By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
I don’t care if your nanny was Black
and you ate grits for breakfast every morning
and you knew a Black girl in high school
and she was nice
I don’t care, because
Michael Griffith is dead
killed by White youths
who got off free, even though witnesses
testified to their crime
I don’t care you hear
I don’t care, because
for too long we have held our pain in our flesh
for too long our bleeding hearts in our chests
for too long our eyes have seen
what they can no longer bear to see
Our anger will rise like a red flood
and spread across this land
tear down monuments built on our blood
cast away false idols
and like Joshua, tear down the walls of this Jericho
Excerpt from “I Don’t Care If Your Nanny Was Black”, by Dr. Afua Cooper from the CD, Worlds of Fire (in Motion).
April is National Poetry Month in Canada and the USA and according to information on the website of the League of Canadian Poets (LCP): “Established in Canada in April 1998 by the League of Canadian Poets (LCP), National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture. The year 2015 marks the 17th anniversary of National Poetry Month in Canada.”
Information from an American National Poetry website credits Black History Month as the inspiration for establishing National Poetry Month: “National Poetry Month was inspired by the success of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. In 1995, the Academy of American Poets convened a group of publishers, booksellers, librarians, literary organizations, poets, and teachers to discuss the need and usefulness of a similar month long holiday to celebrate poetry.”
The site also defines poetry: “Poetry is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language – such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre – to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.”
The Mayor of Toronto, in acknowledging “National Poetry Month” declared: “WHEREAS April is recognized across the country as National Poetry Month. It is the birth month of William Shakespeare, the immortal poet of English and the month in which we most enthusiastically celebrate the poetic arts.
“Toronto is proud to celebrate its own long tradition of poetic excellence stretching back to the 19th century. Poetry plays an important role in the city’s cultural life with readings and poetry slam events for adults and youth taking place every week throughout the year.
“In 2001, the City of Toronto became the first Canadian municipality to appoint its own Poet Laureate who acts as an ambassador and advocate for poetry, language and the arts. Many events that are taking place to celebrate the poetic arts are spearheaded by Toronto’s Poet Laureate.
“The City of Toronto acknowledges the power of poetry and encourages citizens to read, write, speak and perform poetry throughout the month of April.”
I found it interesting that our esteemed Mayor would include reference to Shakespeare’s birthdate (no birth records exist for Shakespeare, who was baptized on April 26, 1564) in his declaration recognizing the 17th Canadian National Poetry Month. I was not surprised since our Mayor does not recognize White skin privilege and whole heartedly supports “carding”. We are in for a tough four years; hopefully, with our eyes wide open we will not make the same mistake in 2018 that we did in 2014. However, this is about poetry, not politics, although there is political poetry.
As a matter of fact, much of poetry can be considered political. The poetry of Toronto’s Poet Laureate, Dr. George Elliot Clarke, is culturally political. In his 1990 “Whylah Falls”, a mythical town in Nova Scotia is described: “Founded in 1783 by African-American Loyalists seeking Liberty, Justice, and Beauty, Whylah Falls is a village in Jarvis County, Nova Scotia. Wrecked by country blues and warped by constant tears, it is a snowy, northern Mississippi, with blood spattered not on magnolia but on pines, lilacs, and wild roses.”
Describing a mythical Nova Scotia town peopled by African Canadians or, as Dr. Clarke prefers, “Africadians” as: “a snowy, northern Mississippi, with blood spattered not on magnolia but on pines, lilacs, and wild roses”, is reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” with “blood on the leaves and blood on the root” and definitely political.
In Whylah Falls, one of the characters Clarke includes is based on Graham Cromwell, an African Canadian man from Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, who was killed in 1985 by a White man who not surprisingly was acquitted by an all-White jury.
Clarke published Execution Poems in 2000 in which he addresses the White supremacist culture of Canadian society that leads to the impoverishment of African Canadians and ended in tragedy for George and Rufus Hamilton in 1949 when they were hanged in New Brunswick.
Clarke’s Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues, published in 1983, includes references to the historic African Canadian “Africville” community of Nova Scotia, which was destroyed by the government of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In his 1999 Beatrice Chancy, Clarke writes about a common result of the enslavement of African women; rape by White men. In Beatrice Chancy, set in 1801 Nova Scotia, Beatrice Chancy, the result of a rape by her slave owning father of her enslaved African mother, is in turn raped by the White man, who is her biological father. Beatrice Chancy is hanged after her rapist/owner/father is killed in revenge for her rape.
Clarke, Dr. Cooper and many other African Canadian poets write and perform their poetry at various events throughout the year not only in April. Poetry is an art form that is part of the culture of ancient civilizations on the African and Asian continents. Poetry has been used to express emotions, pain, love, loss, happiness etc., Poetry has been used since before there were systems of writing when it was recited and sung as a way of remembering history, genealogy and law.
Poetry, like “The Rose That Grew From Concrete”, by the late African-American rapper, Tupac Amaru Shakur, can be inspirational:
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.