Black poetry is a rich field, with so many luminaries to light the way. Yet, often when I read black literature, I experience a feeling of trying to “catch up,” to read everything that has come before me and understand all the ways that blackness has shaped and been shaped by this country.
With newer waves of poets, it seems there is a beautiful bridge building between older generations and younger ones, between twentieth century experiences of blackness and twenty-first century realities.
In Drapetomania: All of the Ways in Which I am Black by Sami Arlenis-Frederick, I found a new poetic voice sharing her truths of race, gender, and more.
Sami pitched me her poetry book with its opening words:
in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright
determined the negro slave’s desire to flee captivity
was due to a mental illness in which he titled
I was immediately ensnared by the idea of a collection of writings interrogating this idea, and asked her to send me the full review copy.
In Drapetomania, I found poems that are presented simply, yet dive deep and cover so many current issues in blackness, from gentrification and violence to kinship among black women and beauty standards. The progression of the poems is a bit like a slow burn, and in fact fire imagery comes in multiple time throughout the collection. There are also little doodled illustrations that go along with several of the poems, adding to their fullness.
Sami herself speaks so much more eloquently about her work that I ever could, so I wanted to share an interview between us, where she talks about her inspirations for the collection and the importance of poetry in her world, as well as for social justice.
Q&A with Sami Arlenis-Frederick, author of Drapetomania:
Where can people find you and your work online?
I have to admit that I read more fiction than poetry, but something about the description of your collection really hooked me. What draws you to use poetry as a medium for exploration and expression?
I’ve always been extremely fond of poetry — traditional and spoken word alike. I started writing short poems when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and then I started writing pieces to enter poetry slams when I became a teenager. My mother and grandmother were storytellers. They were always able to express a sentiment, or articulate a point of view to me using words, by putting life lessons into stories and poetry, and I believe that is what inspired me to attempt to use poetry as my own form of expression.
I love that you start off with information about the word “drapetomania.” Where did you first encounter that word, and how did it come to inspire your book of poetry?
My stepfather mentioned the word Drapetomania to me when I was about 15. Its meaning struck me so hard that I wrote several poems titled Drapetomania all throughout my teenage years. I lost a couple of the poems and some of them I felt were too mediocre for such a powerful title. I held onto the word for years, I incorporated it into so many of my conversations and my writings. I wanted everyone to know the word and know its meaning. I wanted the world to know that once upon a time, a black person’s desire to be free was considered to some a form of mental illness. And when writing this anthology of poems titled Drapetomania, I wanted the world to know that we still currently face the issue of being classified as mentally ill or “crazy” or “odd” as black people who strive to free themselves from stereotypes.
You cover a lot of themes in your work, including family, gender, self-image, violence, drug use, and gentrification. Did you know when you started writing the poems that you wanted to cover those issues, or did it happen naturally?
I definitely feel it happened naturally. I decided to finally let myself speak honestly about all of the things I’ve personally felt in my black skin and I believe as a result of this, each topic naturally found its way into this anthology.
What is your favorite poem from the collection and why?
“3rd Degree Black” is currently my favorite poem within the book. While writing it, I felt I was able to speak about so many personal fires I saw so many of the black people in my life set, and the ones they allowed to burn them down. I wrote this poem and wept.
Which other writers/poets/historical figures do you most admire?
I absolutely adore Maya Angelou. Lucile Clifton, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde are a few of my forever favorites in terms of poetic inspirations. Living in Harlem, there were also black people to discover to inspire me and I grew up reading quotes and writings from members of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and all of these other people who were constantly helping to shape shift many of my ideas and the ways I viewed myself as a black girl. I’m always stumped when asked who I admire the most because I feel so many people, both living and dead are directly responsible in many different ways for the person I currently am. It’s become so hard for me to try to measure my admiration.
Do you see poetry as a medium for social change? Why or why not?
Definitely. I feel the many different genres of literature each hold unique responsibilities regarding their role in evoking social change. With poetry, I feel its sole purpose is to bring social change. People do not read poetry just to find out what happens to a character at the end or to learn the reason behind why some birds fly South for the winter. People often read poetry to feel someone else’s ideas — to think about other people’s feelings. You read poetry or you listen to it and it causes you to think about the things people feel and it causes you to feel a certain way about the things people (poets) think. Poetry puts you in a position to understand. I think that is the driving factor behind any social change — executing a sense of understanding amongst people that helps bring about things such as empathy and compassion and respect.
You chose to close your book with mwisho, the Swahili word for “end” — was there a special significance to that decision?
One of the first books I ever owned was a children’s book titled, Furaha Means Happy: A Book of Swahili Words, that was given to me when I was around six or seven. This was my first solid introduction to Africa, the continent. I had always heard of Africa in a way that often made me think of it as a country. So to learn about Kenya and Swahili, and to learn that they were only one of the many countries and languages of Africa, it blew me away. I started writing poetry a couple years later and I titled a lot of my poems Swahili words I learned from different books. Incorporating Swahili at the end of this book acted as a quirky personal remembrance of the Swahili I started so many poems with when I first started writing poetry.
Anything else you’d like to share about your work?
This collection of poetry elicited an incredible amount of courage from me to share with the public. As a black woman, I never want to misrepresent black people, whether it be black women or black men. So when I’d write about being black, I’d constantly ask myself, “Am I representing my people in a negative mannerism?” I asked myself that for so long that it got to a point where I silenced myself and lost my voice in an attempt to speak only glitter and gold about black people. It took me a long time to realize that the only responsibility assigned to me when writing about the black experience was to tell the truth. When I finally let myself talk about things like colorism and violence and drugs, I felt emancipated. I learned how to critique all that I praise with this collection of poetry.