I woke up Tuesday, 5 November 2019 knowing that Heed the Hollow, the collection of poems I worked tireless on for a few years that turned into the book I anxiously anticipated for a little over a year, was finally in the world. It was a great feeling. Taking into account the Poets & Writers interview and the poem that was published by the Los Angeles Review of Books that same day, I am also tremendously grateful for the family, friends, and readers who shared their excitement on social media and in personal messages to me. The day was quite full.
I also woke up and realized that it was Election Day and I had to walk around the corner and cast my ballot.
Telling someone I had to go exercise my civic duty, they expressed grievance and reservations about the voting system. As a black southerner, I understand this. Many people of color, especially those from low socioeconomic communities, don’t vote because of legitimate doubt about the change that will be actualized on their account. The system is flawed and we know this.
Nevertheless, I must admit that I am not as patient with informed and educated white people of certain privileges and classes who don’t vote because of their distrust of the government. I also admit that my impatience comes from once dating a white man who I later learned primarily dated people of color, but did not vote in the last presidential election because he “wanted to see both sides.” Although this is hearsay, it’s very believable. For me, it is impossible to want to understand one side of a political election that is based on hate, discrimination, and white nationalism. How can one care for and be intimate with people from communities that will be harmed by a political regime while refusing to protect that person’s rights?
As the project of black feminism has taught us, the personal is always political. This is essentially the grounding framework of my approach to researching and writing Heed the Hollow. Still, within a day of the book’s release, more things about my own work were made known to me.
Yesterday, I attended “‘With our freedom’: An Oracle in Honor of June Jordan,” a talk and experience by scholar, activist, and artist Alexis Pauline Gumbs at New York University. I have long admired Gumbs’s insistence on using the tools and skills gained from her graduate studies in literature and black feminist studies to engage communities. Knowing this, I was drawn to the event because I knew it would inspire something about the play I’m currently working on in which I’m questioning issues of queer desire and ideas of freedom. As part of the oracle, Gumbs asked us to consider a question June Jordan asked at the end of her article “Nicaragua: Why I Had to Go There” (Essence Magazine, January 1984): When will we seize the world around us with our freedom? She then encouraged us to ask questions in response to this, which she answered by pointing to certain directions in Jordan’s work and archive. For one such response she invoked Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights,” a poem I often use in my undergraduate courses to discuss protest, social justice writing, intersectionality, and feminist thought.
Engaging with Jordan’s poem reminded me of “The Body Politic,” a poem included in Heed the Hollow that I wrote as I began questioning why I was using the word “body” so much in the poems I was writing. One part in particular (“Despite this black // president, I’m thinking slum / lords and thug porn”) was in response to when I was teaching a first-year writing class about how black people could not participate in the body politic of the nation. One student commented, “But we have a black president.” Despite his comment, it was a moment in which I realized how much students were learning when others in the room began to engage his thinking before I could address the situation.
One of my friends bought two copies of Heed the Hollow, one for herself and the other she planned to gift to a judge she worked with in the courts. In trying to decide whether she should gift the book (due to the nature of the book, I advised her against it), she said the judge might like it because she’s interested in civil rights. Though I wrote the book about my subject position as a black queer southerner, I had not considered how civil rights fit within that. But after being reminded of the gifts that are June Jordan and her work, I think my friend’s insight is quite astute.
Is it a coincidence that Heed the Hollow was published on Election Day? Perhaps. But it’s most certainly no mistake. I want to celebrate the book and the work that went into it. Within that, there is also room to heed what Jordan calls attention to in “Poem about My Rights”;
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul
Here, Jordan is specifically speaking to the experiences of black women in both private and public domains. Yet, her words and intent don’t stop there. I’m not going to provide an analysis of Jordan’s poem here, but I do want to point us in a direction. And that direction is taking into account other people’s freedom and rights. Unlike the speaker in the last lines of these cited lines, some people can, in fact, do what they want with their mind, body, and soul. Or at least feel like they can. (Isn’t this, after all, the function of white supremacy?) Others of us cannot.
And the question still remains: When will we seize the world around us with our freedom? To answer that we must confront what freedom means to us and what freedom means for other people: the disenfranchised, the traumatized, those at “the bottom,” to invoke my own book. I promise, there is room for it all.