Poetry/Protest [Lily Luo] / by EMW Bookstore

I wrote this essay as I was thinking about, as Grace Lee Boggs challenges us to, how the (r)evolution we are pursuing today must look different than the ones from the past century. I wanted to focus on how the language we must use to talk about systems of oppression like racism will need to be different than the dominant expectations for a “cool and rational” discourse when it comes to talk of politics in the public realm. Reading Claudia Rankine’s experimental poetry book, Citizen, An American Lyric, and Audre Lorde’s essays on the importance of poetry opened my heart to the incredibly powerful transformative power of poetry to emotionally explain the experience of racism in a way that is rarely found in other mediums. Once I started looking at their philosophy and works, I began to see poetry all around me, in the protests at Wellesley and in the projects of my friends who are grappling with difficult questions about race and oppression. Poetry then can allow us to allow others into our emotional spaces and truths in a way that, as Gloria Anzaldúa puts it in Borderlands, can help us break out of the locks that bind us into “a duel of oppressor and oppressed locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence.” Instead, it creates a space where emotions are centered and we can better understand how it feels within the hearts of another human being we may not think we have much in common with.

* * *



By Lily Luo

Recently, Wellesley students, faculty, and staff marched in a demonstration called Taxi Cab 1969, exposing the many ways in which the Wellesley administration has been complacent about black issues. The protest was at once a powerful show of solidarity with students at Mizzou and a demonstration that Wellesley is not exempt from any of the issues raised there.  

We communicated, through poetry, the myriad of ways we are made to feel unwelcomed and unvalued on campus. There was poetry in the drumming by Yanvalou members as we marched. There was poetry in the chants, “Black Lives Matter” and “It might be Missouri, but it’s our story.” And there was poetry in the sharing of personal experiences with racism here on campus. By using poetry as a means of communication, we engaged with a long tradition of women of color using poetic testimony to speak when our voices have been deemed illegible. The value and effectiveness of this protest was not found in objective facts and figures, of which there are plenty, but rather the emotions that were expressed. The significance of the appalling statistics presented about the percentage of black students and faculty here at Wellesley lay not just in the numbers, but in the way that these numbers were being felt in classrooms and office hours on a regular basis.

Poetry as protest is a different means of communication. It is not about inviting the audience in to try and rationalize away your lived experiences; rather it is meant to draw others in to feel the emotional truths being expressed. As Claudia Rankine puts it, “how you feel is how you feel is how you feel even if what you perceive isn’t tied to what is” because at the end of the day, “what is?”[1]  Poetry brings value to the deeply personal and emotional truths that are so often obscured, devalued, or twisted into something ugly. Poetry, unlike other ways of describing institutional racism, tends to the lived experiences and emotions of the oppressed. As protest, it articulates, as Audre Lorde puts it,  “the farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears…cobbled [together] by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”[2] Poetry is a way to speak when one’s experiences cannot be expressed within the confines of statistical analysis and racialized and gendered norms of conversational discourse. .

One such poet, Claudia Rankine, did just this is her recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric. In this essay, I will show through an examination of her book the power that poetry has to provide a means for one to give testimony and bear witness to the personal effects of systemic oppression. I will then argue that as it exposes and critiques the state of “post-racial” America today, it also creates a new language for us to speak to one another. I will then explain how the work that she and numerous other poets have done is integral to the (r)evolution that our world so desperately needs. By poetry, I am referring to Audre Lorde’s understanding of it as the “revelation or distillation of experience” which combines imagination with insight.[3] By (r)evolution, I am referring to what Grace Lee Boggs sees as the “evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.”[4] Expanding our imagination of our own humanity dictates that we radically rethink our relationships with and how we relate to other human beings. In her lyric, Claudia Rankine examines this very thing as she delves deep into the experience of being in a black body in America.

A huge way that poetry is especially suited for giving a voice to oppressed peoples is in it’s valuation of the felt experience. For Claudia Rankine, the visceral and embodied experience of racism necessitates poetry to more fully capture the experience. In her book, Rankine describes through poetry the everyday experiences that put onto the black body, “the weight of nonexistence,” the visceral experience of which “send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs.”[5] The whole structure of her book is a collage of experiences, both personal and public, which leaves the reader with the understanding that there is nothing micro about a lifetime of racial aggressions. In order to counter that weight of nonexistence and the silencing of her voice in society, Rankine’s poetry gives testimony and bears witness to the countless instances in which she and her friends have been jolted out of daily conversations by the reminder that, at their very core, the people they are interacting with do not see them as full human beings. In one of her short recantations, she describes seeing a young black child being pushed the ground by an older white person. She describes, through the second person, the desire to have that child be seen by that man who has “perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.”[6] The mere act of writing this instance down, choosing to include it in her book, is an act of witnessing. So much of these daily interactions are not witnessed, not noted, not even paid attention to.

In an interview with Meara Sharma[7], Rankine herself describes the process of interviewing others in her community and asking them to recount instances of racism in their everyday lives. She describes them at first being hesitant, not being able to remember any such moments. Only after she prompts them with her own experiences do they begin to remember all these small instances. She notes that clearly these moments stayed with them, even if they weren’t available to their immediate consciousness. So much of racism and oppression is the internal effects. The self silencing. Writing it and publishing it is an act of witnessing. Of saying, I too have felt these moments, I see your pain because it is mine. And if you haven’t felt it, here is what it feels like on my body.

This point is exemplified in an early moment that she describes, when a close friend of hers calls her by the name of her black housekeeper. She writes, “after it happened I was at a loss for words.”[8] Poetry then is a way to recount, to bear witness retroactively to what could not be processed in the moment. As Audre Lorde puts it, “poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”[9] In this passage, Rankine clearly does find the words, retroactively, to describe what this moment felt like to her. She describes it as “send[ing] adrenaline to the heart, dry[ing] out the tongue, and clog[ing] the lungs.”[10] In this description, she is conveying the physical experience of being jolted out of your existence to realize that the way you see yourself, as a human being, as an individual with nuances and complications, is not how others see you in those moments. What is so effective about Rankine’s way of recounting a particular instance through poetry is that it describes not only to the lived experiences but also the emotions attached to them. As a poet, she understands that because those feelings are what we remember when we think back on the history of our lives, they are what is important to document.

Valuing emotions, in addition to validating and making visible the experiences of those who have been systematically silenced, is transformative in it of itself. As Lorde puts it, “as we become more in touch with our own ancient, black, non-European view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.”[11] Not only does Rankine cherish these feelings by placing them front and center in her descriptions of racism, she also brings out the potential for these feelings to disrupt the status quo. As she struggles with the feelings of anger and frustration that come with having to deal with being both invisible and hyper-visible as a black woman, she also notes the potential for these feelings to “be a hazard, a warning sign, a disturbance.”[12] She recognizes along with Lorde that “the angers of women can transform differences through insight into power.”[13]

Thus, her book reflects an expression of this anger using poetry as a way to tap into the emotional conduits that she still believes is active in all human beings. One major way that she does this is through the use of the second person. Throughout the entire book, in every story, instead of writing from the first person, she writes using the word “you” repeatedly. In many interviews, she’s mentioned that this is meant to draw the reader in and deliberately disorient white readers who have never experienced the kinds of stories she tells. In A poetics of resistance: women writing in El Salvatore, South Africa, and the United States, DeShazer points out that “readers of resistance poetry….are made complicit in the poet’s vision through an invitation to view, on the poet’s terms, the site of resistance as a shared location.”[15] Rankine makes the reader complicit by using the word “you” repeatedly and using highly descriptive emotional language to explain daily experiences of racism. In one particular poem, she further blurs the lines between the identity of the narrator and the reader by using “you” repeatedly in one verse:

And still the world begins its furious erasure --

Who do you think you are, saying I to me?

You nothing.

You nobody.


In this verse, she draws the reader in by describing the feeling of being made invisible by the world as, “its furious erasure.” She also blurs the lines of identity and consciousness between presumably two different beings, with the line, “saying I to me?” There is a certain degree of incomprehensibility in these lines, reflecting both Rankine’s belief that language often fails us and the incoherence of racism, causing even the words used to describe it to become incoherent. There are many more places in her book in which she strains against the limitations of language.  For example, in another poem she asserts that:

You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless

not worth you[16]

What would it even mean to be not worth yourself? In this passage, Rankine grapples with how to express the lesson of invisibility and worthlessness that black people have to learn in America. The last line especially is meant to show the impossibility of using words to describe an incoherent and incomprehensible system of racism. Nevertheless, even as Rankine is straining against the limitations of language itself, there is no bigger testament to a faith in poetry than the lyric itself. In fact, this struggle in it of itself, is precisely what Lorde is writing about when she claims that “where...language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps fashion it” for it is “not only a dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”[17]

Ultimately, Rankine does believe in “the possibility of another way of being.”[18] Poetry then is also vital to protest because it creates as it dismantles. It creates a different way of speaking, of understanding reality, of redefining the language that is deemed valid for public discourse. This language needs to be redefined because the pre-determined rules for public discourse in America fundamentally shuts out black voices. In an interview with Lauren Berlant[19], Rankine talks about the expectations “for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for ‘we are all just people here indifference.’” What allows poetry to break out of the pre-existing spaces and rules is its deeply personal and emotional “tone…[which allows] language to morph into a blanket or a gun,” both of which are needed in protest. For those who have experienced what she has, it is a blanket assuring them that their voices are heard and recorded through poetry. For those who might not have that same experience, or continue to perpetuate those systems which silence, her poetry is a bullet through the façade of a post-racial America.

In her book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” Grace Lee Boggs recognizes that “art can help us envision the new cultural images we need to grow our souls.”[20] She too sees the value in poetry’s ability to “liberate us from our preoccupation with constantly expanding production and consumption and open up space in our hearts and minds to imagine and create another America.”[21] Like Rankine, Boggs sees the potential for radically new conceptions of human relationships, one that operates outside of the dominant narratives of race and capitalism. She believes that in order to counter the dominant narratives destroying our world today, “each of us needs to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation” that will awaken us to a “personal and compassionate recognition of the inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies.”[22] By drawing the reader into certain painful experiences and demonstrating what an accumulation of such moments can do to a black body, Rankine shows her reader that very interconnection. By using emotions as the dominant lens through which to view racism, she facilitates that compassionate recognition. Boggs believes that radical political change can only happen when we “expand our imaginations, sensitivities, and capacity for wonder and love, for hope rather than despair, for compassion and cooperation rather than cynicism and competition, for spiritual aspiration and moral effort.”[23] As ugly as the truth that Rankine exposes can be, in the end she too believes in a possibility for understanding. If she did not, she wouldn’t need to use devices to draw the reader in, or beautifully craft poetry that dives straight to the heart of the emotional impact of racism.

While Rankine does not provide a clear answer on how one can break free from the daily oppressions, Lorde does. She asserts, “I feel therefore I can be free.”[24] She believes that “poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom.”[25]

In the end, I believe that there is no straightforward answer or solution. Poetry’s power is that it has the potential to reach people on a human level. One that does not try to erase our differences, but rather can invite others to our emotional spaces. The beauty of it is that it need not be limited to published poets or philosophers. As Boggs points out, “millions of people in the United States are part of this organically evolving cultural revolution” which “believe[s] in combining spiritual growth and awakening with practical actions in our daily lives.”[26] She believes that this moment represents a new kind of revolution unseen in the previous century, one that will be facilitated by a wide awakening to our collective humanness. Poetry plays a central role in this when it is “put to reconstructive use by those who would dismantle the ‘master’s house’ with tools other than his own.”[27]

If we believe that poetry is not limited to anthologies written, edited, and published by white men and protest is not only what we can visibly see and hear when the voices of those silenced scream out in direct action, then it follows then that poetry as protest is not limited to Rankine’s book or Audre Lorde’s essay, though they do give us glimpses at a new reality. It can be found in the spaces we create when we come together to share our personal narratives of experience of racism at a protest on our own campus. It can be found in the video project my friend Grace Park made for her class on the Korean War. In it, she grapples with the implications of being Korean American and serving as a member of the US army[28]. In the video, she puts on both a military uniform and a Hanbok while highlighting narratives of the Korean War which are often underrepresented in our history books. Like Rankine, she adds vital emotional context to those historical events. Like Rankine, her video shows the key human component to systems of oppression. Her video and the protest organized by the black students at Wellesley shows precisely what Grace Lee Boggs was seeing in the millions of people who are already part of this organically evolving (r)evolution.

We, all of us, are in charge of creating that new reality. We do not need, nor want, the old models for revolution.

Poetry represents a new model.



[1] Claudia Rankine. Citizen an American Lyric. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014), 152.

[2] Audre Lorde. "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984), 36.

[3] Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury." 36.

[4] American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Directed by Grace Lee. 2013. Film.

[5] Rankine, Citizen, 17.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Meara Sharma. "Blackness as the Second Person: Meara Sharma Interviews Claudia Rankine." Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics. November 16, 2014.

[8] Rankine, Citizen, 7.

[9] Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury." 36.

[10] Rankine, Citizen, 7.

[11 ] Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury." 36.

[12] Rankine, Citizen, 152.  

[13] Audre Lorde. 1997. “The Uses of Anger”. Women's Studies Quarterly 25 (1/2). The Feminist Press at the City University of New York: 278–85.

[14] Rankine, Citizen, 303.

[15] Ibid, 145.

[16] Ibid, 140.

[17] Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury." 36.

[18] Sharma, "Blackness as the Second Person: Meara Sharma Interviews Claudia Rankine."

[19] Lauren Berlant. "Claudia Rankine by Lauren Berlant." BOMB Magazine. 2014.

[20] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. "Chapter 1: These Are the Times to Grow Our Souls." In The next American Revolution Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 36.

[21] Ibid, 37.

[22] Ibid, 34.

[23] Ibid, 41.

[24] Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury." 36.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. "Chapter 1: These Are the Times to Grow Our Souls." 42.

[27] Mary K DeShazer. A Poetics of Resistance: Women Writing in El Salvador, South Africa, and the United States. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 311.

[28] Park, Grace, Final Project, AMST 238 (https://vimeo.com/148970595)

Works Cited

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Directed by Grace Lee. 2013. Film

Berlant, Lauren. "Claudia Rankine by Lauren Berlant." BOMB Magazine. 2014.

Boggs, Grace Lee, and Scott Kurashige. "Chapter 1: These Are the Times to Grow Our Souls." In The next American Revolution Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century, 28-51. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

DeShazer, Mary K. A Poetics of Resistance: Women Writing in El Salvador, South Africa, and the United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Lorde, Audre. "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 36. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.

Lorde, Audre. 1997. “The Uses of Anger”. Women's Studies Quarterly 25 (1/2). The Feminist Press at the City University of New York: 278–85.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Park, Grace, Final Project, AMST 238 (https://vimeo.com/148970595)

Sharma, Meara. "Blackness as the Second Person: Meara Sharma Interviews Claudia Rankine." Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics. November 16, 2014.