The first poet and author was a woman. A high priestess, in fact, whose works worshipped the goddess Inanna. Enheduanna was said to live in 2285 to 2250 B.C. in the Mesopotamian civilization.
Now, thousands of years later, the tradition of poetry remains a tool for Black women to connect to their own divinity. Poets Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde have paved the way for modern-day poets such as Amanda Gorman, whose prose has won her many awards, even granting her an opportunity to recite at the 2021 presidential inauguration. Black women’s rhythmic lines seem to intertwine with the universe, conjuring their very own manifestations of Black joy, Black love and self-empowerment.
Self-taught artist Vanessa German knows this dance with the universe very well. It’s been embedded within her psyche since she was a little girl. Growing up, German’s mother made sure that she and her siblings were well-read by intentionally carving out space in her home for bookshelves and a reading bench.
German is featured in A Love Letter to Black Women on on ESPN+ beginning Monday.
“Understanding the power of what is possible in poetry happened for me when I was really young,” said German. “In the summertime, when we weren’t in school, it [reading] was a part of our day right before we took a nap. I found that if I memorized some of the poems that we were reading, that it made time pass. I felt like I found this sort of portal through poetry into an alternate reality where things are less painful and time shifted away from this slowness that dragged out pain and turned pain into suffering.”
As a little girl, German’s education was contradictory. While in school, she was learning that police officers were there to help her and her community, but at home she learned through experience and witness that the police were not to be trusted. Growing up in Los Angeles, she bore witness to the unjust acts of racism and the brutality and confrontation with the Los Angeles Police Department in her community, she even had an experience of her own when she was 7 years old.
“My mother had gotten pulled over and we knew she had gotten pulled over for nothing because we were literally six doors away from our house and we weren’t speeding. I’m in the seat behind my mom and it was scary and I was talking under my breath and the police officer told me to shut up and told me that if I did not shut my mouth, he would put me in handcuffs,” recalled German.
Much of German’s pain came from being invalidated in her creativity and personhood as a child. For Black people like German, if you chose the right to remain silent, then maybe you’d survive and even that wasn’t a guarantee.
“I grew up around intense amounts of street violence, mass incarceration and the war on drugs that was connected to white supremacy and structural racism,” recalled German.
“I grew up in that strange, constipated, suffocating, clutter of mixed messages about being Black and whole in America. I came to a place where I was going to end my life but I decided to do this experiment where I said every day for the next six months, I want to see what happens if I just do what feels right. And in doing what felt right, I came to a place where I understood that I could rise to the occasion of my own life and make a universe for myself and make myself the center, which was never an idea that I saw or experienced Black women and Black girls being able to do.”
Poetry was the tool in German building her own world. Piece by piece, word by word, German wrote her way into her own healing, which ironically was the ultimate resistance in combating the white supremacy that desperately seeked to rob her of her own being. Diving into her art, German began to pour into her own healing, and her words of power began to activate a sense of power and healing to those who she was connected to.
“The first poem I put my whole soul into was this poem called If my hands were anything other than hands,” recalled German. “I began to play with sonic magic and I began to play with rhythm and pattern, hiding riddles inside of the poem.”
German’s hidden gems were intentional.
“I used the word cancer once in that poem but I wrote the poem to cure my friend. Whenever I read the poem, the sound coming out of my mouth and being received by other human bodies that have access to the technology of their own heart, move the power of the poem forward, so there’s this collective force of healing that is moving to heal my friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 22 years old,” said German.
“My friend is still cancer-free to this day. Of course she gets treatment, but of course putting your whole soul, of course putting love, of course directing the poem to the shape of a future I’m moving inside of, all of these ancient and brand-new human technologies that Black folks and African folks have always been using. So for me, poetry is a place of portal, it’s a place of power, it is a force that dissolves the tangles and nooses of white supremacy and systemic racism.”
Poetry as it relates to Black women has always been and remains to be a form of conversation with divine energy to create new realities while destroying old and oppressive ones. Up-and-coming poet Asia Henry speaks the same language with the universe.
“Poetry for me has always been therapy. When life becomes overwhelming and thoughts in my mind become overcrowded, I start writing,” said Henry. “It helps me understand myself, make sense of my emotions while healing at the same time.”
Henry always wrote poetry, but just recently began sharing her poetry with the world on her Instagram page.
“Someone said to me that ‘helping others can help yourself.’ This made me realize that I am not alone,” Henry said.
In a time where racism, sexism and anti-gay bias seem to prevail, the focus of poetry from Black women is keeping life afloat and hopeful. German’s mother once told her a gem that she shared in A Love Letter to Black Women. The gem is great advice for Henry but also a nod to all the great Black women who have written and uttered poetry as a way of expression, release and creation.
“You’re facing the stars, there you are shining back at yourself from a billion, brilliant light years away. Isn’t it amazing you came all of this way to live in the light of your own shine? We are in connection with the universe,” said German. “We are on purpose.”