Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Arts/Female Poets
“Racism distorts human vision and limits human possibilities” (Fegin, Vera, Batur 270)
Fighting racism in the United States takes a great deal of strength and commitment to social justice. From what we have learned from many of the anti-racist activists we have studied, this battle is not easily won. An important aspect of an anti-racist is their personal fight against oppression in all of its forms. It takes courage to confront one’s own racism, prejudice, or biases, as well as confronting such acts commented against an individual, and even greater boldness to express one’s growth and knowledge to the rest of the world. Activism through the arts is one of the most influential forms. Whether it is through musical, visual, or performance art, artists are able to exhibit their ideologies, sentiments, and messages on a large public scale. Artists that actively show their commitment to anti-racist ideals and consistent effort to tackle issues of race and racism through their art are able to take advantage of reaching out to people who in turn could become anti-racists for their own generation. Challenging racism, whiteness, and overall ignorance cannot be begin without the individuals who are willing to understand the world around them in a racial context by listening, watching, and feeling.
When describing June Jordan, Toni Morrison said, “In political journalism that cuts like razors, in essays that blast the darkness of confusion with relentless light; in poetry that looks as closely into lilac buds as into death’s mouth….she has comforted, explained, described, wrestled with, taught and made us laugh out loud before we wept…I am talking about a span of forty years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art,”1 June Jordan is a renowned Black female poet, essayist, teacher, and activist. Jordan was born on July 9, 196 in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants and she grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Her childhood in one of the largest Black urban areas in the country, coupled with her three years of high school at a predominantly with preparatory school, gave Jordan an early understanding of racial conflicts. She attended Barnard College and has taught at such schools as: Sarah Lawrence College, Connecticut College, Yale University, and University of California, Berkeley. Among Black writers June Jordan is one of the most widely published, authoring 28 books of essays, poetry, and children’s literature. Jordan became well known during the time of the civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-war movement and her writing reflected this indefinitely. She wrote about freedom from all types of oppression and spoke out against it in all its forms. While teaching at UC Berkeley Jordan created a course called poetry for the people, “she identified he need to revise and to devise reading lists and a method of handling diverse writings so as to identify and embrace what was personally relevant to every young man and woman sitting in the classroom.”2 Poetry for the People is a program that teaches students how to teach other students how to write poetry to promote empowerment and to change their communities. June Jordan is a very important anti-racist activist for students to learn because she lived her life speaking up against all types of oppression and educating others on how to become activists themselves.
June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” is a very important poem to teach students that being angry about discrimination is okay as long as it is used in a productive manner.
This poem is filled with anger towards all types of oppression. June Jordan takes the reader on a journey about bodily oppression and policing. This poem is so strong because it has history in it; it shows the history of a people and the history of June Jordan. The repeating lines of “I am the wrong sex the wrong age the wrong skin” really emphasized the internalized oppression of people of color. When someone is constantly being told that they are wrong they will begin to believe it in some ways and June Jordan eloquently expresses this idea throughout the poem. The end then shows the standing up and the fighting back. She will not let anyone tell her that she is wrong because “wrong is not my name”. I believe this poem is inspiring to everyone because it is not just about racial oppression but oppression of women and countries as well, and I think that is why it is an important poem for students. This poem can be used to convey the horrible things that are still happening now but that it is possible to make that choice to resist and to stand up. When June Jordan states, “from now on my resistance/ my simple and daily and nightly self-determination/ may very well cost you your life” she is embodying what I think an anti-racist activist is. Being an anti-racist activist is standing up against oppression every single day no matter how small of an act of resistance it is. Being an anti-racist activist is living that anti-racism in every breath every single day. In the words of June Jordan, when describing why she created the course Poetry for the People at UC Berkeley, “words can change the world and save our lives.”
Lenelle Moïse is a spoken word artist, poet, playwright, and performer who carries the weight of her past and releases the pain of oppression with her words. Moïse has a way of conveying words and sounds that are incredibly moving, and at the same time expressing a message that was made concrete through her personal experiences. Her performance of her one woman show “Womb-Words Thirsting” is politically charged, emotive, and very audience inclusive. Through scat, poetry, song, rhythms, and repetition, she conquers issues of race, identity, class, sexuality, and existence. She leaves a remarkably lasting impression upon her audience. I was left with lingering thoughts of “jazz is under water,” “madivinez,” “passive aggressiveness,” and “pains of silence.” It is easy to feel a connection to Moïse because she takes the personal and makes it political, she gives a voice to her uncle who died of AIDS, to the first girl she ever had a crush on, and the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Moïse was born in Port-au-Prince Haiti and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of two. Being a member of the African Diaspora and identifying as Haitian-American seems to have had a strong impact on her collective body of work and the coalescence of her identity as feminist, lesbian, and a self proclaimed “culturally hyphenated pomosexual poet.” Moïse grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a single-parent home, raised with the ideals of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In her performance piece “Womb-Words Thirsting,” Moïse talks about her growing up in a religious with a strict Haitian mother and her qualms with her childhood church. From many aspects of her life she was forced to make decisions about who she wanted to become as an individual and what part of her culture and upbringing she wished to embrace. Lenelle Moïse received her Bachelor’s degree at Ithaca College in 2002 with a self-designed major in “Women and Storytelling” and went on in 2004 to receive her Masters in Playwriting as Smith College. She has written almost a dozen plays, released her own audio-cd Madivinez, received numerous awards including the James Baldwin Memorial award for Playwriting in 2003 and 2004, and she has also performed at many venues across the country.
Moïse is known for reclaiming stigmatized words and one of those words is madivinez which is a vulgar term for lesbian, synonymous to dyke, in the Haitian language Kreyòl. She also reclaims various f-words with the goal of turning something deemed negative into something productive and powerful. Like June Jordan, some of Moïse’s work expresses the desire to reserve the right to be angry and vulgar when faced wit discrimination. She entitles this poem “The F**k You Manifesto” and grabs the audience attention with her unabashed use of the f-word. Moïse uses the concepts and theories she studied about race in college and contradicts them because they can promote an atmosphere of passivity in the face racism. Targeted groups may be more likely to taking on a lot more pain than they can carry when they are weighted down by hurtful words, actions, or suspicious glances. Moïse inspires a controlled rage as a response to these hurtful acts and believes in the right to say f**k you, among other things to the person who called her a n*gger or the man who yells derogatory remarks when she is with her partner. In this piece, Moïse poeticizes the pain of silence that afflicts many of us everyday. When we are treated as inferior, as the other, or less competent, it is something that constantly digs away at who we are. “The F**k You Manifesto” combats racism on its most prominent level; the exchange of racialized social interactions. People of color are often victims of prejudice, just for being themselves and even after the acquisition of knowledge about racial identity development, whiteness, race as a social construct, etc. the divide between the academic realm and the day to day can prove to be overwhelming. In exhibiting a will to be proud of one’s identity and to aggressively stand up to racism, heterosexism, sexism, etc., Moïse inspires one to no longer be complacent in silence or to brood in passive aggression.
In watching Lenelle Moise’s performance live one of the most memorable pieces she performed was September 4, 2005. She eased into this poem by asking the aducience if they remembered where they were when the tragedy of 9/11 occurred and if we remembered the year as well. Almost everyone in the room raised their hand and one person even shared a story of her experience being close to the Twin towers that day. Hen we were asked about September 4, 2005, I had to face that I did not remember right away that she was referring to Hurricane Katrina. The juxtaposition of these two tragic events in this context really made many people in the audience think about how we have already begun to forget about the people that died in New Orleans and even more so the controversy that surrounded the disaster. This poem as particularly moving because it transposed beautiful imagery with morbidity like the phrase that came to her in a dream, that ‘jazz is underwater.’ She spoke of ‘eighty percent of New Orleans submerged’ and old folks left behind. In taking a racialized and politicized tragedy such as this one and delivering it in a way that gave it humanity and a discomforting legitimacy was very powerful for everyone in the room.
I chose to highlight Lenelle Moïse and some of her work because her work can make any individual more conscientious of the way they interact with the word around them. Her work is thought provoking in a productive sense. I personally believe that her work is relevant to the process of becoming anti-racist and discovering one’s own identity.
We ultimately think that a successful anti-racist in the arts is someone who conveys messages of anti-racism through their art and are actively trying to reach as many individuals as possible. Lenelle Moïse and June Jordan most definitely fit our model of effective anti-racists.
- Feagin, Vera, Batur. White Racism! The Basics, 2nd edition. NY: Routledge, 2001.