Allison Joseph's knack for eloquently portraying the messages black women receive is on display in her poem “Who You Calling Ugly? Or When Black Ceased to be Beautiful,” found in her collection Imitation of Life. In the poem, Joseph takes on the voice of a man harshly and thoroughly criticizing a woman who is too black, too skinny, “…so ugly no wants/ to be seen with you/ much less talk to you/ on these streets.” If the woman in question would only “for once, / show some pride” by hiding, painting, and costuming herself, “I’ll take you out/ show you off/ like I just bought you new/ from the store.”
Unlike many of Joseph’s poems where the speaker is examining herself or someone or something connected to her, here Joseph creates the voice of the accuser, perhaps the voice of a real man or the voices of men whom the woman in question imagines. No matter if the voice is real or imagined, however, the messages are powerful in their severity and ability to degrade a woman for not being enough--not light enough, not curvy enough, not well-dressed enough. By doing so, Joseph recreates the voices that echo in many women’s minds who never feel as if they are beautiful because of a variety of factors.
The reader is left in horror at these private, mental messages written on the page, and is given the choice yet again to consider them as either valid or simply the rantings of a world enamored by the impossible, consistently rejecting women for who and what they are and embracing instead the ideal which only devastates and isolates.
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