The first time I met Caribbean-American poet, Aja Monet, was in a church basement in New York City. We were there to read essays we had written for a book called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. I remember Aja, with her bouncy hair and bright lips, remarking how long it had been since she’d been in a church. And I remember thinking – after she read her essay, “No One Teaches Us to Be Daughters”– that perhaps it was because the church could not contain her. Her writing writhed from easy grasp.
This Mother’s Day, Aja is releasing a book of poetry that continues to venerate the female line in all its complexities. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books, 2017) is “an ode to mothers, daughters, and sisters – the tiny gods who fight to change the world.” We are more than fighters, though. We are also weapons of violence. Aja’s collection of poetry moves us deeper than a holiday celebration of women toward a political excavation of the human heart.
As I read the collection, I was struck by how beautifully and ruthlessly Aja excavates her own life for her art.
The collection is broken into three movements: inner (city) chants, witnessing, and (un)dressing a wound. In the first movement, Aja meditates on the inviolable connection to our origin stories. In the poem “wit” she describes her first audience as “a small room of ovaries.” In “my parents used to do the hustle,” she captures a child’s complicated devotion:
i chose them
they chose me
The second movement threads Aja’s upbringing in Brooklyn with the overarching story of now. The poem #sayhername is a reminder of the black women who have been victims of police brutality and how no liberation of black lives is possible without men and women feeling bound up in each other:
we do not vanish in the bated breath of
our brothers. show me, show me a man
willing to fight beside me, my hand in his,
the color of courage, there is no mountaintop
worth seeing without us.
Some references to current events or cultural cues were lost on me, as if I were missing the ability to taste all the ingredients in a rich stew. It made my mouth water for more understanding, my heart ache to taste and see more justice. This, I want to tell my old friend Aja, is what makes your art so good.
freedom’s smile is a contagious spirit
a rattling song of the heart
These lines come from a poem entitled “she sweats” in the final and most buoyant movement of the collection, in which her poetry crisscrosses the globe between the personal and the universal, the national and the global. Ultimately, when the book comes to an end, we realizing it’s the human heart we’ve been traversing: Aja’s, strangers’ and our own.
Aja writes in her author’s note, “These poems are a way one posits the importance of feeling deeply in order for substantial social change to take place. This is a way of exploring the unknown. Actions without a confrontation of repressed feelings become movements without meaning. Gestures in good faith do not end oppression; it is risk and ruthless radical love that will see us through.”
This is precisely why poetry is so central to the work we do at the Center for Courage & Renewal in helping people align their inner life with their outer work in the world. Poetry is not just a respite for the soul. It can also be the guttural, biting song of resistance.
My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter turns bodies that have been used as weapons into weapons of liberation. We cannot be contained.
Aja Monet is a Caribbean-American poet, performer, and educator from Brooklyn. She has been awarded the Andrea Klein Willison Prize for Poetry and the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title, as well as the New York City’s YWCA’s “One to Watch Award.” She is the author of The Black Unicorn Sings and the co-editor, with Saul Williams, of Chorus: A Literary Mixtape. She lives in Little Haiti, Miami, where she is a co-founder of Smoke Signals Studio and dedicates her time merging arts and culture in community organizing with the Dream Defenders and the Community Justice Project.
Erin Lane is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and the Center’s Assistant Program Director for Clergy and Congregational Leaders. She develops programs that deepen the spiritual formation of people of faith and support healthy congregational life. A writer and speaker, Erin is the co-editor of Talking Taboo and author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. You can find more of her writing at www.erinslane.com.