Content warning: references to police violence, racist violence.
The revival of the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired an array of haunting artistic responses. Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World, edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa, is no exception. With over 100 contributions from writers of diverse ages and backgrounds, the collection is a poignant exploration of an era of renewed protest and newfound solidarities, against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
’Funmi Adewole’s short prose narrative ‘Martyr for Humanity’, the second piece in the collection, powerfully takes apart widespread understandings of the term ‘martyr’, raising the question of why certain people are considered worthy of collective mourning by society. George Floyd did not sacrifice his life for a cause: he paid with his life for his mere human existence as a Black man in the US. Adewole’s twist comes with the revelation that the person described as ‘[going] live on Facebook’ to proclaim that ‘[Floyd] was a druggie…not a martyr’ was in fact a ‘young African-American woman’. Adewole explores how such views, when expressed by a Black person, fuel – and apparently legitimise – explicit racism from white people like the ‘southern belle’ that comments ‘You are an example to your community’ on the livestream video. ‘Community’ is another concept Adewole subtly reclaims from this racist usage in the final line: ‘Hopefully she, from my community, will one day understand how it is that George Floyd is a Martyr for Humanity’. Adewole’s speaker boldly acknowledges the African-American woman as a member of their community with this conclusion – based not on racist stereotypes but on undeniable shared lived experiences. The piece quietly calls for resistance against moralistic and racist views around who deserves to be mourned.
Nick Allen’s ‘Breathless’ explores the relationship between breathing and power as exemplified by Floyd’s final words, ‘I can’t breathe’, which became a central slogan of the BLM movement, having previously been uttered by other Black people killed in police custody, including Eric Garner. Throughout, the poem suggests that to ‘Breathe less’ is a way to survive, exposing a twisted irony: whilst breathing signifies living and existence, for Black people, breathing too much may lead to being prevented from breathing at all. In the final stanza, however, breathing takes on a new power: ‘but if you are waiting/for things to change/do not hold your breath/instead draw it all in/and blow this house down’. Allen cleverly plays on the idea of holding one’s breath and waiting to highlight the active, radical power of breathing in a world where one is prevented – and expected to prevent oneself – from doing so.
Elsewhere, Samantha Harper-Robins’ ‘What matters’ interrogates some of the statements white people make in order to distance themselves from structural racism, such as ‘I love Black people’ and even ‘I am not racist’. The poem illuminates why each statement ‘does not matter’ in a material sense, including through its refrain, ‘That concept is abstract and that love is cold’. By contrast, the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ – the poem’s final line – is rooted in the concrete reality of structural racism.
Covid-19 seeps into the collection now and again, providing a real-life context to the longstanding metaphor of racism and oppression as a disease. Charles G Lauder’s ‘Milton-on-the-Hill’, set in a UK village, uses a clever simile to hint at an increase in xenophobia during the pandemic: ‘Our village is tasked with isolation/Like an open wound wary of infection’. The poem is apparently from the perspective of a white villager observing a Black newcomer – ‘the man spied on the bridal path’. However, the tone shifts to become sympathetic towards this character, later revealed to be a ‘carer for a chronic smoker’, introducing, once again, the theme of breathing: ‘Going for a walk/is the only way he can breathe’. Lauder here reminds us that many Black key workers too may struggle to breathe – both literally and metaphorically.
Jim Aitken’s ‘Other Viruses and Diseases’ links Covid-19 – the ‘deadly contagion/that spread across many lands’ – to racism and other forms of oppression, ‘the deep-seated sicknesses/that have affronted many nations’. Both racism and Covid-19 exist on a global scale as products of imperialism and capitalism. It is no coincidence, Aitken’s poem suggests, that this pivotal moment in world history – George Floyd’s murder and the summer of protests that followed – took place in the midst of the pandemic.
The revolutionary task of overturning imperialism cannot be achieved, the collection suggests, by appealing to those with power
The video of Floyd’s murder went viral whilst people of colour – particularly Black people – were disproportionately dying of Covid-19 across the UK and US. The video underscored viscerally what the pandemic had also illuminated – that Black lives do not matter to capitalist establishment institutions. The mass movement reignited by the video called for structural change, for dismantling these institutions – defunding the police, or abolishing it altogether. As Aitken incisively asserts, ‘what we really need is a vaccine for Capital’ – a halt to the continuous capitalist accumulation and imperial plunder which has facilitated structural racism. Meanwhile, Arun Jeetoo’s poem, titled simply after another of the movement’s key slogans, ‘The UK is Not Innocent’, is a sharp reminder that these racist power dynamics are not confined to the US: ‘racism here is/a leopard concealing/itself in tall grass’. The subtlety of racism conjured by this image fits with the virus metaphor: a slowly spreading disease whose root causes are, at the same time, all too clear.
Kevin Higgins’ ‘How to Get Rid of Christopher Columbus’, whose very title speaks to these root causes of racism, alludes to the pulling down of statues such as that of slave-owner Edward Colston, a key symbolic aspect of the BLM movement also discussed elsewhere in the collection. ‘Do it yourself’, the poem commands – a more meaningful route to justice than ‘get[ting] photographed presenting your two thousand names to the mayor’. The revolutionary task of overturning imperialism cannot be achieved, the collection suggests, by appealing to those with power. Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World urges its readers to take matters into our own hands if we truly want to build this new world.
Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World is published by CivicLeicester and available through online retailers.
Featured image courtesy of CivicLeicester
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