This coming fall semester, I'll sharpen my previous reading lists of poems by and about black women by highlighting works that provoke distinct feelings among students. Taking a lesson from Michelle Obama, who recently discussed how Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" inspired her and how black girls "desperately" need such affirming messages, I'll construct a reading list based on some of those sentiments.
For years now, I've been refining and reworking my poetry lists for students. So I'm hardly starting from scratch. This fall though though, I'll make more of an effort to prioritize poems that speak directly to those essential message that Obama mentioned.
I'll also seek the advice of sisters who've taken my class (and those who haven't) about what they perceive as notable feelings to think about and talk through. We'll then search for corresponding poems. I suspect I'll remove some perceived canonical or "important" poems in favor of others that might achieve our purposes.
In the scholarly discourse on black poetry, "Phenomenal Woman," "Still I Rise," and "Ego Tripping," rarely make appearances. Yet we know that these works are widely known among black girls and women. Even if literary critics find the poems unworthy of their attention, why not still occasionally consider the reasons for the poems' popularity among so many black women readers, listeners?
I'm certainly curious about the results of elevating phenomenal black women poems, how doing so might affect the outlooks of students well beyond their time in my class.
• Michelle Obama as black woman poetry scholar
• Maya Angelou, Eugene B. Redmond, and me