Let’s talk narratives.
Frederick Douglass, among other African Americans in the 1800s, wrote about himself. His autobiography, Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, falls under the genre “slave narrative,” which Professor Fahs defines as having these qualities:
The genre offered an autobiographical perspective with a propagandistic intent. To do so, among other techniques, Douglass draws sympathy from his audience to strengthen his argument. We have, therefore, intensely emotional language and imagery; the detailed story of struggle; the call for action from the marginalized and abused.
Let’s jump to today. I’m a big fan of spoken word poetry. One night, I walked into an open mic venue in Pomona and heard cries against injustice, heartbreak, insecurity, and humanity being shouted in a rhythmic amalgamation of words, and I haven’t left since. Spoken word can be traced back to ages before any of us were born: The Iliad was a spoken epic, for instance. But in its modern form as shorter, narrative bursts, the genre arose during the Harlem Renaissance, a time of “rebirth of [the] African American arts.” (Are you seeing my connection here?)
In light of today’s social consciousness, slam is back. Sometimes it’s funny; it’s tragic; it’s trivial; it’s politically focussed– sometimes, it’s all of that mashed together, and I love it. Here are two examples I highly encourage that you watch. (Trigger warning: intense emotions and graphic language.)
The power of words is quite frankly shocking. These poems are recent, but I have listened to them more times than I can count. I cannot recall an instance in which I’ve listened to Johnson’s narrative without crying; a time where I wasn’t as angry and bitter as Dang was by his closing words.
“And taste blood.”
That’s what the audience is meant to do. We are tasting Johnson’s fear, sorrow, and anger as he paints us the picture of his helpless nephew. We are tasting Dang’s outrage and resentment in his hateful open letter. Their tones, their words, their stories: all of this creates an expressive narrative, but it is also a call. Stop Wahlberg; stop profiling; stop racism.
Spoken word is really not that different from the slave narrative. True, not all spoken word is politically driven; most of it isn’t. I have heard declarations of love and exclamations of beauty, not just propaganda. People are meant to be heard; it’s why we have voices. But sometimes it is, and suffering is more than just suffering. That’s the beauty of these two genres. They are autobiographical and sometimes, simply entertainment. Yet, the can be used for a movement.
Spoken word for minorities today is not stopping racism and marginalization, and slave narratives didn’t immediately do that either. Spoken word does, however, spread the message. It does allow people like Johnson and Dang to tell their stories. It does create the sympathy Douglass sought after, and it does expose the realities of today’s minorities. It has the same purpose.
In that, sometimes the times don’t change, even when the words do.
Now, to end this off tying the two together, here’s a spoken word titled “All Lives Matter: 1800s Edition.” Warning: copious sarcasm.
Dang, Alex and Button Poetry. “Dear Mark Wahlberg.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 1 Sept 2015. Web. 10 Jan 2016.
“Harlem Renaissance.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
Johnson, Javon and Button Poetry. “cuz he’s black.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 Nov 2015. Web. 10 Jan 2016.
Martinez, Frederico. “Minority Poetry Inspires Call to Action.” Toledo Blade. N.p., 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
McPherson, Anthony and Button Poetry. “All Lives Matter: 1800s Edition.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 12 Oct 2015. Web. 10 Jan 2016.
Ouellet, Debbie. “Return of the Spoken Word.” Culture Unplugged. N.p., 18 June 2009. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
“Spoken Word.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.