Monday, January 2, 2012

African American Poets & the Black Female Body

I was reading an article "Michelle Obama’s backside is your business how?" by Mary C. Curtis about Wisconsin Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner's troubling comments about the First Lady's "large posterior." Eventually, I imagine, a poet, most likely a black woman poet, will write memorable pieces about Obama as well as about what her physical presence and body might mean for contemporary public discourse. In the meantime, I thought about 7 poems by black women poets that address aspects of black female bodies.

"song in the front yard" by Gwendolyn Brooks has a subtle mention of a woman and the effect she has on a young girl. Rather than stay in front yard, the young speaker would prefer to go out back, "be a bad woman," ''wear the brave stockings of night-black lace / And strut down the streets with paint on my face." The idea of taking a "strut down the streets" reveals an interest in the movements of the women.

"homage to my hips" by Lucille Clifton is a classic and especially popular among black women. It's a tribute to "these hips" that "don't fit into little / petty places." She notes that "these hips have never been enslaved."

"The Venus Hottentot" by Elizabeth Alexander is especially well known. The poem critiques a scientist and by extension the Western gaze for the problem of racist and sexist objectification.  At one point, Alexander, writing in the voice of Saartjie Baartman, observes that "I am a black cutout against / a captive blue sky, pivoting / nude so the paying  audience / can view my naked buttocks."

"Project Princess" by Tracie Morris celebrates and describes a black girl. Morris points at one moment how the young black woman chooses to wear clothing that conceals aspects of her body: "Jeans oversized belie her hips, back, thighs / that have made guys sigh / for milleni year."

"Raised by Women" by Kelly Norman Ellis pays tribute to different kinds of black women. Among those she describes are "Some big legged / High yellow, mocha brown / Hip shaking / Miniskirt wearing / Hip huggers hugging / Daring debutantes / Groovin / 'I know I look good' / Type of Women."

"Switch" by Tara Betts also contributes to the discourse here. The poem describes a woman who is "rockin / two-pocket shorts" and mentions the woman's "pelvic metronome." What really gives the poems its rhythmic energy is the repeated phrase "switch girl," which invokes, among other things, an alluring kind of walk or hip movement.

"Hip-Hop Ghazal" by Patricia Smith appeared in a 2007 issue of Poetry magazine. The poem is a ghazal that concentrates on the word and idea of "hips." One stanza goes "Gotta love us girls, just struttin' down Manhattan streets / killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips."

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