Poetry and social activism

13 Apr

I have written, on my previous occasions, about the role played by literature and poetry in particular in raising awareness and advocating for social change in regards to gender inequality and gendered violence.  I have also alluded to the role played by poetry in articulating individual and community discontent regarding responses to much publicised real world events, such as the Tamir Rice shooting.

When discussing with my students the idea that responses to real life events are often immortalised in poetry, thus rendering poetry a form of social commentary, many of my students expressed scepticism.  They simply could not fathom how poetry could facilitate social change or reach a sufficiently large audience to challenge perceptions.

This, of course, prompted a discussion about the power of language.  A perfect example of language being powerful is found in Bassey Ikpi’s poem ‘Diallo‘.  As suggested by the title, the poem is a response to the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, by the police.

In her poem, Ikpi speaks of the pain felt by mothers knowing that their children, their sons, are especially vulnerable.  She also speaks of the injustice when juries return verdicts that say “murder is justified,” and “cops win right to life when that brother is still without his.”  This sentence, in particular, is powerful in that is positions white men as entitled to rights and due process whereas black men, in contrast, are shot on sight.  Furthermore,  Ikpi strikingly juxtaposes the fates of blacks and whites, welcoming her audience “to the place where a black face asks ‘who will be next?’ and a white face answers ‘not I’.”  Here, the metonymic references to faces emphasises Ikpi’s view that individual identity is irrelevant; black men, by virtue of being black, are peculiarly vulnerable and white men, in contrast, by virtue of being white, are protected.

This text would be an interesting point of comparison to the ‘I Could Be the Next Tamir Rice’ article discussed yesterday, and also to Maxine Beneba Clark’s poem ‘104 Degrees’.



One Response to “Poetry and social activism”


  1. Civil Rights | Once uPUN a time... - July 13, 2016

    […] be interesting for students to make comparisons with Martin’s Big Words (a picture book), ‘Diallo’ (spoken word poem), ‘Even if it gets to 104 degrees’ (poem), and ‘I Have a Dream’ (speech).  Students could also source newspaper articles and […]


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