What to Read When You Need to Understand Structural Inequity
We urge you to care forever, not in infamous murders, not in our broken record, but forever, as a disruption that is united, and singular, a resistance and protest of the one self. We urge you, dear literary community, not to slip into History’s broken record, however long we must fight until none of us are murdered.
This list is not intended to be trendy or definitive; this “list” is sub-surface, a root system in our spiritual branches, listen to us constantly, and do not listen to us only when we are in pain. There are many types of burns, but there is the cooling stream of joy.
Hear us love, smile, and unify in happiness; help us maintain it by educating yourself and asking nothing from us to do so. Know that some of us are brown, and allies of the inequitable moment, but also alive family together in unity of the heart and poetry of joy.
To quote Toi Derricote, “Because there is too much to say / Because I have nothing to say… Because it hurts too much to say / What can I say what can I say… Something is stuffed like a body.”
Know that some of us are Black while being more than Black; know we are Black and gay while being more than Black and gay, that this humanity is poetry. This living document you read is difficult solely because corrosive structures—the Long Broken Record of structural inequity—have made it difficult.
This reading compendium is in some of the ways, consciousness, and we navigate that difficulty: living. Living documents, and unmarked lives on the unity, and hope, and the documenting of the living moment, not as a memorial but as a bastion of the brightness of the heart.
We, Jonathan Andrew Perez, and Prince Bush, have come together in this charge to family: to write, to read, to seek joy is the living emblem to float above erasure, to mark the unmarked graves and give stanza, line breaks, and imagery to our future humanity. We curate the following reading list, as a human consciousness, with problems, joy, fear, love, and searching for hope, built in the continuum of community and history. We have overcome this oppression in writing our whole for the intimacy of your readering, together, ecstatically conveying this charge.
Policing the Black Man edited by Angela J. Davis
This is an anthology of essays, each of which sharply unfolds the statistics, law, and historical constructs that pull the curtain from America’s criminal justice complex. A series of all-star essayists lay it all out: how Black men are disproportionately represented in prison, in arrest statistics, disproportionately treated in sentencing, and, with the failure of our systems, stand a monstrously whack likelihood of being killed or injured during a police encounter. Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Fund, writes on the long history of “racial terror” in the United States, born out of slavery, lynching, mass-policing and propagated by systems of white supremacy that ever-morph to new unidentified systems of oppression. It is not poetry. But it generates foundational realities on the history and practice of racial profiling, as well as implicit bias of law enforcement that [we] could respond or [not] joyously disrupt. If we move away from the carceral state in this epoch our lifetime, this collection will serve us well as a map of the grounding, bomb-like explosive devices that have been laid out through the long shadow of American history.
The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Centennial Edition by Hart Crane
Hart Crane is a poet who spoke in the jazz era, tackled and fiddled (successfully and unsuccessfully) with Elizabethan language, ecstatically embodied the American sublime through an amorousness for the faceless masses. Hart came from Ohio and landed in New York City, and felt the weight of its through-ports, the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge (in his book-length poem, The Bridge) and died too young. Critics often fit his work in the LGBTQ+ canon; his poetry is precise and free-flowing. Most prominently, he uses “side-footnotes” at historical moments, speaking about Indigenous America while also referencing jazz-music underbellies of the cosmopolitan urban 1930s. There is something futuristic about Crane, and joyful. He lives in the epochs of ecstatic historical resistance and struggle. WHAT JOY? you may exclaim, and I tell you, one thing—he hated T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Think of Crane as a uniquely joyful, [un]Wasteland, complexly overcome by the weight of history. All of this weighs on the poems, there, as real as the long shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
If Only the Sharks Would Bite by Jorrell Watkins
This chapbook, part of the Desert Pavilion Chapbook Series, is a gem. The poet puts the body out front, in short, and jokingly plays paddleball with race, stereotypes, and often with surprising twists at the end, by anatomically laid-out titles: “Tongue / Voice / Gums / Cheeks / Teeth / NeckAzz / Scalp / Blood / Lungs / Fist / Navel / Ear /Waist / Middle, Index, & Thumb / Hands.” The poems speak to the experience of a voice growing up poor and hungry—deliberately sensory—and delightfully unclear, as if the speaker is pissed off at us for making assumptions while we read! “Mama sold her food stamps, I’m on my own for supper” and at the end, “I’m hungry / I will not let you hear / this again.”
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
Duplex. Yes, Duplex. But beyond the Pulitzer (if there is a life beyond such a mountain of an achievement), beyond the entirety of a universe in as constrictive and simply delicious poems, as dense as little gem stones, like a collector along a river of priceless glowing pebbles, this collection is shimmering with Emily Dickinson, with police violence, with unmarked racial violence, and most deliciously, with Goddesses that are in the consortium of Diva. Tradition remains deeply bright, joyous and painful. It feels like an antique store in its simplicity and pre-existing archive, as one walks around the Southern US landscape, Blk Cities, and disarming. Brown writes: “We’re not interest in killing / White people or making them / Work”… The blk mind is a continuous / mind” … “Blk rage. Blk city of the soul / IN a very cold town. Blk ice is ice you can’t see.”
Turn Around, BRXGHT XYXS by Rosebud Ben-Oni
Ben-Oni has built a world that at once searches through the interior of a speaker whom the readers feels as if they know but who is also entirely strange, like walking on the moon. We glimmer into the alter ego of the persona Matarose, shining its reflective inner eye, as Fernando Pessoa, an imagined occultist of Latinx, Jewish, and feminist concave and convex arcs of visual and rhythmic parabolic microphones. This is the poetry of joy inwardly turned as it hopscotches through everyday trials and sublimity of existence. Ben-Oni is a soothsayer of wonder, and inner darkness from the world. A striking line resonates today: “These days I don’t need / To make a sound I’m pandemic.”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Where would [i/we/they/the inanimate intimate world of books on a shelf called poetry] be without Don’t Call Us Dead? Exhibiting the cataloguing of Black boyhood and resurrecting intimate fireworks from the ashes of violence, the voices here are drawn out like a long twang of an instrument, forever resounding, at higher and lower decibels reading and re-reading with every year that passes, every month, every minute: “family / gathered around my barely body telling me to go / toward myself”—it won’t be a bullet.
Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq
America’s history is inseparable from Black history, gay history, Black and gay history, and the histories of those marginalized. Part of America’s structure is erasure in the name of what bell hooks would call imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy, and Tariq masterfully places a Black and gay life in the context of the entire United States, the South, and the poetry canon—areas that have violently shunned that very life. This poetry collection is a gerund: reclaiming vital space, building homes for Tariq’s literal and metaphorical “black bottom,” which could also be a home for you, which very well may be you.
Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon scrutinizes the differences between how white people view Blackness, how Black people view each other, and how both of those influence how an individual Black person regards themselves. Felon argues that the policing and the prison industrial complex is tangled in this whole process, how Black “loss invents the geometry” of Black lives: driving one’s kids to school becomes driving kids that could have been Tamir Rice, that could be in the future. This collection illustrates Du Bois’s double-consciousness, the struggle with living presently with the past always there, with the future always disappearing.
Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay
Kingdom Animalia is a collection in love with nature and humanity. There’s a self-portrait of a snail, snake, airplane; an elegy for a stone; and a celebration of kindness—and these are all “black day[s],” moments of Black joy, examination, and oneness with the universe. The articulate lines of “&” represent some of the main arguments of Aracelis Girmay’s collection: “blackness / making neighbors / of us all. Dark / like the dark / sign of / infinity / but even more,” using brown skin as the channel to understand one another, oneself, and the world, and not seeing this as an obstacle but something heartening and lovely. Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia truly is alive.
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
The South is complicated enough for a collection, and Natasha Tretheway beautifully tackles the juxtaposition of both loving and questioning where one is from, not only as a Black person, but also as a biracial person, which has its own implications imposed by America and then by the self. Native Guard is a tribute “for the Native Guards— / 2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx,” for union indeed, with a state that tries to refuse Blackness, with a Black mother and white father, and with one’s personal and national history. The tasks of Tretheway’s collection are daunting but surmountable—a Black perseverance.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is exactly what it says it is. The poems in this collection thank the world and what it’s created; the tangible, like the body, and intangible, its patience and love for others; and the reader, for their time. The speaker breaks the fourth wall frequently, letting the reader know at times they have diffidence, but continue anyway. In doing that, Gay is generous, and allows uncertainty, and for uncertainty to exist alongside love and joy. There is pain in this collection, and what resonates most is not the surviving, but the overpowering of it. Black pain. Black power. Gay’s unique joy is no secret or magic trick in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; he tells the reader how to find it and where to go, and that Black skin is not only welcome but also a necessary part of the joy.
Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis
Boy with Thorn inhabits femininity, Blackness, poetics, nationality, queerness, ekphrasis, and mystery. Rickey Laurentiis deeply interrogates the objectification of Black bodies from the outside and from inside the world of one’s self. This collection confronts white poetry that uses Black culture and literal Black corpses as decoration, remarking, “Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial.” Moreover, Laurentiis reenvisions Modernism, cleverly implementing nuance, allusion, unique syntax, and imagism in his collection—while being explicitly Black, queer, and counter to racism and bigotry. This text is nothing short of significant, of a learned poet, and a masterclass in reclamation.