Religion, Race and Resistance: Two Triangle poets take up the cause

Two recently published slim volumes by Triangle writers Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Dasan Ahanu attest to the power of poetry to build a greater sense of community in troubled times.

Filtered through the lens of race, both volumes offer layered and nuanced commentary about the ongoing struggle for human rights in an increasingly beleaguered America.

Gumbs’ book, “Spill: scenes of black feminist fugitivity,” was published in October by Duke University Press.

Gumbs, in addition to being a poet, is an independent scholar and activist, who founded and is also the director of Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, an educational program in Durham.

Inspired by the work of black feminist intellectual Hortense Spillers, Gumbs’ collection of poems appear as a series of powerful scenarios. Reading the volume is akin to being a member of a theatre audience. The fourth wall is peeled away and one is suddenly witness to heartbreaking, inspiring and insightful scenes depicting fugitive black women and girls – unsung and celebrated “sheroes” – seeking freedom from gendered violence and racism.

Her poem, “For Phillis Wheatley,” revisits this country’s first published African American female poet, who was born in West Africa and sold into slavery when she was a child:

sits facing window pane wondering who will vouch for her black ink shaped

by her deep-lined hands brown as oak and interlaced now. and

who will be a witness and what drum call to remember. the sound

of her writing is the quietest dance made to tiptoe over ocean.

tree floor drum trunk may you reach. mother tilt back west and

hear me.

Ahanu’s poetry volume, “Everything Worth Fighting For: An exploration of being Black in America,” published by the indie press, Flowered Concrete, is a manifesto of sorts that recalls his literary ancestors, Amiri Baraka and August Wilson.

Ahanu, among the cadre of new black southern poets, is a former professor at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh and the current artist in residence at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, where he works to bring poetry to rank and file communities.

His book’s first poem, “Modern Fruit,” speaks to the dilemma of young black men in America dying at the hands of the police in much the same way poets of old protested the dismal prospect of lynchings:

Strange fruit no longer hangs from southern trees

They walk down streets in hoodies while being hunted

They drive cars stopped by overseeing officers

They sleep on their grandmother’s sofa and never wake up

Strange fruit bears seeds they sometimes never see fully bloom

Yes they bloom through concrete streets

Still stained with yesterday’s blood

Strange fruit prays

Sometimes too quick to forgive

They yell for help

They run

Strange fruit sings

They resist

Strange fruit becomes hashtags and names on signs

They record themselves being cut down and tossed aside

And the world continues to consume them.

Pick them up. Gumbs and Ahanu both sing in voices well worth reading.

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald