By Andrea Plaid
Since it’s National Poetry Month, let’s talk about one of my favorite poets: Suheir Hammad.
Of course, Hammad speaks quite a few women of color’s truth with her classic piece, “Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic”:
She does this move-to-tears poem, “Daddy’s Song,” about her father (and his response to her at the end):
And this piece, “This Is To Certify,” about her mother becoming a naturalized citizen in the US, is an incredible reminder of who is indeed an American and what identity means:
And the Palestinian-American poet–”by way of Brooklyn” (the nabe of Sunset Park, specifically)–wrote this, called “First Writing Since,” about 9/11 but, she speaks even more directly to the Islamophobia the media jumped off with then–and still applies to what’s going on now with reporters’ racialized descriptions of the Boston bombers:
In this incredible interview with Christopher Brown at Electronic Intifada, Hammad, who co-wrote Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, lays down her PoC consciousness that informs her award-winning art:
CB: You often write about the similarities of people of color in relation to the power structure. One might say you derive this from a Black Consciousness perspective, a shared philosophy of suffering that unites all people of color under the same oppressive yoke. Is this something you have tried to create – to have all people of color united, understanding that we all have a common bond with each other through our struggles?
SH: Yes, absolutely! I think all of us (People of color) live under White male supremacy. So that means, if you are a woman or man of color, you are at a disadvantage under White male supremacy. There is definitely a cap. There is definitely a roof for your participation in the dominant narrative, for your participation in the rule making of the world. So you think of India, and bleaching creams in India; you think of Kenya and bleaching creams–all around the world, or you think of White women starlets here in America in Hollywood and people who are on magazines all the time and how they too are living under this aesthetic of a perceived White beauty. Even within their own cultures there is a new idea of a certain body type, a certain created face as a beauty ideal – creating faces on White women now that are not natural to White women and then telling White women, this is what you look like. The Black Nationalist Movement, the Power To The People Movements, plural, all made these connections. African Nationalism, Arab Nationalism, the indigenous movements in South and Central America which were crushed by our government all made the connection, it came back to land. So the idea was that, look if I’m a peasant farmer in Mexico and I don’t have any control over owning my land, the growth of my land, or how I see what comes out of my land, or make money of the things that come off my land, I can make that connection without reading any book and without having a political view on any one of the ethnic conflicts around the world. I can make the connection with me and a Palestinian farmer whose olive trees are razed, or an American farmer in Nebraska who can no longer save seeds because the big pesticide companies say that seeds can no longer be saved. I think that connection is already there. One of the things that happens – it has happened with the work of June Jordan and Audre Lorde – the criticism that would be thrown upon them is: “The world is not that connected.” There are these huge differences and there is a reactionary part of nationalism, of course, which says “no one suffers like my people suffer.” That is what Angela Davis calls “the oppression Olympics” – “No one has been through this history. No one knows how I feel.” The gap that I’m trying to fill isn’t whether or not we are connected, because people understand this connection no matter the language that addresses the culture we are talking about, but the sense that the differences are okay and should be celebrated. And that ultimately, the differences don’t matter when it comes to putting food on your child’s plate or the kind of education that will be available to them. People have a hard time and we tend to feel isolated in our victimhood–that’s the idea of victimhood, right? No one else understands and no one else can help you.
There are definitely central themes in my work because of the people in my life. Haiti is often on my mind because of what it represents to me as someone in the Western hemisphere, not just as a Palestinian but also as someone who lives here understanding the history of Haiti’s struggles, and Haiti’s revolution, in the world. That connection isn’t far-reaching for me – it’s in this hemisphere, and I look around in this hemisphere and say: “Okay, Palestine is over there, South Africa is over there, I can’t necessarily see and feel this every day of my life. So, what is here? What is closest to me?” You see again the displacement, the disenfranchisement, all around you. And I think the other thing that silences and suppresses our evolution of our political and aesthetic thoughts is the fear of not knowing what you’re talking about. The vast majority of contemporary poets that I know, my friends, don’t read enough. They don’t read enough in their own study of the craft of other poets. The idea that they would read a non-fiction book on the Iraq war that is happening now, or a book on the history of trade between India and Egypt is a lot to ask for from contemporary Americans. We just don’t read enough. Period. And I include myself in that, you know there are many more things I need to read before I write about something. I think some times we censor ourselves because we don’t really know what the reality is of a situation and that’s pretty dangerous. The information is available and you can just ask. And it’s okay to make a mistake, and that’s the other thing. It’s okay to stand up for something you believe in and if you’re a little misguided or you’re a little naive, the next time you’ll make a better decision. But we’re afraid to make political mistakes.