This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the poet Toi Derricotte reading her poem “Blackbottom” at the Dodge Poetry Festival. Identity is a central human concern: who am I? Where does identity come from? How much is assigned to us at birth (male, female, black, white, rich, poor), and how much is assigned to us during our lives, as other people try to fit us into stereotypes? How much of our identity do we finally create ourselves?
For a biography of the poet Toi Derricotte, please visit the Poetry Foundation Web site.
A black family now living in the suburbs drives through their old inner-city neighborhood. They see people in the neighborhood who evoke a world they are no longer part of. The difference between us and these people in Blackbottom, the family thinks, is that we have made something of ourselves: “We were freshly escaped,/black middle class./We snickered and were proud; the/louder the streets, the prouder.”
But they have not really left Blackbottom completely. They recognize the songs they hear, they long to eat the barbecue they smell. They return to the neighborhood not just to pat themselves on the back for having left it. They return because a part of them is still there. The life they live in “Conant Gardens,” their new neighborhood, is alien to them, and their “jobs, the post office,/and classroom” may be “safe” but they are not enough to make up for the alienation they feel. The neighborhood is silent; the price of entering it is living by its rules, pretending that the family has never lived in Blackbottom at all. If they can’t talk about their past, then their hard work is unrecognized: “We wanted our/sufferings to be/offered up as tender meat/and our triumphs to be belted/out in raucous song.”
Something has been lost and and something gained by this move. They now belong neither in Blackbottom nor Conant Gardens, but they can’t give up on the respectability that comes with the suburbs. Still, Blackbottom’s people are “them whose very/existence tore us down/to the human.”
Read a biography of the poet Toi Derricotte at the Poetry Foundation Web site.
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