Five Things to Know About Social Justice Poetry

To Summarize Social Justice Poetry:

  1. This genre focuses on the marginalized people in society.
  2. Major themes include freedom and identity.
  3. The Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance are two of the most productive eras for literature, especially for social justice poetry. Notable poets from these periods include Robert Hayden and Langston Hughes.
  4. Slam is a medium for social justice poetry. Notable poets in this category include Sarah Kay and Patrick Rosal.
  5.  Social justice poetry is a pervasive catalyst for action that can change the world.

Taking Control Of Identity: Sarah Kay’s “The Type”

The following is a poem written and spoken by Sarah Kay:


The Type

 

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else. -Richard Siken

 

If you grow up the type of woman men want to look at,
you can let them look at you. But do not mistake eyes for hands.

 

Or windows.
Or mirrors.

 

Let them see what a woman looks like.
They may not have ever seen one before.

 

If you grow up the type of woman men want to touch,
you can let them touch you.

 

Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for.
Sometimes it is a bottle. A door. A sandwich. A Pulitzer. Another woman.

 

But their hands found you first. Do not mistake yourself for a guardian.
Or a muse. Or a promise. Or a victim. Or a snack.

 

You are a woman. Skin and bones. Veins and nerves. Hair and sweat.
You are not made of metaphors. Not apologies. Not excuses.

 

If you grow up the type of woman men want to hold,
you can let them hold you.

 

All day they practice keeping their bodies upright–
even after all this evolving, it still feels unnatural, still strains the muscles,

 

holds firm the arms and spine. Only some men will want to learn
what it feels like to curl themselves into a question mark around you,

 

admit they do not have the answers
they thought they would have by now;

 

some men will want to hold you like The Answer.
You are not The Answer.

 

You are not the problem. You are not the poem
or the punchline or the riddle or the joke.

 

Woman. If you grow up the type men want to love,
You can let them love you.

 

Being loved is not the same thing as loving.
When you fall in love, it is discovering the ocean

 

after years of puddle jumping. It is realizing you have hands.
It is reaching for the tightrope when the crowds have all gone home.

 

Do not spend time wondering if you are the type of woman
men will hurt. If he leaves you with a car alarm heart, you learn to sing along.

 

It is hard to stop loving the ocean. Even after it has left you gasping, salty.
Forgive yourself for the decisions you have made, the ones you still call

 

mistakes when you tuck them in at night. And know this:
Know you are the type of woman who is searching for a place to call yours.

 

Let the statues crumble.
You have always been the place.

 

You are a woman who can build it yourself.
You were born to build.

In this poem, the speaker’s address to woman comes as a call of arms. Throughout, the poem places the ‘you’ as the direct agent of the verb, the subject that is acting. Thus, the poem strains against the objectification and mistreatment of women, while simultaneously striving to give identity to women that is not limited to ideas of victimization. The final lines emphasize this call to action, taking a typical anecdote and twisting the meaning; men usually are the ones who are associated with building things, but here, it is the woman who does not need to rely on man in order to build, she is just able to build by herself. This is played out in the poem’s agency. The woman can ‘let’ the man look at her, but it is a choice, an action. This claiming of agency makes this poem very much rooted in defining an identity. Similarly, it brings to play a social topic of sexuality and the idea of equality between men and women. The call for action places this poem directly under the realm of social action.

The Spoken Word Legacy: Patrick Rosal and Sarah Kay

As a major re-birth of the oral aspect of poetry, the effects of slam poetry can be seen in many living poets today. Two poets with different backgrounds offer insight into how claiming an identity and interacting directly with an audience has shaped contemporary social justice poetry.
The son of Philippine immigrants, Patrick Rosal has published three books of poetry: Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. He has received many different awards and fellowships such as a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines. 

Sarah Kay is the co-director and founder of Project VOICE, an initiative to bring poetry to youth. The author of the book B, she works as an editor for Write Bloody Publishing and has given many talks about poetry including one presented at the 2011 TED Conference. In 2006, she was the youngest poet competing at the National Poetry Slam.

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