By McKinley Melton, PhD
After years of engaging with Dominique Christina’s poetry in the classroom, watching students be awed by her writing as well as her extraordinary delivery, I finally had the opportunity to bear witness to her live performance when I invited her to the Gettysburg campus as part of a spoken word poetry series. Christina’s visit was, in a word, electric. My students were nearly overwhelmed by her presence, with one of them writing in their reflection that “the room could have sparked and torn with the energy she channeled, with the spirits she called.” Enhancing the power of Christina’s presence was the fortuitous coincidence that we scheduled her visit for Tuesday, November 8, 2016. With the presidential election as a backdrop, the richness and complexity of Christina’s work shone through. Her poetry, emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, foregrounds themes of speech and silence while challenging shame as an impediment to survival. Moreover, the insistence that we engage with the historical breadth and the contemporary consequence of her work powerfully mirrored the challenge with which we would all be faced — how to stand up and speak out against a reality that we had not dared to imagine yet history tells us was always possible.
During her visit, one piece that resonated significantly was “The Period Poem” from her 2015 collection, They Are All Me.[i] Christina framed the poem by inviting the audience to interrogate the biblical narrative of Eve and the Garden of Eden in order to confront the idea of menstruation as a consequence for woman’s original sin. Working to undermine the continual shame that women and young girls are made to feel about the natural biological process, Christina crafts the poem as an open letter. First, she addresses a “nameless dummy on Twitter” who had proudly claimed to have broken up with his girlfriend because her period commenced in the midst of sexual intercourse (112). She challenges his “disdain / For what a woman’s body can do” and offers him “an anatomy lesson infused with feminist politics / because I hate you” (112). Explaining the anatomical reality of a uterus shedding itself “every 28 days or so,” Christina asserts that “the Feminist politic part is that women / Know how to let things go” and “how to become new, / How to regenerate” (113). Significantly, Christina posits a woman’s body as a space for both renewal as well as creation, noting that menstruation not only facilitates the creation of another person but also a revitalization of the self.
Indeed, rather than suggesting reproduction as the primary significance of a woman’s period, Christina first argues for a multiplicity of functions. In addition to the renewal of self, she also reflects on the communal force of menstruation, such that “women have vaginas that can speak to each other” and “our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up” (113). Only after addressing these other implications of menstruation does Christina remind the Twitter dummy,
But when your mother carried you,
The ocean in her belly is what made you buoyant,
Made you possible.
You had it under your tongue when you burst through her skin (113)
Establishing the mother’s body as the creative origin for this man’s existence, Christina directly links the maternal act of creation with his capacity for speech, literally undergirding his tongue. Suggesting that his language, now used to malign women’s bodies, would be impossible without the nurturing space of his mother’s womb, Christina writes,
THAT body wrapped you in everything
That was miraculous about it and sang you
Lullabies laced in platelets
Without which you wouldn’t have a twitter account
At all, motherfucker. (113)
The condemnation that Christina delivered, fueled by righteous indignation and armed with biological facts, was soon paired with the wish that he would be “blessed with daughters.” Noting that “Etymologically ‘Bless’ means: to make bleed,” Christina offers the “lesson in linguistics” in order that the dummy on Twitter might know, “in other words blood speaks” (115). Acknowledging that “blood speaks” in the face of this man’s careless use of speech on Twitter, she charges him to take on the role of listener, that he might eventually learn. The lesson, Christina continues, moves beyond etymology, as she suggests that “Your daughters will teach you / What all men must one day come to know” (115). That inevitable lesson, of how to handle “the blood” for which few are ever fully prepared, pairs the challenge of the poem with its promise for this man, for whom knowledge might dismantle the ignorance-fueled impulse for his tweet.
Lest the poem be directed entirely to this man, Christina shifts focus to her own daughter, who is the second and more important audience for this epistolary poem. Having ably dispatched with the “nameless dummy,” she deliberately dedicates the final words of the poem to her daughter in order to arm her, “should any fool mishandle / the wild geography of your body” (115). She charges her daughter to “just BLEED” and “Give that blood a Biblical name, / Something of stone and mortar” (115-116). Echoing her initial challenge to the biblical narrative of the first woman’s invitation of sin into the world, Christina suggests that her daughter “name it after Eve’s first rebellion in that garden,” thereby revising the narrative that would call Eve’s action a sin and simultaneously refuting the supposed divine directive that man alone be given the patriarchal power to name (116). Seizing upon naming as right and privilege, she argues that her daughter name the blood “for all the women who’ll not be nameless here” — in parallel to her decrying the “nameless dummy on Twitter” — and offers a maternal directive to exercise that right:
Name the blood something holy.
Something in hieroglyphs.
Something that sounds like the end of the world. (116)
Empowering her daughter to name the blood that flows from her body, regardless of what “good furniture” it destroys (116), Christina rests the poem with the language of ownership and empowerment. Ultimately, she centers her daughter in a narrative that challenges the shame she is originally made to feel though she has committed no sin.
Students universally acknowledged the poem as one of the most affecting of the night. The power of this performance — on the very evening that many in the audience believed a woman would be elected president over a man who had denigrated a journalist by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”[ii] and brazenly celebrated his ability to force himself on women and “grab ‘em by the pussy”[iii] — was immeasurable. As another student wrote in her reflection: “How could I witness Dominique’s fire and brilliance and not feel proud to be a member of the same half of the species? I felt like I was nineteen years old, a woman was going to be Commander in Chief come January, and women like Dominique Christina existed — so how could progress not be within my generational grasp?” Within a few hours, the reality of the election’s result would sink in.
When next we met, the students arrived to the classroom still numb in the aftermath of the election. We were able to process the election results in the midst of our scheduled conversation on Black female spoken word poets, in a class session that had been titled “Sister Speak: A Vocal Black Womanhood.” The alignment of Christina’s visit, the course material, and the election produced one of the most potent classroom conversations I’ve had in my teaching career. When the students spoke of the role that women played in securing Trump’s electoral win, someone returned to “The Period Poem,” raising the idea that the poem itself addresses biological womanhood and the popular “disdain for what a woman’s body can do,” without explicitly mentioning race. Yet, with 53% of white women supporting Trump’s candidacy and Black women maintaining almost uniform opposition, the election results clarified that gender alone didn’t determine how the votes were cast. We discussed the implications of this inconvenient truth for our ongoing conversations regarding intersectional Black womanhood and the importance of Black women’s voices in poetry as well as politics. As one student astutely argued, Christina did not explicitly mention race in this poem, yet she intentionally foregrounded her racial identity and that of her daughter. Through Christina’s choice to put her own body front and center, as a poet for whom performance held such tremendous meaning, there was no way to ignore or even to de-center race in our consideration of the poet or of her work. As one student argued, with whom I’m inclined to agree, “I think she’d be pissed if we even tried.”
I thought often of Christina’s visit to our campus, and the ensuing conversation in our classroom, while reading her most recent book of poetry, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems.[iv] The National Poetry Series–winning collection endeavors to give voice to the titular enslaved woman who, while being denied pain-reducing anesthesia in addition to the right to consent, underwent multiple surgeries and procedures in forced service to the curiosities and career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a man who would one day be hailed as “the father of modern gynecology.” This collection expands upon the conversations engendered by “The Period Poem” and Christina’s articulation of an intergenerational dialogue about women’s bodies, as well as the incoherency between the power of what those bodies can do and the disregard in which they are held. Anarcha Speaks, undoubtedly, also explores the particular and specific circumstances of intersecting race and gender, pivoting as it does around an enslaved woman whose condition is defined by her Blackness as well as her womanhood, even as the inhumane treatment to which she is subjected threatens to deny any sense of personhood to which she might lay claim.
Christina’s examination of the manner by which Black womanhood is reduced to the biological mechanics of reproduction clearly connects Anarcha and “The Period Poem.” Yet what makes Anarcha such a powerfully complex and layered work, like “The Period Poem” before it, is Christina’s ability to give voice to the silenced — whether an enslaved woman or “the blood” that must speak — and to enable the now voiced to speak, from an empowered and authoritative position, within an intergenerational conversation that carries the force of history in its articulation of themes that remain significant in the current moment. Christina’s work persists in the effort to center Black women, their voices and their experiences, within the historical record. Subsequently, she challenges a history wherein the silencing of Black women enables the myths that would, without any sense of irony, herald a man as the “father” of gynecological practice while negating the contributions of women, or propel a self-confessed “pussy-grabber” to the presidency with the support of a majority of white women’s votes.
Christina addresses the historical connection that drives her work in the dedication for Anarcha Speaks, acknowledging the ways that women like Anarcha operate as ancestors that prefigure her own Black womanhood. She writes,
I am still reeling from the possessive nature of ancestral writing. I am still humbled by elegy and the potential it holds to re-flesh the bones. I still tremble under the weight of history. The ships that carried folk I borrow bone and blood from to places they never imagined, where their suffering was bottomless. It is quite something to know they sizzle up through us and announce themselves still. Memory is aggressive. And long. And sometimes inherited. I elect to chase it down whenever possible. I intend to participate in as many resurrections as I can. (93)
Acknowledging the “possessive nature of ancestral writing” in her dedication, Christina recognizes that she must elect to chase memory down as she announces her intent to participate in as many resurrections as she can. She thereby foregrounds her own artistic agency in making the decision to center Anarcha while simultaneously reminding readers that the silencing of this enslaved woman’s voice was also a choice, a deliberate act. Just as Anarcha’s muting had explicit and intended consequences, so too does the decision to return her to a position of prominence. With Anarcha as both the central subject and the narrator for this collection, these poems participate in the ongoing project of challenging the marginalization of Black women within the historical record, extending all the way back to the ancestral figure of Eve.
In her efforts to “re-flesh the bones” of her foremother, Christina intentionally centers the voice of Anarcha herself, as indicated not only by the collection’s title, but also established in its tone-setting opening poem, “Anarcha Will Speak and It Will Be So.” The poem begins with the traumatic assault on Anarcha’s body:
massa come in like he know i cain’t cry
he take what he want
he keep a hot hand (3)
Though the violation of Anarcha’s body and personhood is the central act of these opening lines, Christina provides her reader with much more than an incident that would render “massa” as the active subject and Anarcha as the passive recipient of sexual violence. The slave master’s approach, from the outset, is shown to be rooted in his fictitious belief, rather than the fact of Anarcha’s existence. Christina outlines the way he moves “like he know,” which immediately alerts readers to the fact that he does not. The suggestion that this is a moment for the production of “new tears” also indicates that there were previous tears, establishing an emotional depth to Anarcha that predates this violent act. Anarcha, as a subject, does not begin with this violence, but exists in the fullness of her own humanity prior to massa’s entrance into the narrative. This is, in itself, a radical statement, as Christina works against a historical narrative that reduces Black women to tools of production, whose entrance into the historical record often comes with the documentation of purchase, or of birth, that indicates an increase to a master’s property more than it does the announcement of a human being into historical reality.
The next lines of the poem introduce readers to the ultimate violence that is enacted upon Anarcha through a process designed to both silence her and deny her any sense of agency or right to her own identity:
every new hatred
cinch my throat closed.
he take me
give me a name made outta iron
he say it till i ain’t myself (3)
The closing of Anarcha’s throat is enacted in response to an ambiguous hatred. One reading might suggest that the massa’s hatred for Anarcha, exercised through the violence that he inflicts on her is what cinches her throat closed. An alternate reading, however, suggests that Anarcha’s silence is an act of self-control, quieting any potential outburst of her hatred for the massa, the articulation of which would surely threaten her ability to survive in the aftermath of these acts. Regardless, the massa’s acts, and his display of power over her body, result in a closed throat. Her silenced state leaves the massa as the only speaking figure within the poem, enabling him to give Anarcha a name and to be the lone voice speaking it aloud. Significantly, however, this poem remains framed by its title and the narrative voice that reminds readers that this is Anarcha’s story to tell, and that she remains the speaker of the poem, even as she remains ostensibly silenced within it. The poem’s title functions as a succinct declaration, wherein the poet’s intentions for the collection are made clear by a definitive statement that leaves no room for ambiguity. Anarcha will speak and it will be so. This poem, and those that follow, collectively providing the willfully neglected history of the subjugation of Anarcha’s body, will turn on the power of Anarcha’s voice. The declarative “and it will be so” operates with absolute authority, prophetically establishing the path forward even while the collection offers a corrective lens onto the past.
Christina’s exploration of Black women’s subjectivities, throughout Anarcha as well as works published and performed prior to the release of this collection such as “The Period Poem,” is often framed through examinations of maternity. Yet, even as she remains invested in the consideration of Black women as ancestral figures, Christina avoids reducing Black women solely to the function of motherhood. Rather, she argues that their full lives must be excavated in order for her audience to thoughtfully reckon with the historical and contemporary place of Black women. Anarcha’s ability to exist as more than a body that experiences motherhood as a result of sexual assault, only to have that body violated again through painful medical exploration in the wake of giving birth, is examined throughout the collection. Christina exposes readers to Anarcha’s reflections on life in her master’s house, allowing her to bear witness to the treatment of other enslaved people including those recently purchased (“They Bringin in More”), those who seek to escape (“She Got Further Than Anybody”), and others who experience the pain of giving birth to children who they know they cannot truly claim as their own (“Lucy Made a Girl”). Christina also provides the full arc of Anarcha’s pregnancy, from the moment she is made aware of her pregnancy (“Don’t Wanna Hear It But”) to her awareness of the fetus’ presence (“Anarcha Feels Movement”) to the delivery (“This Time It Hurts”). The fact that all of this happens before the introduction of Dr. Sims is, again, significant, reminding readers that this was a woman with a complete life—full of complex thoughts and emotions—long before the introduction of the man in whose shadow history would place her.
Herein lies the most significant part of Christina’s work, the practice of “re-fleshing the bones” that history has discarded as unimportant and without value. Christina’s work of poetic recovery is not only for the validation of Anarcha, but also for those who claim her as ancestor, to those who continue to labor against the prominent narrative that they, and the people from which they come, have no dimension to their lives worthy of adulation. Christina acknowledges the intergenerational benefit of recovering Anarcha’s life in its fullness with the poem “The Chil’ren Might Know.” She opens the poem with Anarcha’s musings of when they “once was warriors” (15). After, again, establishing the idea of a fullness of Black life before the arrival of white figures, Christina then presents a narrative wherein Anarcha hopes “maybe / they know we ain’t always / been so lowly” and suggests that
maybe they can look past
to see when we
were bigger underneath (15)
Christina concludes the poem with Anarcha’s assertion that:
we had hands once
and a river to bathe in
that called us home.
the chil’ren might know that
if they lookin at us right
we lost our mouths
‘cross a mighty ocean.
coulda died but we don’t know how . . . (15-16)
In these final lines, Christina makes clear the work in which she is engaging. She recognizes the importance of names that were stolen from Anarcha and her community, as well as the home that was likewise taken, along with the river in which her people bathed. Yet, as she focuses on that which is lost, she issues a challenge, arguing that the children might understand and know this history “if they lookin at us right.” Despite having lost their mouths and having their voices sacrificed to a historical silence, the poem’s conclusion that the enslaved “coulda died but we don’t know how . . .” renders their narrative one of survival and not solely of trauma, silence, weakness, and pain.
By emphasizing and celebrating the survival of a people, Christina effectively challenges the shame to which they’ve been subjected. In “The Period Poem,” she celebrates “women, made of moonlight, magic, and macabre” (115). In Anarcha Speaks, she celebrates the voice of an enslaved woman who the historical record had reduced to a catalogue of body parts that was never meant to include her tongue. In challenging that sense of shame, and the historical record that enshrined it, Christina’s poetry is not only about the reclamation of ancestral voices, but also about enabling her audience to better understand the circumstances of their own lives.
Having seen, firsthand, what can happen when a room full of willing minds are given the opportunity to grapple with Christina’s work, my sincere hope is that many others will accept the poet’s invitation to engage with ideas, narratives, and complicated truths. This poet has produced a body of work that demands to be engaged, that will not allow audiences to sit quietly when confronted with the power of her words. The electric energy that I and my students felt in our classroom pulses through this collection, just as it does whenever Christina puts pen to paper or steps in front of a microphone. Whether admonishing a man on Twitter to look to his future daughters to understand what he “must one day come to know” or inviting “the chil’ren” to respond to the call of an ancestral figure like Anarcha in order that they “might know” the truth of their history, Christina’s work invites us to re-frame, re-name, and reclaim the narratives that have been shaped by silences and to seek understanding through the voices that boldly insist on the right to speak.
They will speak. It will be so. We would all do well to listen closely.
[i] Christina, Dominique. “The Period Poem.” They Are All Me. Swimming With Elephants, 2015.
[iv] Christina, Dominique. Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems. Beacon, 2018.