Ten poems by black women the world needs to read right now

The world is a scary and uncertain space right now, fraught with fragility, and sometimes it’s just too much to cope with. We get it, and we’re all about trying to find some beauty in this big and messy world. And if there’s one group of people who know how to articulate that loss, pain, and anger, it’s black women – their lived experiences remain ones that speak volumes, and remind us how much they continue to endure, even though the world – and the odds – are stacked against them.

Sit down, grab a cup of tea, and appreciate some stunning literary work from black women.

1. how stunningly beautiful that our sacred respect for the earth. for life. is deeper than our rage – Nayyirah Waheed

if we
people of color
burn the world down.
for what
have experienced.
are experiencing.
we don’t.

2. – Upile Chisala

Being this ebony.
Having this name.
Carrying this language on my tongue.
There are times when I only wished to blend,
to sit unnoticed,
but blending in is fading out.

3. Fight – Yrsa Daley-Ward

If they ask you how you are
don’t say stolen. Don’t say forgotten, passed over,
ignored. Don’t you dare say Orphan.
Don’t say beaten by the system
oppressed and disturbed
and don’t yo dare say disappointed
don’t you dare say damaged.

Smile with all of your teeth, even the rotting ones.
Even the rotting ones.

4. Tell your story – Lebo Mashile

After they’ve fed off of your memories
Erased dreams from your eyes
Broken the seams of sanity
And glued what’s left together with lies,
After the choices and voices have left you alone
And silence grows solid
Adhering like flesh to your bones
They’ve always known your spirit’s home
Lay in your gentle sway
To light and substance
But jaded mirrors and false prophets have a way
Of removing you from yourself
You who lives with seven names
You who walks with seven faces
None can eliminate your pain
Tell your story
Let it nourish you,
Sustain you
And claim you
Tell your story
Let it feed you,
Heal you
And release you
Tell your story
Let it twist and remix your shattered heart
Tell your story
Until your past stops tearing your present apart

5. Home – Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

6. Broken English – Rupi Kaur

A discombobulated couple that landed in the new world with hopes that left the bitter taste of rejection in their mouths
No family, no friends, just man and wife, 2 university degrees that meant nothing
One mother tongue that was broken
Now, with swollen belly with a baby inside
Because no matter what, this baby was coming
And they thought to themselves, for a split second, was it worth it to put all of our money into the dream of a country that is swallowing us whole
And papa looks at my mother’s eyes
And sees loneliness living where the Iris was
Wants to give her a home in a country that looks at her with the word visitor wrapped around their tongues
On their wedding day she left an entire village to be his wife,
And now she left an entire country to be a warrior
And when the winter came, they had nothing but the warmth of their own bodies to keep the coldness out. And like two brackets they faced one another
To hold the hold the dearest part of them, their children,
They turned a suitcase full of clothes into a life and regular paycheck to make sure that children of immigrants wouldn’t hate them for being children of immigrants
They worked too hard, You can tell by their hands
Their eyes were begging for sleep but our mouths were begging to be fed
And that is the most artistic thing I have ever seen
It is poetry to these ears that have never heard what passion sounds like.
There are no words in the English language that can articulate
that kind of beauty
I can’t compact their existence into 26 letters and call it a description
I tried once but the adjectives needed to describe them don’t even exist
So I ended up with Pages and pages full of words
followed with commas and more words and more commas
only to realize that there are somethings in the world that are so infinite
They could never use a full stop
So how dare you mock your mother when she opens her mouth and broken English spills out
Her accent is thick like honey, hold it with your life
It’s the only thing she has left from home
Don’t you stomp on that richness
Instead hang it up on the walls of museums next to
Dali and Van Gogh
Her life is brilliant and tragic

7. Water – Koleka Putuma

The memory of going to the beach every New Year’s eve
Is one I share with cousins and most people raised black
How the elders would forbid us from going in too deep
To giggle, to splash in our black tights and Shoprite plastic bags wrapped around our new weaves, forbid us from riding the wave,
For fear that we would be a mass of blackness swept by the tide
And never to return
Like litter.
The elders forbid us as if the ocean has food poisoning
I often wonder why I feel as if I am drowning every time I look out into the sea
This and feeling incredibly small
And I often hear this joke
About Black people not being able to swim,
Or being scared of water;
We are mocked
And we have often mocked ourselves
For wiping our faces the way that we do when we come out of the water-
Compare it to how they do it all bay-watch like
And how we so ratchet-like with our postures and kink.
Yet every time our skin goes under
It’s as if the reeds remember that they were once chains
And the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships onto shore
Whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk
Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty,
This is why our irises burn every time we go under.
Every December sixteenth, December 24th and December 31st
Our skin re-traumatises the sea
They mock us
For not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental in trying to execute our extinction.
For you, the ocean is for surf boards, boats and tans
And all the cool stuff you do under there in your bathing suits and goggles
But we, we have come to be baptised here
We have come to stir the other world here
We have come to cleanse ourselves here
We have come to connect our living to the dead here
Our respect for water is what you have termed fear
The audacity to trade and murder us over water
Then mock us for being scared of it
The audacity to arrive by water and invade us
If this land was really yours, then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass
Then quit using black bodies as tour guides or the site for your authentic African experience
Are we not tired of dancing for you?
Gyrating and singing on cue
Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness?
To atone for just being here
To beg God to save us from a war we never started
To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence
Raise our hands so we don’t get shot
Raise our hands in church to pray for protection
And we still get shot there too
With our hands raised
Invasion comes naturally for your people
So you have come to rob us of our places of worship too
Come to murder us in prisons too
That is not new either
Too many white people out here acting God
Too many white people out here doing the work of God,
And this God of theirs has my tummy in knots
Him and I have always had a complicated relationship
This blue eyed and blond haired Jesus I followed in Sunday school
Has had my kind bowing to a white and patriarchal heaven
Bowing to a Christ, his son, and 12 disciples
For all we know
the disciples could have been queer, the holy trinity some weird twisted love triangle
And the Holy Ghost transgender
But you will only choose to understand the scriptures that suit your agenda
You have taken the liberty to colonise the concept of God
Gave god a gender, a skin colour and a name in a language we had to twist our mouths around
Blasphemy is wrapping Slavery in the Gospel and calling it freedom
Blasphemy is having to watch my kind use the same gospel to enslave each other
Since the days of Elijah We have been engineered kneel to whiteness
And we are not even sure if the days of Elijah even existed
Because whoever wrote the bible did not include us
But I would rather exist in that god-less holy book than in the history books that did not tell truth
About us
For us
On behalf of us
If you really had to write our stories
Then you ought to have done it in our mother’s tongues
The ones you cut off when you fed them a new language

We never consent
Yet we are asked to dine with the oppressors
And Serve them forgiveness
How, when the only ingredients I have are grief and rage

Another one (who looks like me) died today
Another one (who looks like me) was murdered today

May that be the conversation at the table
And we can all thereafter wash this bitter meal with amnesia

And go for a swim after that
Just for fun.
Just for fun.

8. First generation immigrants – Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers. Here’s to the janitors who don’t even fucking understand English yet work hard despite it all. Here’s to the fast food workers who work hard to see their family smile. Here’s to the laundry man at the Marriott who told me with the sparkle in his eyes how he was an engineer in Peru.

Here’s to the bus driver, the Turkish Sufi who almost danced when I quoted Rumi. Here’s to the harvesters who live in fear of being deported for coming here to open the road for their future generation. Here’s to the taxi drivers from Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and India who gossip amongst themselves.

Here is to them waking up at 4am, calling home to hear the voices of their loved ones. Here is to their children, to the children who despite it all become artists, writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, activists and rebels. Here’s to Western Union and Money Gram. For never forgetting home.

Here’s to their children who carry the heartbeats of their motherland and even in sleep, speak with pride about their fathers. Keep on.

9. Self-Portrait With No Flag – Safia Elhillo

i pledge allegiance to my
homies to my mother’s
small & cool palms to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap

i pledge allegiance to the
group text i pledge allegiance
to laughter & to all the boys
i have a crush on i pledge
allegiance to my spearmint plant
to my split ends to my grandfather’s
brain & gray left eye

i come from two failed countries
& i give them back i pledge
allegiance to no land no border
cut by force to draw blood i pledge
allegiance to no government no
collection of white men carving up
the map with their pens

i choose the table at the waffle house
with all my loved ones crowded
into the booth i choose the shining
dark of our faces through a thin sheet
of smoke glowing dark of our faces
slick under layers of sweat i choose
the world we make with our living
refusing to be unmade by what surrounds
us i choose us gathered at the lakeside
the light glinting off the water & our
laughing teeth & along the living
dark of our hair & this is my only country

10. Desertion – Ladan Osman

I follow the mirage of a man and his son
in a boat. They drift on the shifting dune peaks, they raise their shoulders against the wind.
I call to them, my voice a large dog in a crowded yard.
Do they also holler at the sun? I have no faculty to hear them.

On Earth I made men into mist, and now feel my own
dust wander,
lift, and swirl. In the Afterlife, the weight of bodies
is heavy on the scale. If I were allowed to cry,
my tears would rust its beams. In the Afterlife, their weight
is a smoking fuse. Their souls don’t extinguish, they ignite
and reignite and never explode. I wait.

Featured image via Instagram

Editors’s note: This piece previously erroneously included a poem by Tapiwa Mugabe, who is a man. We regret this error – but continue to be inspired by his wonderful work.