Saturday, July 18, 2020

Expressing workplace grievances through poetry

Last week, someone posted a poem, sometimes entitled "Too Black" or "To be Black in Corporate America" on the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA) listserv at my university. The poem had been previously read at an online gathering where employees voiced their concerns about being black at the university.

Here are some of the lines from the poem:
They take my kindness for weakness
They take my silence for speechless
They consider my uniqueness strange
They call my language slang
They see my confidence as conceit
They see my mistakes as defeat
And then later,
I'm defiant if I separate
I'm fake if I assimilate
My character is constantly under attack
Pride for my race makes me "TOO BLACK"
The author of the piece is apparently C'Moore Productions (Cynthia Moore), though the piece, which has circulated online since 2000, is sometimes attributed to "unknown author." 

After the poem was posted on our BFSA listserv, people, especially staff members, followed up with affirmations, attesting that the poem reflected their feelings as well.

As someone who studies black poetry, I was interested in how and why the poem resonated with folks. A few folks noted that the poem expressed many of their thoughts and feelings in a succinct and stylistic way. The poem also catalog some of their present real-world, workplace grievances.   

It also occurred to me that the poem was quite different than many of the poems I encounter in award-winning volumes, for instance. The poem highlights workplace racial problems, and it presents the ideas in rhymes. Well-known print-based poets tend to work at universities as faculty, not staff. They rarely write rhymes in their poems, and for the most part, workplace racial problems are not central to their poems. Further, you do not see the use of "they" (to mean white coworkers and managers) as it was used in the poem. 

But overall, the idea of racial grievances do come up in a range of notable poems published across the twentieth century. Hey, but maybe something changed. Or, it's likely that poems like "Too Black" are still being written, and just circulating in seemingly unlikely places like a black faculty and staff listserv. 

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