The Power of Black Poets: A Selection of Five Poems from ‘Academic Activist’ Dr. Joanne Gabbin

"I knew my students would be culturally deprived if they did not have access to black literature. When I decided to have the first Furious Flower conference in 1994, I had it for the students AND the faculty. The truth is, the faculty had not been taught black poetry, and many (professors) didn’t think it was worthy."
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Photo of Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin via Furious Flower

Photo of Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin via Furious Flower

Guest contributor Amy Musser reflects on the transformative power of poetry, and shares a selection of poems curated by Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, the acclaimed academic scholar and founder of Furious Flower, the nation’s first academic center for Black Poetry.

In a recent interview, activist and writer Shishi Rose explained that one of the most important things that white people can do to be a better ally is first and foremost to listen, and then take what is learned and share that with others. As I continue to listen to activists, artists and writers, I’m often reminded of pinnacle moments in my literary education. As a lover of the written word, it is the voices of my favorite writers that I frequently return to for insight and inspiration.

The heartbreaking characters of Toni Morrison’s novels, the moving essays of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the dynamic and electrifying poetry of Langston Hughes all remind me of moments of deep listening, moments when my awareness shifted and opened in striking ways. But amidst these powerful writers, one event stands out beyond all the rest, like a beacon that illuminated new, visceral combinations of words, sound, and meaning: attending the Furious Flower Poetry Conference at James Madison University, where I had the opportunity to witness some of the greatest living black poets, poets like Yousef Komuyakaa, Sonya Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni, as they orated their brutally beautiful, powerful verses.

Dr. Joanne Gabbin, JMU professor and the Director of Furious Flower Academic Center, was responsible for bringing these luminaries together, and has organized this national poetry conference at JMU, with an impressive array of poets, every ten years. The Washington Post called her first inception of the Furious Flower Conference a “historical event.” The only event of its kind since the 1970s, the 1994 conference honored guest-poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and sparked a veritable renaissance of black poetry. In 2005, a year after the second conference, Furious Flower also became the first-ever academic center dedicated to ensuring the visibility, inclusion and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters.

It is for this reason that I recently reached out to Dr. Gabbin, who has now been the Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center for more than fifteen years. Gabbin was instrumental in my education, for she opened me up to voices that I would not have otherwise discovered during my college experience. Not only did she expose me to the written words of these famous poets, many of them Pulitzer Prize winners, but she brought the poets themselves to the campus of James Madison continually, and has gone on to inspire thousands of students and teachers by promoting the work of these and other black poets and writers. She has also played an integral role in helping provide and support an inclusive community for black writers, many of whom equate speaking at the Furious Flower Conferences to a kind of “homecoming.”

Gabbin’s investment in teaching black literature and poetry has been her life’s work. When she looks back on her own education, she notes that it wasn’t until she pursued her PhD at the University of Chicago that she really learned about black poets and writers, despite the fact that she’d gone to a predominantly black university as an undergrad. She became enthralled with the Black Power movement, and writers like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovianni, and Carolyn Rogers “who were not only speaking for themselves, but for a whole generation of Black American Poets.” Consequently, she realized she could be far more effective as an activist in the classroom than she could be in the streets. She vowed to expose more of the world to the work that shaped her into the prolific scholar, writer, and professor that she is, and to this day, she considers herself an “academic activist.”

“I never marginalized black poetry,” Gabbin reiterated during our conversation. “Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer in 1950, Ralph Ellison wrote the leading book of the 20th century. I knew my students would be culturally deprived if they did not have access to black literature. When I decided to have the first Furious Flower conference in 1994, I had it for the students AND the faculty. The truth is, the faculty had not been taught black poetry, and many (professors) didn’t think it was worthy.”

Just earlier this year, Gabbin and the Furious Flower Center received a $150,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation that will go towards creating and organizing an extensive digital archive of videos, audio tapes, files, documents that Gabbin has accrued throughout her tenure at James Madison. The grant will help make these digitized materials available to people who want to study black poets, no matter what academic institution they are a part of or where they are in the world. It’s clear that Gabbin’s own personal form of academic activism has been a phenomenal success, and will have a far-reaching impact on writers, scholars, and students of poetry all over the world.

During our conversation, I asked Dr. Gabbin to share three poems that she’d recommend that everyone read right now. It’s not surprising that all of the poems she selected hail from an anthology titled Of Poetry and Protest. Published shortly after the Ferguson riots, these poetic works illuminate contemporary conversations and the context of race in America as told through the lens of 43 contemporary poets, with specific emphasis on police brutality, and the constant killing of black men. In addition to the poems that Gabbin has selected,I’ve also selected two works from an anthology edited by Gabbin, Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present that highlight the movement that she has helped support and propel.

When asked what advice she’s shared with her students lately, Gabbin reiterates that people must “use their voices.” Too many times in her career she watched her colleagues witness racism and turn a blind eye. She attributes much of her success to the fact that she never let anyone take her voice, and reiterates that the work of these poets can and should inspire us to “break the silence.”

  1. “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” Gwendolyn Brooks
  2. “Freedom Ride,” Rita Dove
  3. “Infernal,” Tyehimba Jess
  4. “Duende,” Tracy K. Smith
  5. “No Wound of Exit,” Patricia Smith

The Second Sermon on the Warpland by Gwendolyn Brooks

 1.

This is the urgency: Live!

and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.

2.

Salve salvage in the spin.

Endorse the splendor splashes;

stylize the flawed utility;

prop a malign or failing light–

but know the whirlwind is our commonwealth.

Not the easy man, who rides above them all,

not the jumbo brigand,

not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,

shall straddle the whirlwind.

Nevertheless, live.

3.

All about are the cold places,

all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft–

all about are the stormers and scramblers, but

what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?

Live and go out.

Define and

medicate the whirlwind.

4.

The time

cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face

all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.

Whose half-black hands assemble oranges

is tom-tom hearted

(goes in bearing oranges and boom).

And there are bells for orphans–

and red and shriek and sheen.

A garbageman is dignified

as any diplomat.

Big Bessie’s feet hurt like nobody’s business,

but she stands–bigly–under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the wild weed.

In the wild weed

she is a citizen,

and is a moment of highest quality; admirable.

It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.

Nevertheless, live.

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.

Freedom Ride by Rita Dove

As if, after High Street

and the left turn onto Exchange,

the view would veer onto

someplace fresh: Curacao,

or a mosque adrift on a milk-fed pond.

But there’s just more cloud cover,

and germy air

condensing on the tinted glass,

and the little houses with

their fearful patches of yard

rushing into the flames.

Pull the cord a stop too soon, and

you’ll find yourself walking

a gauntlet of stares.

Daydream, and you’ll wake up

in the stale dark of a cinema,

Dallas playing its mistake over and over

until even that sad reel won’t stay

stuck—there’s still

Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis,

at ever corner the same

scorched brick, darkened windows.

Make no mistake: There’s fire

back where you came from, too.

Pick any stop: You can ride

into the afternoon singing with strangers,

or rush home to the scotch

you’ve been pouring all day—

but where you sit is where you’ll be

when the fire hits. 

Infernal by Tyehimba Jess

There is a riot I fit into,
a place I fled called the Motor City.
It owns a story old and forsaken
as the furnaces of Packard Plant,
as creased as the palm of my hand
in a summer I was too young to remember-
1967. My father ran into the streets
to claim a small part of my people’s anger
in his Kodak, a portrait of the flame
that became our flag long enough
to tell us there was no turning back,that we’d burned ourselves clean
of all doubt. That’s the proof I’ve witnessed.
I’ve seen it up close and in headlines, a felony
sentence spelling out the reasons
my mother’s house is now worth less
than my sister’s Honda, how my father’s worthy
rage is worth nothing at all. In the scheme
of it all, though, my kin came out lucky.
We survived, mostly by fleeing
the flames while sealing their heat
in our minds the way a bank holds
a mortgage – the way a father holds his son’s hand
while his city burns around him… I almost forgot
to mention: the canary in Detroit’s proverbial coal
mine who sang for my parents when they fled
the inferno of the South, its song
sweaty sweet with promise. I’m singing
myself, right now. I’m singing the best way
I know about the way I’ve run
from one fire to another. I’ve got a head full
of song, boiling away. I carry a portrait
of my father.

Duende by Tracy K. Smith

1.

The earth is dry and they live wanting.

Each with a small reservoir

Of furious music heavy in the throat.

They drag it out and with nails in their feet

Coax the night into being. Brief believing.

A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.

And in this night that is not night,

Each word is a wish, each phrase

A shape their bodies ache to fill—

I’m going to braid my hair

Braid many colors into my hair

I’ll put a long braid in my hair

And write your name there

They defy gravity to feel tugged back.

The clatter, the mad slap of landing.

2.

And not just them. Not just

The ramshackle family, the tíos,

Primitos, not just the bailaor

Whose heels have notched

And hammered time

So the hours flow in place

Like a tin river, marking

Only what once was.

Not just the voices of scraping

Against the river, nor the hands

Nudging them farther, fingers

Like blind birds, palms empty,

Echoing. Not just the women

With sober faces and flowers

In their hair, the ones who dance

As though they’re burying

Memory—one last time—

Beneath them.

And I hate to do it here.

To set myself heavily beside them.

Not now that they’ve proven

The body a myth, a parable

For what not even language

Moves quickly enough to name.

If I call it pain, and try to touch it

With my hands, my own life,

It lies still and the music thins,

A pulse felt for through garments.

If I lean into the desire it starts from—

If I lean unbuttoned into the blow

Of loss after loss, love tossed

Into the ecstatic void—

It carries me with it farther,

To chords that stretch and bend

Like light through colored glass.

But it races on, toward shadows

Where the world I know

And the world I fear

Threaten to meet.

3.

There is always a road,

The sea, dark hair, dolor.

Always a question

Bigger than itself—

They say you’re leaving Monday

Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?

No Wound Of Exit by Patricia Smith

How would it end…ain’t got a friend

My only sin…is in my skin

What did I do…to be so black and blue

- What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue)

recording by Louis Armstrong, 1929

The body is secured in a blue body bag with

Medical examiner seal 0000517.

The boy structure of skin and stick was surrounded

by dripped brick, night shriek,

vermin and hiss. He was never not secured, but was

never secure. Since he had

not been apprised of the questions inherent in

moving forward, his walk was

conjured of side-eye, a rapper’s lisp and rain. The

grit of neon sugar ate away at

his closed mouth. The body is secured in a blue

body bog. The body is secured in

a blues body bag. The body absorbs the blues.

The body is viewed unclothed. The body is that of a

normally developed black

male appearing the stated age of 17 years with a

body length of 71 inches and body

weight of 158 pounds. The body presents a medium

build with average nutrition,

normal hydration and good preservation.

Pause for the definition of a normally developed

black man.

Pause for the definition of a

normally developed—

Pause

Rigor mortis is complete, and lividity is well

developed and fixed on the posterior

surfaces of the body. The body is cold to the touch

post refrigeration. Short black

hair covers the scalp. The face is unremarkable.

Correction: The black face is suppressed fireworks.

It so easily turns your

given name to knives. It gobbles slimy Tabasco-ed

chicken wings and spits

out watermelon seeds. It has deep antebellum folds.

It is never dark enough

for newspapers. Its favorite dance is the perp walk,

its favorite place is above the

fold. It squints in the probing bellow of flashlights

and slowly repeats its name.

It speaks in rebellion reverb. It speaks in

stereotypical. It’s done up all wrong for

a job interview. It pants and glows indigo in the

bushes behind your duplex. It

was born to reverse your wife. Well. Look. See the

sway drip from the doors in his

face. He can no longer harm you. How

unremarkable. This particular mug is no

longer google-eye, buck muscle, this face no longer

fits around your throat.

The tree-lined suburb in your chest in safe for now.

There is average body hair of adult-male-pattern

distribution. The eyes are closed

and have clear bulbar and palpebral conjunctivae.

There are no cataracts or arcus

present. The pupils are equal at 5 millimeters. The

orbits appear normal. The nasal

cavities are unremarkable with intact septum. The

oral cavity presents natural

teeth with fair oral hygiene. The ears are

unremarkable with no hemorrhage in the

external auditory canals. The neck is rigid due to

postmortem changes, and there

are no palpable masses. The chest is symmetrical.

The abdomen is scaphoid.

The upper and lower extremities are equal and

symmetrical and present cyanotic

nail beds without clubbing or edema. There are no

fractures, deformities

or amputations. The external genitalia present

descended testicles and an

unremarkable penis. The back reveals dependent

lividity with contact pallor.

The buttocks are atraumatic, and the anus is

intact.

Ah, the wide tragedy of living and dying before your

cock has made a name

for itself. Once, let us remember, a buyer would

handle the penis of a potential

purchase, looking for—what? For heft, for hints of

tree trunk, for a steel foreskin.

For its ability and willingness to spit seed.

Dead cancels commerce.

Anus intact? Sigh. The ass of the dead boy was

rigorously examined after closing

hours. One of the thousands of things gingerly

removed from its depths was the

steamy, jack-booted foot of Florida.

Penetrating gunshot wound of the chest.

The entrance wound is located on the left chest, 17

½ inches below the top of

the head, 1 inch to the left of the anterior midline,

and ½ inch below the nipple.

It consists of a ¾ inch-diameter round entrance

defect with soot, ring abrasion

and a 2 x w inch of stippling. This wound is

consistent with a wound of entrance

of intermediate range.

Further examination demonstrates that the wound

track passes directly from the front

to back and enters the pleural cavity with

perforations of the left anterior fifth

intercostal space, pericardial sac, right ventricle of

the heart, and the right lower

lobe of the lung. There is no wound of exit.

A black boy can hold his body around a bullet. The

cartridge is a pinpoint of

craving, a sort of little love, some slugs are warmer

than mothers. The bullet

wants the whole of the boy, his snot and insomnia,

his crammed pockets and

waning current. The bullet strains to romance the

blooded boy structure in a way

that blazes first and final, it swoons through his

map then comes to rest and the

boy simply dies around it. It does not matter if he

has a mother. It does not matter

if he has a gold moth.

The injuries associated with the wound: The

entrance wound; perforations of left

anterior fifth intercostal space, pericardial sac,

right ventricle of the heart, right

lower lobe of the lung with approximately 1300

milliliters of blood in the right

pleural cavity and 1000 in the left pleural cavity;

the collapse of both lungs.

A black boy’s lungs collapsing. A mother picking up

a phone. The same sound. 

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