Q&A: ‘Drapetomania’ Explores Blackness and Social Justice through Poetry

Drapetomaniawho do we charge with arson?
the one who cooks the crack
or the one who smokes it?
who do we blame for all of that blaze?
-from “3rd degree black” in Drapetomania by Sami Arlenis-Frederick

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
Drapetomania.

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.

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Q&A with Sami Arlenis-Frederick, author of Drapetomania:

Sami Arlenis-Frederick

Where can people find you and your work online?

Drapetomania: All of the Ways In Which I Am Black is currently listed on Amazon, and I have an Author’s Page on Goodreads.

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.

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Post-VONA Reflection

I’ve always been someone who struggles not to silence herself.

I fought a little internal skirmish in trying to decide whether it was “worth it” to post anything about my VONA experience, when I felt sure my words would fall flat. I fear trite words, over-generalizations, and cliches in describing such a profound space. But I am a learning writer, and you can’t grow without falling flat a few times.

Besides, that’s what VONA is all about, isn’t it? Risking. Learning. Growing. I knew I had to say something to mark it’s completion.

VONA/Voices is this crazy, beautiful experience where writers of color from all over the country, and the globe, come together to create, talk, share, and live in their identities as worldbuilders and conveyors of spirit. My tribe this time was speculative fiction.

Workshop notes
Just a few notes from workshop.

It hit me like a truck, absolutely leveled me, to understand for a few precious days how much we as writers of color have to say. You forget, when you read and see only the bestselling POC authors that there are actually way more than one or two narratives on any particular trauma, issue, identity, you-name-it story. There are infinite narratives, in fact, because every single one of ours is different.

I feel humbled. I feel graced. I feel like I’m in a whirlwind right now trying to figure out how I want to move forward with this beautiful gift of being a part of, being seen, being heard.

I’m especially thankful that VONA piqued my curiosity again about my own work, at a time when I’ve been struggling with the weight of the daily grind, and with losing sight of my “why.” I’m reminded that I do this because I want to get to know myself as a writer. I want to hear and fall in love with my own voice, and I want to be part the conversation and community of others looking to do the same. We build something bigger and stronger together.

To be honest, I’m still spinning. It’s going to take some time for me to settle back into my fiction practice, my self-care practices, and my routines. But I think that’s what I need to do ultimately — pour this energy back into my writing.

After all, it’s the way we move.

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Novel Writing as a Woman of Color: My Inspirations for NaNoWriMo 2014

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This month I embarked on a journey that I’ve set out upon only once before — to write an entire novel in 30 days.

Well, to be more specific I’m continuing a novel that I previously started. I had about 13,000 words sketched out on a story that’s loosely based on a period of my life in DC, and I decided to add 50,000 words to it during the month of November. Ambitious? Certainly. Achievable? Yes.

Two years ago I started a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) novel from scratch. I was impressed with myself for having made it almost halfway through — hitting the 22,000 word mark before losing the discipline and petering out for the rest of the month. I feel like I learned two things about myself through the trial: 1) that I have it in me to write a novel, and 2) that I have a need to write stories that connect to my direct experiences.

The second point is why I didn’t manage to finish my first shot at NaNoWriMo. I tried to write a story that was completely unconnected to race and gender struggles and had a hard time getting the words to resonate with me as I went on. This year, I’ve taken a different approach, talking about race, class, and gender issues through the lens of fiction.

I’m inspired by writers like Junot Diaz and Jesmyn Ward as I write — two authors who seem to draw heavily on personal experience and a strong sense of the cultures and geographies they represented or touched growing up. I couldn’t imagine either of them trying to write a story that wasn’t steeped in those personal backgrounds.

I’m also thankful as I write that I have the time and energy to be attempting something like a novel. I’m reminded why poetry, spoken word, and short stories are also really important mediums of writing to support. Many working class people of color may only have a few moments each day to write down a thought or a line they developed during the day, regardless of the untapped talent they might have. I also believe that poetry sometimes offers a means of expression that is gentler to the traumas that many people of color, and women and/or LGBTQ folks in particular might encounter. I’m thinking of the wonderful writing that Audre Lorde and Nikki Giovanni left for us to absorb, and I’m impressed with the bravery that so much of their writing required, particularly at the time it was published.

Finally, I’m happy about the ways writing a novel has helped me appreciate reading one. There’s nothing like trying to capture a scene with fresh and insightful wording to make me understand the talent and editing prowess of authors I read daily. Whatever I come out of this month with will certainly need a lot of love and editing attention, but it’s been a fun personal challenge, and I’m looking forward to reaching the finish line.

If anyone else is doing NaNoWriMo this year and wants to connect, you can find my profile here.