Poetry Is Not A Luxury: Poetry As Survival

by Kristina Haynes

     It’s hard, being half-Black when everyone around you is telling you that you don’t look black. I hear all the time about how “You don’t speak black, you don’t act black, you don’t think black.” My black father insisted on calling my brother and I n*iggas since birth, using it as a term of endearment but wanting to make sure that if someone were to call us that with more malicious intent, we wouldn’t be as affected by it because that’s all we heard growing up. He was right. I hear that word now, and it isn’t like I’m desensitized, but more like I’m not going to give anyone the power of reducing the color of my skin to a word that doesn’t belong to you.

     Still, I’ve been struggling with my racial identity for years. My father’s mother would always ask me, “Are you black or are you white?” And for a long, long time, I didn’t know how to answer. I’m not black enough for Black people; I’m not white enough for White people. White people think it’s funny when I talk bad about them to their face and point out all the ways they can be problematic but they think Oh, it’s fine, she’s one of us. Swear to God, once I actually heard someone say, “She’s racist, but it’s okay, she can say that. She’s both.”

    At the time, Uneducated Me laughed, but now, looking back, the invalidity and sheer stupidity of this statement makes me grind my teeth together. I’ve had to struggle in this in-between place all my life, where everything I am is too much or not enough. Where I’m Black, but I’m also White. Where I have to find this line in myself and have both of my feet planted firmly on either side of it.

    Poetry is a small look inside someone’s head, where you can catch glimpses of a feeling or a moment or a time or a place made special and relevant by the poet. In my earlier writing, however, I played it safe. I wanted to talk about the Black struggle I internalized daily, but I didn’t have the words. I didn’t know of any words. So I hid behind silly love poems and the struggle of being a woman, because that was more accessible to me at the time, and I wanted to write about talking about being Black in a world that tries its best to be White but there were other, better poets that could say how I was feeling in a better, more succinct way. So I left it. I wrote about feeling ugly, about body image and about how being a woman feels both like being a visitor in a prison and the prisoner on the other side of the glass.

    It’s an uncomfortable place. Being a woman is hard enough, and I thank White Feminists for shouting about that to the heavens. My favorite is the argument about equal pay between the sexes, how women make seventy-seven cents to every dollar a man makes, but what people conveniently forget is that black women and women of color in general make even less than that. It’s men, but it’s also women that make the voices of other, browner women smaller.

    Are my words less valuable because I am a woman? Because I’m a woman of color? Do I have anything to add to the discussion? The answer to some of these questions is yes. The answer to some of these questions is no. It takes time, it takes so much time and patience and courage to go against hundreds and hundreds of years’ worth of ingrained behavior when you’re a woman who has a voice and wants to be listened to. You have to say to yourself that you can’t please everyone and that there will always be someone lighter-skinned who will be heard above you.

    The first poem I ever wrote concerning my Blackness was an apology poem. I was apologizing to my skin. To my hair, to my hands, and how angry yet immobile they were. I was apologizing for so many things. I started writing that poem two years ago. I still haven’t finished it. I want to apologize for so much but it’s not to myself anymore, not really. It’s to the girl I was when I started writing that poem, sure, but it’s an apology to everyone else. It’s to all the girls who identify as Black and White but who always feel stuck somewhere either just under or just above that line. It’s to the girls who are living in their own version of the in-between.

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    The second poem I wrote, I finished, but it took me a month. I was angry. I started off that poem making jokes, wanting to be funny, and it was, I get laughs whenever I read that poem, but at some point during the writing process I had to turn it down, I had to stop playing for laughs, I had to stop making everyone in the room who was listening comfortable and get them to react, whether they wanted to or not. That poem is aptly titled “I am Black” and I recently performed it in a slam poetry show that a group of friends and myself put up on a real stage. The feedback I received from that piece was and continues to be incredible. It’s not something I plan to ever put in a book or even on my blog because I want that poem to be performed. I want it to be seen.

    Being published on two publishing presses that primarily publish White women makes me realize how important my voice is. While there are plenty of women writers and while plenty of those women writers are brown, there are still not nearly enough of them whose voices get to be heard. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a decent “fan base” or following need to continue to keep their voices raised, need to continue to shout over the din of white women and the men who would try to keep them, who try to keep all of us, quiet.

    It’s gotten easier, to write about my experiences as a black woman who writes but who still doesn’t consider herself all that much of a writer. I’m reading more brown poets. I’m taking in their stories, seeing how they manipulate language in a way that their white contemporaries just can’t. I am less ashamed of my skin. I am more appreciative of seeing both sides. My grandmother asks me what do I identify more as, and I think about how that very question feels like erasure. I identify as Black. I identity as White. I identify as me. I’m still reclaiming those parts of myself that I’ve been too scared and too tired and too hesitant to look at, but these days, the mirror is a lot less heavy in my hand. It’s hard, as most important and necessary things are hard. My knees are scraped. My hands are bleeding.

   I can find myself in the writing, in the words. I am surviving between line breaks, breathing at the end of each verse and navigating through my own identity crisis in the poems. My blackness is not a quiet thing anymore. It demands to be heard and felt and seen. I am giving my blackness that right to exist beside the whiteness. In the poems, my blackness will live.

Kristina Haynes does not have an inside voice. She is an actress and sometimes-poet from Pennsylvania. Some of her work has appeared previously in Words Dance Magazine, SpliceLit, The New Old Stock, Winter Tangerine Review and more. She has two published collections of poetry, It Looked a Lot Like Love (Where Are You Press, 2013) and Chloe (Words Dance Publishing, 2015). She’s the Co-Managing Editor for Persephone’s Daughters and performs poetry with the group, Basement Poetry. She plans to eventually move to New York City and make strangers cry at piano bars. According to her, you can have your cake and eat it whenever you want.


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