Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

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Harryette Mullen reads “Wipe that Simile Off Your Aphasia”

So, hearing June Jordan recite A Poem About My Rights made the poem really resonate for me. Hearing her speak her own words, and hearing the emotion in them made the poem much more real for me. Some of the poems we read, especially  the Harryette Mullen Muse & Drudge selection were really hard for me. I tried reading it aloud, but still didn’t get it in the way I got A Poem About My Rights. I couldn’t find a recording anywhere of Mullen reading Muse & Drudge, but I did find a video of her reading one of her poems called Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia. It’s a pretty cool poem, but just listening to her kind of helped me understand how her poems should be read. I thought maybe you all would enjoy listening to it as well. :]


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Writers on Video: Rita Dove

Love the following interview with Rita Dove, in which she and discusses what it means to be a “historian of the everyday” and reads from Sonata Mulattica (a collection of poems about George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a black violin virtuoso who collaborated with Ludwig van Beethoven).

By the way, did you know that Rita Dove is a ballroom dancer?

“American Smooth,” Rita Dove

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.

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Writers on Video: Harryette Mullen

After hearing many of our course bloggers say how helpful it was to have seen live/recorded performances of the poetry of Ntozake Shange and June Jordan, I’m going to post some videos featuring the work of some of our other writers from this unit.

First up, Harryette Mullen reading from Muse & Drudge, a work packed with diverse allusions (students, I think you’ll recognize a few of the excerpts from our packet in this performance).  This is a pretty lengthy clip, but I think it illustrates well the Norton’s description of Mullen as a “master of wordplay,” a writer who explores “the meanings of race and gender identity” while capturing “the varied textures of [African] American language.”


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Mixed Media

The one thing I keep coming back to is June Jordan’s Poem About My Rights. I’m sure this is because, as someone said in class, we’ve heard her say the poem, with all of the passion that she meant behind it. I think this is really relevant to Shange’s style with her “choreopoem”, mixing the performing mediums. The mixture of vocal and written traditions adds a much greater impact to the work than having the written work by itself.


June Jordan: Poem about My Rights

This is one of my favorite poems. I have it pinned up somewhere. Just saying.

I wanted to touch on two things that we just glazed over in class. The first is about the discussion of names in the poem, particularly in the last stanza. Jordan writes “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name/My name  is my own my own my own” (109-110). The idea here is claiming one’s agency, a theme throughout Jordan’s poetry, specifically this poem. This ties into what I perceive as her deconstruction of the labels of rightness and wrongness. By claiming a name, she removes herself from wrongness and even from rightness; this stresses and advocates total equality and a society devoid of any labels.

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A Collection of Thoughts

Audre Lorde’s poem, A Litany for Survival, seems like a collage of all of the authors that we have read this semester. She reflects on how the fear of …is  “imprinted… / like a line in the center of our foreheads (Lines 16-17). The men and women of her generation are scarred by the racial tensions and attitudes that are embedded in American society. Maya Angelou’s grandmother is a product of this same generation, where survival of the fittest does not always mean one is courageous and bold. Like many other African American authors, Lorde captures the desire and motivation of parents “seeking a now that can breed / futures / like bread in our children’s mouths so their dreams will not reflect / the death of ours” (Lines 10-14). Anne Petry’s Lutie Johnson and her desperate struggle to make a better future for Bud came to my mind. Lorde’s repetition of “for those of us who…” calls up the echo of Shange’s “for colored girls…” Despite the disparity of the situation that “those of us” are in, a theme of hope for the future generations manifests its self within this litany and several of her other poems. Her last stanza plants the seed of “why not”. Why not speak up? “We were never meant to survive” (Line 44). Why not love without regrets? Dream without limits? Live without fear? Why not when we are all humans? Why not when we only live once?

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In Memoriam

I thought it was interesting today in the discussion of June Jordan’s poem “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King Jr.” when we talked about the function that “STOP” serves. When I first was reading it, the poem seemed awfully convoluted, but that “STOP” was probably the most jarring shift. I sort of didn’t know what to make of it. But today when we were talking about how its there to actually mark the death of Martin Luther King, it made the rest of the poem make way more sense, and shows how it was deliberately supposed to seem convoluted up to that point. It made me think of the civil rights movement, and the fight for rights and how chaotic and violent it was. The way that June Jordan illustrates this is by making the poem scattered and making it lack syntax. The nature of the poem also conveys that even though Martin Luther King was a huge influence on the civil rights movement, that things were still hectic and crazy in the movement. The “STOP”, or the death of MLK, comes prematurely, before the words have a chance to make sense of themselves and arrange themselves in a coherent way, just like the civil rights movement was hindered midway by the death of a figure who could have potentially bring rights to African Americans and and end to the movement.