The Black Voice on Being a Public Text

I had the opportunity to attend a reading done by Roxanne Gay for her new memoir, Hunger. She began with this explanation of the book’s origin: “When you are fat, especially when you are fat and black, your body becomes a public text.” It resonated with me, as I was steeped in my own otherness at all times, held up to a harsh light and appraised from every angle through a loupe. The black writer knows that our otherness defines us, and that otherness creates our public text persona. The way we might talk about a new film with friends and strangers alike, the way we might have a roundtable discussion about a classic work of literature or a salient opinion piece, the black body must survive in that space. We are personified in all forms of media, and yet our own selves remain a mystery. It is tenuous place between the realm of being unknown and being constantly seen; a driving force in much of African American literature is the liminality of this running commentary. I would like to examine two poetry texts that really dig into this notion, but I would argue many texts talk about the running commentary of the white imagination placed upon African Americans, works as diverse as Kevin Young’s essay “Blacker than Thou,” the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and even the hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. The anxieties and pressure of being a public text are found within these texts, but by focusing on Citizen by Claudia Rankine and There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, I hope to illuminate how the African American writer uses their work to reconstruct life underneath this microscope.

Even from the outset of both books, the public nature of being African American is on full display. Claudia Rankine uses a vision of a severed hoodie as the cover of her book. This, of course, refers to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, whose murder at the hands of George Zimmerman became a point of controversy on how the hooded sweatshirt is used as a marker of a “thug” or deviant when on the body of an African American male. Zimmerman created a narrative of Martin’s hooded figure and erased his humanity, creating the text that would kill Martin. While most sane people would argue that the shooting death was tragic, some blamed Zimmerman’s decision to pull the trigger on Trayvon’s clothing. These debates not only happened behind the shuttered windows in the private intimacy of our homes, but they were debated in our public forums, our televisions, radios, and social media. It was as if Trayvon Martin’s dead body was on display for criticism from a population that neither had his experiences nor attempted to make his experiences in any way seem human. Rankine’s cover brings back all of those vitriolic memories from those days in 2012. Parker’s book has a cover which features garish bricolage of strong chartreuse against tan against cream against lemons against tiger stripes against leopard spots against floral patterns against wood paneling. It is an image that has been taken out of itself and chopped into multiple pieces and made ridiculous by the nature of its own oddity. What we see is a faceless black woman’s body splayed across a couch in a position in which she either looks completely relaxed or strung out. What we see are her long legs opened dangerously, her throat exposed, and her hands and head draped lifelessly. She is open for the reader to examine her body without her consent. She is open to interpretation. Is she resting? Is she dead? Is she safe? The cover page offers no answers to those questions.

Rankine’s book contains a series of prose poems, written in second person, taken from true stories of micro aggressions and aggressions. The reader inhabits the skin of another, and is exposed to the tradition of swallowing one’s own tongue in a moment, such as: “When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, ‘I didn’t know you were black’.” His surprise at your race becomes the reader’s shame; you are invited into the experience of being thought about but never thought of and not having your own thoughts ever brought into the conversation for consideration. It is a running commentary throughout each of the micro aggressions presented in the book, where white people’s comfort often supersedes the humanity of the African Americans they encounter: “Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to the other that being around black people it’s like watching a foreign film without translation.” Rankine expounds upon these moments in a lyric essay about tennis player Serena Williams and her persona— a tough and angry exterior, muscly and aggressive— perpetuated not by Serena’s personhood but by commentators, fellow athletes, and fans. The essay includes the image of Carolina Wozniacki stuffing her tennis skirt to mock Williams, whose muscular athleticism and thick full figure are up for the scrutiny of critics, who question her femininity and legitimacy. But really this mockery to me points toward another: Saartjie Baartman; her true name erased from any known ledger, but her body was on display and for use, turned into a sex doll, a political cartoon, a freak show. Her exaggerated buttocks drew ridicule and curiosity and condemnation and deviant pleasure. Saartjie is whom Wozniacki mocks, and Williams, and Rankine, and myself— the black body as a concept and not as individual. My body is up for scrutiny under such pressures.

Morgan Parker uses this lens of scrutiny as she writes about the various black public figures, namely Beyoncé and the scrutiny placed upon her after her pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-self revolution. Parker sees Beyoncé vivisected and under the microscope in an autopsy of her character. She was once meant to evoke comfort. But now, having donned a black beret and taken words from radical poets, and danced the Mothers of the movement? “Guess what, Beyoncé?” asked Tomi Lahren, conservative commentator, “White people like your music too. Little white girls want to be like you just as little black girls do. But instead of recognizing that, you’d rather perpetuate the great battle of the races.” Parker’s “White Beyoncé” is a figure who is generically harmless, toothless, and meaningless. She and her family are made of archetypal moments, a smattering of vague gestures and trappings of a dull, safe, wealthy life. Her family is nuclear yet without fire, “un-revolutionarily flawless.” This is the Beyoncé molded by a previous perception of the real person. When she was colorless, Beyoncé was everywoman, but now she is black, and she is a point of order at the meeting. Other poems explore this idea as well, such as “13 ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” a series of adjectives and names, and the word “sex” repeated in a refrain of judgment. The poem “The Afro” examines the “secrets and weapons in there,” meaning hair of a proud black women, hair of a woman who knows herself, hair that grows from root to tip in long tendrils like wild grapes and ivy, long since unshackled from a domesticating hand. In the poem Parker understands that what lies within the curls and kinks of her proud afro are all of the secrets, all of the delicate pieces that make up black culture, all of the things we cherish as African Americans, such as: “Miss Holiday’s vocal cords, the jokes Dave Chappelle has been crafting off the grid,” all of which Parker notes are “exactly what a white glove might expect to find taped to my leg and swallowed down my gullet and locked in my trunk and fogging my dirty mind and glowing like treasure in my autopsy.” These white glove expectations are far from innocuous, weaponized and secretive and born within the tendrils of violent hair. Within the TSA process in United States’ airports, the body is always under scrutiny of the agents. Often women with Afros are stopped, and their hair becomes the subject of intense search. On a family trip to Orlando, a TSA agent combed her gloved fingers through my hair, checking for weapons and radicalism between each strand of curl. She waved a metal detector wand around my head to ensure that I was safe enough for her comfort. The body in this poem (and by the body, I mean the hair, and by the hair, I mean the afro, and by the afro, I mean the black soul) is up for examination, is seen as a threat. A threat to security, in particular.

I sit in the fold of a chair, watch two strangers greet each other in their native tongue, relieved to see a fellow stranger from home. And I wonder what they see in me, scrutinizing the gestures of this black woman. I collapse into these words of poetry and use them to examine my own self. It is necessary to recognize that I am being watched. These poets use language to bring power to this phenomenon, give it a name and let it rest on the tongue. The poems shout in tandem with the African American experience, harmonizing in our native and singing the friendly words, “You are not alone.”

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Kayla Chenault is an African American who resides in the northern Midwest region of the United States. She was published in childhood starting from age 7. She is currently completing a Master’s in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University.

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