a woman speaks

Moon marked and touched by sun

my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
I am
and not white.

— Audre Lorde


ain’t i a woman

Brooklyn’s MOCADA featured a group exhibition titled for the purported refrain from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. Curator Kimberli Gant assembled a group of women artists and paired each of them with a female African poet from the Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry as inspiration for their work. While the flow of the exhibit was as confusing as the Truth theme and African women’s poetry collabo, there were some innovative pieces among the bevy of mostly brown bodies crammed in the tight, almost maze-like space. Elizabeth Columba’s Phyllis combined shadow with vibrant color. The thoughtful piece also embraced the show’s theme without being too literal.

As a literary scholar, I like projects that bring together text and visuality but I found that some pieces drew from the poetic inspiration in much too literal of a way, by incorporating lines from the poem, for instance. It’s a subjective critique to be sure but I just looked for more clever ways to think about the poetic-visual pairing. While I found Phoenix Savage’s “Antithesis” to be a well-conceived and visually striking piece, for instance, I thought the way she brought text into installation was distracting.

Kimberly Becoat’s pieces, on the other hand, integrated text into her paintings in a subtle yet powerful way. Her blazes of color, floral patterns, and small patches of black gave a nod to Henrietta Lacks. “Soon Henrietta Come Hela” captured the vision of the exhibition without recourse to cliche or reductive tropes of black womanhood.

a radiant genius child

Nobody loves a genius child
Kill him — and let his soul run wild!
–Langston Hughes

Tamra Davis’s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens with the text of Langston Hughes’s “Genius Child.” Initially I bristled at another reference to Basquiat’s childlike quality as I had seen Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, and while I thought Jeffrey Wright was a dynamo (as usual), I found that Schnabel’s portrayal of the artist as a troubled and temperamental “child” undermined Basquiat’s brilliance, skill, and wit.

Davis’s documentary does just the opposite. She unveils an interview she conducted with her friend Jean over twenty years ago and supports it with the recollections of others who were close to the artist like his longtime girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk and his running buddy, graffiti artist and hip hop pioneer, Fab 5 Freddy. Davis intersperses these personal reflections with footage from the 1970s and 80s that chronicles downtown artists, the disco scene, the “high” art world with its “white walls, white people, and white wine,” and an emerging hip hop culture. Basquiat negotiates and creates art that reflects all of these different worlds as he graduates from tagging his signature SAMO on city streets to creating enigmatic artwork that propelled him to international fame.

But with “mo money” came “mo problems” as sycophants and star fuckers surrounded Basquiat and, in spite of both critical and commercial successes, he never received due respect from the elitist and racist art world. The death of one of his best friends Andy Warhol worsened Basquiat’s heroin addiction. And like far too many radiant, genius children, he died too young at 27.

justice for a life

For many, Oscar Grant III’s murder and the ensuing trial of transit police officer Johannes Mehserle immediately recall Rodney King’s videotaped beating and the acquittal of the police officers who used excessive force against him. While both cases rested on visual evidence of officer misconduct, the critical difference between the two trials is that Oscar Grant is dead. Grant joins the numbers of unarmed black men (like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and a host of others) whose very presence on “the scene” was perceived as threatening, whose lives were “disposable.” That Mehserle will serve time is a comfort to some (certainly not for Grant’s family). For others, his conviction on involuntary manslaughter instead of murder is just further evidence of the devaluation of black life.