The catharsis of revolutionary lyricism

I rang in the New Year at Busboys and Poets at the intersection of 14th and V in Washington, DC. The event was an intersection in more ways than one in that it attracted poetry enthusiasts from all walks of life. Attendees shared everything from erotic poetry to angry rants against the political status quo, and it ended with an impressive performance by a freestyling Boricua woman from Massachusetts. What I shared was more intimate and personal: I spoke to the audience about my struggles with addiction, about my hospitalizations, and about the ways in which the juridical-medical-carceral-military-industrial complex affects us all as individuals, from the relatives we’ve lost to the breathable atmosphere we’re losing.

January 1 having begun, I returned to my car. Tuning in to C-SPAN, a live speech by Elizabeth Warren in Boston came on the air. She invoked the timeless verses of Phillis Wheatley as she made the case for a Warren Presidency.

I couldn’t help but feel that, by listening to this speech, I had ended the night on a sour note. Were Wheatley alive today, as even the most casual reader of her poetry should realize, she would be aghast at the appropriation of her words by an individual who is a member of, and who seeks to elevate her position in, a fundamentally broken system that oppresses Wheatley’s people in ways that beggar belief.

The defining characteristics of Wheatley’s poetry are her expressions of faith in the Creator and her impassioned calls for the Kingdom of God to be brought about on Earth through the action of those fortunate enough to be alive. Warren’s politics, however, revolve around the hackneyed idea that America will be restored to sanity through the sensible application of neoliberal managerial practices. Far from being the socialist her Republican nemeses portray her to be, she is in fact merely the latest exponent of trans-Atlantic, post-Cold-War liberalism in the vein of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown. Indeed, Warren has described herself in the past as “a capitalist to [her] bones.” Capitalism, of course, is built from barrels of refined sugar and hogsheads of tobacco ripped from the bleeding, broken backs of the enslaved, indentured, colonized masses of every continent. Wheatley must be rolling in her grave.

Akala leaps to mind:

As I stared into the shattered shards of glass, I could see the past And grasp the vast entire history of the rhyming art: The last of the great griots of Timbuktu Memorizing the secret histories, propaganda and truths, The ones considered too important to be written. They memorized it and rhymed it, the earliest form of spitting.

On this track, Akala speaks of the Afro-diasporic oral-poetic tradition as a continuum of resistance from Dutty Boukman to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Wheatley undoubtedly forms an important “link in [this] chain,” given the revolutionary import of her verses. I believe Akala’s conception of the unity of poetic experienced can be freely generalized.

Much as Wheatley herself did all those centuries ago, the performers at the open mic night had used words to shape a new reality, one defined not by the vagaries of contemporary politics but by moral certainties that sidestep such fleeting concerns. We collectively tapped into something deeply human that transcends the arbitrary lines of class, gender, race, and sexuality. Everyone who spoke that night had a powerful story to share, and the joy we felt in connecting to one another was palpable. Unlike Wheatley, all of us were fortunate enough to have avoided the brutal realities of chattel slavery. Nevertheless, we retain her power to transmute suffering into beauty. It is a universal ability and right to express oneself in such a way, but it is one that only some of us elect to exercise.

Listening to Warren call upon Wheatley to make a self-aggrandizing rhetorical point profaned my ears, particularly on a night of otherwise uplifting lyricism. Should she prevail in the battle for the Democratic nomination, I would of course prefer her to the unreconstructed racist Philistine who currently occupies the White House. That does not change the fact that the Boricua freestyle rapper had far more in common with Wheatley than Warren ever will.

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