Confession time: My name is Maisha, and I write with an agenda.
Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.
"Agenda" is a bad word in many writing circles. Writing with an agenda might mean that you're insulting readers by trying to tell them what to think. It might mean that your work isn't as good as it could be, because you're too busy trying to shove a message down people's throats to pay attention to the quality of writing.
And I get that. I really do. I understand that for the work to be good, the writing must speak for itself. And I get that it's better to give readers questions, letting them reach their own conclusions, than to force them to accept my answers.
But I guess the problem comes with the question of how to define an "agenda." I'm no journalist, so my writing's never completely objective. It's always flavored with my own perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. And because my viewpoint is not considered the "norm," I might always come across as having an agenda. Beneath my voice there might always be a sense of unrest, of the need for change, because, to put it simply, the status quo just isn't working for me, as a queer black woman survivor.
At Saturday night's Bitchez Brew Revue, I read some silly poems. I also read the poem I wrote for Trayvon Martin
. Did I have an agenda in reading it? Hell yeah, I did. I've been hearing George Zimmerman's name in the media a lot lately, and I feel that it's important to keep speaking Trayvon's name, too. Did I have an agenda when I was writing it? Damn right, I did. When I wrote it, Zimmerman had yet to be arrested. And I didn't believe that my writing a poem would get him in jail or bring Trayvon justice, no. But for me, the whole situation stirred up a kind of sadness and anger that I need to release into the world. The kind that says something needs to change, because no lives should be lost this way.
So yeah, if that's what it means to have an agenda, then I've got one. I think part of it, for me, is that I write stories that feel personal to me, about events and systems that have traumatized me, so I feel somewhat protective over those, not quite ready to leave it up to interpretation.
But it was my "mentor" Audre Lorde
who said both "I am deliberate and afraid of nothing"
and "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood."
So maybe as I grow as a writer, I'll still have what may be perceived as an "agenda," being deliberate and unafraid to share my perspective. But maybe I'll develop the skills to be more subtle about it, and really let the writing speak for itself, even at the risk of having it misunderstood.
As I've written before, around Christmas time
and Valentine's Day
, holidays can be complicated. And today, Mother's Day, is no different. Today I'm celebrating my mom, the strong woman whose love and support helped me become the woman I am today. I'm also reserving part of the day for thoughts and prayers for those who might be struggling. Those who have lost mothers, and children.
And mothers separated from their kids - like those whose children are imprisoned
, or who are imprisoned themselves
.I'm thinking, of course, about my own reasons for having complicated feelings about this day. On Mother's Day a few years ago, I sat in a park with my mom and told her that she would soon be a grandmother. That day never came. I had a miscarriage, instead, a couple of months later. Today I'm thinking about
all the moms who've lost their children before they were born.In a way, I feel guilty for spending time on such thoughts today. I see all of the celebratory hearts and flowers and I think, today's supposed to be a joyful day. There's nothing wrong with leaving it at that. But I have a feeling that, historically speaking, M
other's Day is actually meant to hold all of these complications. Did you know about the radical roots of Mother's Day?
I've been reading up on it. First there was Julia Ward Howe, a poet and anti-war activist who began promoting Mother's Day for Peace
in 1872. Then came Anna Jarvis, a childless woman who persuaded Congress to recognize the holiday in 1914, and who grew to resent the commercialism
of the day. So, this day isn't only for Hallmark. Mother's Day is for everyone, including those who may be unable to get through it without shedding a few tears.
Today I'm holding it all, sending my mom one of these fierce Mama's Day cards
from Strong Families, and also recognizing those working for a better world
for all mothers. Thank you for reading, and for your solidarity in holding the complexity of this day.
After spending some time putting the pen to the page, many writers learn about the power of subtlety. You learn that the most horrific truths are sometimes best approached delicately. It may feel, at first, like the gentle hand isn’t doing the subject justice, but at some point you realize the subtlety puts a spotlight on the horror in the way a direct address never could. You begin to see those moments when a small hint can offer more information than a grand gesture. When silence may speak louder than words.
And of course, it’s not just writers who learn about the power of subtlety. We can learn the same lessons from life off the page. Anyone who’s been put down by oppression knows that. There are plenty of examples of racism at its most extreme, with the most dire of consequences, but sometimes, it’s just the little things that let you know how others may perceive and misjudge you.
Have we come so far?
by Lauren Quock
When it’s the “little things” at play, sometimes the impact of racism is to leave a question in the air. When you’re aware of how subtle and pervasive racism can be, it can be more difficult to just dismiss the moments that are a little unsettling and point to the tragedies as the only remaining evidence that racism still exists. After all, encounters similar to the one between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin happen every day
. If their encounter had been like so many others, ending with an unwelcoming glare, a rude word, a muttering under the breath, we wouldn’t have heard about it on the national news, but still, it would be part of a certain type of culture. It’s a culture sustained by the subtleties on a daily basis, and punctuated by the tragic cases we then point to as horrific, disastrous, and isolated. But as Keli Goff points out
, Trayvon Martin’s death can remind us that profiling, and other such subtle forms of racism, are hardly harmless.
After my reading the other night, I had one of those experiences that leaves a question in the air. To be honest, I wanted to catch my breath and move on, know that I survived and save my energy for the big fights like justice for Trayvon, leaving the question as just a question without facing the possibilities of the truth. Then Oakland writer Roger Porter, who was also part the experience, wrote about it on his blog
, capturing the feeling of having that question on your mind. And there it was, facing me, in all of the complexity of the truth.
Of course, a writer knows that subtlety can be used for more than oppression. It can be used for quite the opposite. And that’s where I find the hope here. If racism can quietly make its way into our lives, then justice can, too. Sure, there are times when we have to make a thunderous noise to face the truth and call for change. But we don’t have to wait for the chance to do that to make a difference. We can imagine a world of true liberation, and consider what that would mean. Think of what freedom could mean, for everyone and everything, from the big changes, right down to the little things.
Last week we lost Adrienne Rich
, the lesbian poet, essayist, feminist who was unashamed of the inseparable ties between her personal life and her political perspective
. Adrienne Rich once refused to accept a National Book Award unless two of my other heroes, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, joined her onstage to accept on behalf of all women (read their acceptance speech here
). She once declined the White House's offer of the National Medal of the Arts, writing in a letter
, "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."Since I found out she died, I've been trying to write a poem in homage to her. But looking back with those words in mind, it feels as if all of my work is in homage to her. I really believe I wouldn't be doing what I do without the influence of women like Rich, Walker and Lorde. When I write, I always feel like I'm taking a risk. And without the courage of these women leading the way, I probably wouldn't take the chance. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the honesty of anger, the kind of anger I felt when I wrote a poem for Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was killed because someone deemed his dark skin "suspicious."
I shared that poem at New Poetry Mission, and I'd like to share it with you now. Here's a video of my reading, brought to you by Litseen
. I'd like to thank Adrienne Rich for opening the doors wide enough for my anger to pass through. I'll be reading this and other poems tonight at MAPP, Mission Arts and Performance Project.
There will also be live music, theater, film screenings and more, with art and healing and transformation taking place all over San Francisco's Mission District. Check out the whole program here
, and the program for the event I'm a part of, Reflexiones, here
. This is for Trayvon.
Black woman in meditation
I’ve got this thing about anger. The thing being that I don’t like it. I absolutely hate being the target of it, which is normal I guess, but I really hate to feel it, too. It’s something I could work on. Accepting it as a natural feeling. Nothing wrong with getting mad.
My aversion to anger goes way back, to when I learned that being a good girl means being a nice and gentle person, and that anger often stems from misunderstanding and ends in regret. It also goes deep, to what it means to be an angry black woman, to embody an image that's part of both a negative stereotype
and a painful truth.
So I also tend to avoid expressing anger. I don't like to speak out of anger, for fear that I'll say something I regret, something I can't take back, hurt someone who doesn't deserve it, make someone feel guilty for something they can do nothing about.
But sometimes there is anger that I couldn't avoid, even if I tried. And it's moments like these when I remember that getting mad can be good for something.
Last night, I attended New Poetry Mission, returning to the local literary scene after a few months' absence. There were a few things that drew me back - wanting to reconnect with folks like host Sam Sax, for instance, and wanting to hear some good poetry, which certainly happened when feature Sean Patrick Mulroy
(among others) blew me away with his work.
But mostly, I wanted to go because I'd written a poem I wanted to read at the open mic. I wanted to read it, for Trayvon Martin. And I needed to read it. For the sake of expressing my own anger.
The poem was what I'd call "raw" - just finished, still rough around the edges, nothing I'd consider submitting for publication or sharing with a writing group for critique. It's not what I'd call evidence of my skill or the mastering of my craft. But it's full of my anger
. Anger that's honest, without censorship or hesitation. In a way, that means it's the best I've got.
This is the truth I cannot hide: when I look at the facts of Trayvon's murder
, I get really, really mad. It feels like the kind of anger I'd want to tuck deep inside of a place that would never see the light of day, but it's all over that poem I wrote, and rather than hiding it, I released it into the world. I can't quite say that it felt good, because it felt terrifying, like it was coming from a sad, nearly hopeless place inside of me, but it felt right.
My reading last night reminded me that anger has its place. For me, that place is in injustice. I am angry for Trayvon, and for everyone who could be in his place
. I couldn't, and wouldn't, have it any other way.