons against their own selves. The soil in the west also lacks the minerals needed to compensate for the poor quality of light and the dismal acoustics here. In that weakened condition it’s easier for a fascist police state to feed off of our anguish and even criminalize it until we all but give up on retaliation. It’s easy for police to kill black children and harvest their organs the way Henrietta Lacks’ cells have been harvested. It’s easy to turn Griots into madmen.
We are the only ones, because we don’t know our value, who remain blind to the what’s behind our genocide. If we wanted to, we could run the world, the world runs on our vibrations, just look at the dominant images and listen to the universal music. At the early antebellum picnics we were lynched cooked, and eaten. Which is why the mummies were missing. They ate them all. Now we love bbq too. But what does any of this have to do with poetry?
A land where the sun kills questions
Just as we cannot allow ourselves to forget, or be naive enough to think that anything offered us by this society is benevolent, from the 13th amendment, with its hideous exception, to the so-called ‘good job’ that has us inside all day degrading our light-processing engines, we also cannot ignore what ails or controls our bodies, from the new curfew renewed every time we mobilize to protest state violence, to the comfort food addiction renewed with every collective trauma, to trap beats we twerk to over Henny under dimmed fluorescent lights and Future’s intoxicating timbre, to the church pews we kneel on to worship white Jesus. The grammar of blackness in the West must be ruthlessly examined from within, on a cellular, molecular level, and reconfigured, if we are to move from signifying the tragic and soulful beauty of an oppressed group of electric spirits, to signifying the triumph of organic power and talent over the weaker but much more evil force that has been out to contain and exploit it for centuries. The very desire to contain and oppress is a sign of internal weakness.
Our poetry must become ruthless as we ruthlessly deploy our bodies to rectify our situation/ship with the Western gaze. Perhaps if we stop trying to seduce white America and its sad satellites, we will gain the courage to act worthy of ourselves and of our superconductor immortal cells and the healers who give their lives to remind us of our greatness from musicians to herbalists to poets to mothers. I don’t think any such maneuvers are possible unless we first understand our anatomy and physiology. Know thyself. Know how what you do with your body affects it, how what you put into your body instructs it to behave. And how those instructions become in our poems. Fetishized melancholy, willful forgetting, shadows of the show lights of the new curfew, shoals of our lost knowledge returning. Reparations begin in the body, and that is where our poems must begin; our poems must teach us new ways to use our bodies, must watch with us and walk with us and burst through us as new light, even if it hurts, even if it means we have to relearn self-love through the eyes of a truer more unified self.
Korrine Gaines , Mary J. Blige
Korrine Gaines is huddled in a pool of her own blood after having been shot by a Baltimore cop, and instructs her five-year-old son to keep filming, while Mary J. Blige limply holds Hillary Clinton’s hand to chant a hymn about how to be polite in the face of your own murder. On 59th and Columbus, Judith Jamison is instructing an Ailey principal dancer how to cry without tears, in your torso, from the womb, in the place where mourning shifts from vengeful to detoxifying and even becomes a kind of forgiveness of self. Regenerative sorrow.
We have reached a time where accidental cooning or lack of intimacy and disembodied thinking could kill us and sabotage our art, as a dancer first I’ve always known this but as our bodies fall deeper and deeper under siege in this age of casual fascism, the only relevant poems will be those which force both ourselves and the state to contend with the full power of our forms. Throughout this month I’ll discuss poems and poetic acts that reinstall spirit language and re-embody the act of writing and of thinking in that fashion, accessing the brave vulnerability that is the key to self-mastery here.
Until now we have survived by denying our physical otherness or asserting it so aggressively it becomes parody, we have tried to fit into a context whose first intention is to extort us in every way possible, we have praised invisibility as a skill and perhaps felt guilty for being great on our own terms, gone deaf to those terms and yearnings. In the process of all of this pandering, we have often used language as a tool to access the few token spaces for us to supposedly ‘prosper’ in the western world, rather than training the language to obey us, we have proven that we can be tamed and undermined by it. Our bodies, and how we use them, are testaments to how we use language both on and off the page. Today’s poems need to break up rigged thought patterns rather than look for new ways to restate and validate them, and today’s black poets and all who love us, must master our bodies and their histories the way soldiers do, for our words must be directed toward saving the souls these vessels carry from suffering the fate of monopoly capitalism into fascism and back into barbarism; that’s the trajectory we are on if we remain mere witnesses, if we remain abstract to ourselves.
Poetry is the space wherein the facts we learn through true study and understanding of self can perform as archetypes and symbols and syncopation, so that these hard facts are easier to bear, but it is not a space we should use to escape the facts of our essence or our condition. If you ignore what happens to your body, what is happening to black bodies everywhere, your poems will ignore you back and lack the resonance we need from them to free ourselves or become our true selves again. But how do we remain that present without putting our bodies in danger or under scrutiny in order to reclaim their richest language?
Born in Waterloo, Iowa, poet and choreographer Harmony Holiday is the daughter of Northern Soul singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday. Her father died when she was five, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. Holiday earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA at...