Love Song to the People: A Critical Review of jessica Care moore’s “We Want Our Bodies Back”

By Allia Abdullah-Matta, PhD

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As if one could ever forget the image of a visibly Black woman poised on a brown and white pinto horse in the center of a city street. Tinted dreadlocks under her black fedora/top-hat blend, long feather earring, decorative knee-high boots, long-strands of pearls around her neck, a bow in hand adorned with an Indigenous dream catcher, feathers blowing in the wind: She is jessica Care moore. She is “from an army of glowing yellow / black princesses / some of us indigenous, even if the full blood family don’t claim us” (We Want Our Bodies Back 57-62); this poet, activist, publisher, educator, performer, and mother describes her presence in the womb as “the fire in her mother’s belly” who became “just a little brown girl / in pigtails and poems.” I would know moore and her poems anywhere — on the Showtime at the Apollo and Def Poetry Jam stages, strolling in the lobby of a conference hotel with her son King — especially the way her spoken word resonates in my ears and on the page. moore has trained a generation of witnesses and poets. She started Moore Black Press in 1997, which published four of her poetry collections, The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth (1997), The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto (2003), God is Not an American (2008), and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes (2014); and recorded an album, Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James (Javotti Media, 2015). Her fifth collection, We Want Our Bodies Back (Amistad, 2020), begins as an homage to Sandra Annette Bland (1987-2015) and serves as an important cultural, historical, and poetic reckoning in which moore reminds us about the urgency of reclaiming Black bodies. She characterizes the text as an active “call to action, [and] to prayer, for women who’ve lost family members, our children, and even our own lives to unjustified police violence and profiling” (Meridians 2018). moore dedicates the collection to Bland and Ntozake Shange, and throughout the body of the text she constructs a tableau of some of the most important Black poets and musicians in African American letters and cultural production. We Want Our Bodies Back is moore’s cultural and poetic love song to her people, and she implores us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to fight to breathe.

moore discusses her bodily experiences, how she felt as a curious girlchild who knew things and “was allowed to be a girl” (“Introduction” xv) and she sounds an alarm about how early our bodies are threatened. She addresses that Black women’s bodies “can be in danger in public spaces, let alone private ones,” notes the ways in which Black women artists such as herself and Betty Davis (1970s funk icon) experience “erasure from the male dominated entertainment industry,” and states her intention to combat this erasure by reclaiming and creating “a safe space to speak about the sexism and silencing of Black women’s voices in the arts” (xix) through Black WOMEN Rock! Further, moore indicates her artistic, political, and poetic intentions to situate the experiences of girls’ and women’s bodies by posing questions that she answers throughout the text — “when you decide to give your body to someone, what exactly do you receive in exchange? If we, in fact, do ‘choose’ to ‘give up our bodies,’ when do we get to have our bodies back?” (xviii)

We Want Our Bodies Back calls us to stand at attention; moore frames the collection with the spirit of “artist, musical storyteller, and griot” Nina Simone (1933-2003). The four section titles echo Simone’s song titles: “Wild Is the Wind,” “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Got Life,” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Thus, moore places readers under a concrete and symbolic spell marked by ancestry, history, language, memory, music, poetics, voice, and witness. moore takes readers on a journey of existence and subjugation, and she makes Black folks remember the power and significance of our breath and the word.

The poem “She Was.” in the “Wild Is the Wind” section takes up issues of history, language, and voice. The speaker begins with the politics of language for African Americans in the west:

I have convinced myself
I speak french
Somehow I will find a way to make
a Perfect sound

An: un/english

I don’t know
What else to do
With this language cept
Murder it. (9)

moore does several things in this poem: She points to historical and contemporary violence against Black people and their culture, language, and bodies. She plays with the so-called conventions of language as well as poetic form and space on the page; her choice to capitalize some words in the beginning and others in middle of lines, and to make proper nouns (“french” and “english”) lowercase, indicates her intention to create and enforce new language rules (“An: un/english”). The speaker can only “murder” the language, “Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates” (10), which emphasizes the linguistic and bodily trauma of Black people:

Choke the breath out of this alphabet
I need more than 26 letters to articulate
How I survived you.
How we survived
calculated attempts to blow
the heads                                 off our sons (lines 11-16)

She illustrates that experience(s) are “marked” by language and “unmarked” by her poetics of meaning and her attention to form. Her clever uses of capitalization, punctuation, line/stanza spacing are clearly at odds with the language itself. She collapses short phrases into one line (“Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates”), and places one-liner single stanzas throughout: “An: un/English,” “I prefer a sober hallucination” (31); “the editors are resisting my twist in plot” (43); and “is this a poem or a romance?” (46).

moore’s speaker refers to numerous attempts to kill the sons of her people and reminds readers that these poems are narratives of survival. Throughout the collection, moore refers to the horrific murders of Black bodies (Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner), all of which were public lynchings across the United States. It is important to note that moore wrote and performed the poem “We Want Our Bodies Back” as part of fundraising and activist work to support the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She was one of the few women speakers asked to perform, and it was her intention to situate Bland and to make sure that folks would say and remember her name. moore illustrates that Black women are on the front lines, and she uses and relates her own physical and spiritual fatigue and trauma to others, as a result of “years of activism and the pain of black mothering in a time of war” (Meridians 230). Thus, her tone is unapologetic and her movement across the page in “She was.” skillfully scaffolds the past and the present. She contextualizes history and culture in the midst of our attempt to survive and love ourselves. Her stanzas are a mélange of an African past: “Veil full of cowrie shells”; “The Door of No Return”; a spiritual presence, “plastered afroed yemanja,” “she spoke French / senegalese dialect, “queen kuntas,” “Oya laughed”; layers of romantic love, “jessica is always in love / love is a distraction from love,” “our bodies/fell in love”; and ancestry in “she wears the same petals my grandmother wore,” “figure the ocean is our most authentic / photo album,” “we just know we Moors’ / conquered Spain” (9-17).

In the poem “I am not ready to die,” also in the “Wild Is the Wind” section, moore highlights how Black women are objectified and subjugated:

I wish these new girls would get the fuck
off their knees and transform
a room
With subtle power and grace (lines 8-11)

moore poses questions that challenge readers to think about the problematic messages that flood popular music and culture: “When did it become okay to die in this country / On our knees?” (lines 14-15). She contrasts the valueless messages that inspire folks to be on their knees and points to the importance of self-education to combat digital slavery:

I read books without screens
I have sex with men my age
                        whenever i feel like it.

I love my hair, my ass, my breasts.
I’m clear that my power is between my ears
Inside my chest.

Black girl magic doesn’t grow between our legs (37-43)

This is an important critique about how Black women should value their bodies and not follow “the mythology of men” (line 44). The speaker’s reference to loving the natural contours of her body (her hair, breasts, and ass) situates the contemporary narrative around women’s bodies and a culture that does not honor the nature of Black bodies. Here moore claps back at a culture that pimps implants and unhealthy, problematic constructions of sexuality, and perpetuates women on their knees and on stripper poles. She asks, “how much / ?   to get you off your knees? / Sis?” (lines 45-47). This poem also grounds a revolutionary commentary that privileges the stream of self-awareness and change that runs through the collection:

Imma keep living inside poems
you didn’t know were left

for you

If you would just get off the got-damn
FLOOR you could see. (lines 59-63)

moore admonishes women to get off of their knees and to stand up as Queens. She gestures to a list of women singers and hip-hop artists, “microphones are not stripper poles” (line 83). She follows the philosophy and action of foremother poet Sonia Sanchez. In “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values,” Sanchez states, “the poet then, even though she speaks plainly, is a manipulator of symbols and language-images which have been planted by experience in the collective subconscious of a people. Through this manipulation, she creates new or intensified meaning and experience whether to the benefit or detriment of her audience” (20). moore manipulates symbols and language throughout this collection and illustrates that her work is a call to action and to consciousness.

The section I Put a Spell on You further establishes moore as a cultural historian and poet who passes down memory, music, poetics, and voice. “Because if I don’t write” is a Black girl’s treatise that holds her living memory, experience(s), and voice. moore references Shange and Angelou and her own act of writing and leaving Black girls “a trail of tears” as witnessed by the documentation of their lives, and what they need to know to preserve memory and their souls:

Because if i don’t write
You will write for me
tell historians black girls were
crazy
invisible
lost in time
Wishing to turn our bodies inside out
Become unrecognizable to our own mothers
Desecrate our faces
Because we hated our own
mirrors. (lines 27-37)

moore points to a potential failure of collective consciousness and existence if Black girl identity is not passed down by the foremothers, such as the many Black women artists moore names throughout this collection. Who will write to tell the truth of Black bodily experiences if not Black people? While moore’s collection refers to the desecration of the bodies and faces of Black men and women, “Because if I don’t write” emphasizes the need to mark the story of the Black girl, and allows others to say and know her name(s); this story solidifies moore’s writing as political act and intention, “I write to live / to prove to black girls everywhere / we are possible” (lines 55-57). The poem “on memory” in the “I Got Life” section further exemplifies the significance of memory, voice, and writing as a political act; moore’s use of questions is particularly powerful in this section and points to her skill at experimental poetics:

1.
Why do you write about the
Right now

?

The right now                         needed me. (1-4)

The two poems “We Are Born Moving,” dedicated to moore’s city (Detroit) and her daddy (T. D. Moore), and “Where Are the People?” in this same section address forced migrations due to enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, racial terror, and class. These pieces continue moore’s work as cultural historian. She posits, “humanity is not just oil, it is blood” (59), moves through the complexities of her family’s migration from Madison, Alabama to Detroit, and documents the city’s economic and industrial shifts. Both poems indicate the migratory expansion of Black families and communities in urban spaces. moore’s stanzas in “Where Are the People,” constructed as lists, continue to pose questions:

Where are the people?
The stepped over, the forgotten holocaust
The Fragile, the beautiful, the fast talkers,
The backward walkers, the 3am stalkers
Where did they take them.
When will they return
Where is the balance
Where is the money
Where are the schools?
Where are the people?
We all got Wi-fi
nobody getting high outside (lines 27-38)

moore takes readers from the past to the present of digital slavery and expects them to acknowledge what has occurred and what continues to happen to Black folks. The poet as witness asks that the community process its current semi-fugue state. Where are the people after the crises and decay of urban communities as a result of politics, poverty, drug addiction, and violence? “Who signed the death certificates / Where are the magicians, the madmen, the toothless, the smoothest, the poets” (lines 2-3), and “the traffic stoppers;” “Under which pile of gravel / Where are they buried” (lines 10-11).

We Want Our Bodies Back allows us to retrieve our bodies. moore situates poetry as the ultimate witness and illustrates that art is the vehicle to tell the stories of women. She is a “poet worth her weight in syllables” who presents a clear understanding of what is going on in our world; moore helps us “to make sense of our bodies burnt by cigarettes, and smoked out of our neighborhoods” (Medina 21). She “construct[s] a survival guide, a poem / for our daughters’ bodies” and a hauntingly beautiful blues/love song to her people, to help us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to continue to fight to breathe:

If black women could
Be cut down. No.
Removed, gently,
              from American terrorism/
Who would break our fall?
Which direction would we travel
 To feel safe?

wild is the wind

***

We want our bodies back

              We want our bodies back

                                          We want our bodies back!

 

Works Cited

Medina, Tony. “Meditations on Moore: One.” The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth. Moore Black Press, 1997, pp. 12-14.

moore, jessica Care. We Want Our Bodies Back. Amistad, 2020.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 16, no. 2, 2018: pp. 230-237.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. M Stamps School Art & Design, University of Michigan, Fall 2017.

Sanchez, Sonia. “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values.” The Black Scholar, vol. 16, no. 1, January/February 1985, pp. 20-22, 24-25, 27-28.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


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Allia Abdullah-Matta is a poet and teacher-scholar who uses creativity and artistic expression as instruments of social justice activism and transformation.  She is an Associate Professor at CUNY LaGuardia, where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. She was the co-recipient of the The Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Poetry (2018) from The City College of New York (CCNY). Her poetry has been published in Newtown Literary, Promethean, Marsh Hawk ReviewMom Egg Review VoxGlobal City Review, and the Jam Journal Issue of Push/Pull.

 

 

 

 

 

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