When I think of poetry, I think of, in no particular order, Sterling A. Brown, Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Lucille Clifton, Nicki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. When I think of black femininity as personified in poetry, I depart from Maya Angelou’s gentrified and universalized “Still I Rise,” and ‘“Phenomenal Woman,” and instead, I think of Audre Lords’s “Power.” Her words speak to sentiments ill-encompassed by a single word, facial expression, or prose. “Power,” does what only black poetics can: etch together the untouched pieces of a collective self into a quilt of words.
To paraphrase Lorde, the black poet meditates on the ability to distinguish between poetry and rhetoric, a distinction that enables us, as black people “to touch the destruction within.”
The American society has become, in the last few months, a space to state the obvious. Covert white nationalist veil their hardwiring with phrases like “white supremacy,” and axiomatic statements such as “black lives matter,” or “they don’t kill white guys like me.” Their approach is one of rhetoric, as it references exterior damage.
Poetry, on the other hand, speaks for the scars they cannot see.
This distinction proves quite prevalent in who the white world selected as a poetic prop at yesterday’s inauguration.
What the nation saw yesterday was not poetry, but “American” rhetoric. This is perhaps most evident in Amanda Gorman’s use of the word “we.” Her rhetoric mirrors Joe Biden’s use of the pronoun, mirroring a performative universality that remains rooted in whiteness.
Watching the performance, I couldn’t help but think of Phillis Wheatley—whose early poetry bore the burden of biographing and memorializing early America through racist, white male figures. Gorman performs an identical role, as her work appears to ameliorate America’s sins with inclusivity her presence counters.
I implement the word “appears” here to reference the question her performance engenders: Have we modified America’s sin if the job of the African-descended is to make their social and systemic adversaries feel better?
The answer is, of course, is no.
In her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to American” Wheatley writes “Twas’ mercy that brought me from my Pagan land.” While scholarly engagement with her poetry has expanded to posit her writing as subversive, her inaugural line conveys what has become mandatory for black presence in traditionally anti-black spaces.
American rhetoric requires the “happy to be here” or “mama I made it” narrative for the African-descended selected to speak among the African-adjacent. The “happy to to be here” and “mama I made it” is both old and tired, but it’s also American.
The performance of gratitude, pegged as an emergence from an anti-black core, reinforces social and systemic efforts to make whiteness great again. The poet laureate as prop who “defied the odds of her circumstance” enables a slave-enabled republic to appear altruistic and evolving. Similarly, Joe Biden, a white man that “stood beside” the first black president, and “beside” the first woman of color (and woman at all) to become Vice-President, assumes similar altruism that only attains said value under the belief that whiteness is superior.
This fragile superiority is not to be disrupted by the depth of systemic dominance. Thus, the poet’s reference to being raised by a single mother references the exteriority of white supremacy that both comforts white esteem and provides facile insight into a circumstance blanketed as the minority experience. Additionally, mis-conceptualizing those who populate the black past as slaves conveys the unhealed scars of enslavement. Simultaneously, Gorman’s use of the word “slave” here articulates her social inheritance, elucidating that our adversaries have made us slaves to their approval and inclusion, both of which have yet to engender anything more than entertainment, a diversity prop, or stealth white supremacist supporter.
So, while the African-descended can very well “sing America” as Langston Hughes writes, our words need not be music to their ears or limited to their rhetorical requirements. While the current administration pegs themselves as “post white supremacy,” it’s imperative that we note that the common ingredient of the “post white supremacy” and “post white” faux of 2008-2016, made a ladder for his upward climb out of the black vote.
And that isn’t poetry either, it’s white nationalist rhetoric.