>Discussion generated on my poem "Langston…": writing about skin color
Recently I posted a link on Facebook from my blog — my poem “When Langston Hughes Visited My Home
“, one of the two published in the Guntur National Poetry Festival anthology released on July 2. Like the other one “Finding Foremothers
“, this too was appreciated a lot and generated quite a few comments.
What I always look for in the comments from my dear friends and readers is that keen eye for details about my poetic craft and the general topic in question.
One of them came from poet and friend Jen Pezzo Kerowyn-Rose who runs the literary journal “Mnemosyne“. In her eyes, ‘Langston’ was not only a well-crafted poem but also an interesting exercise in looking at race/color/ethnicity through my eyes, trained for the most part as Indian eyes.
This is what she wrote on my blog — “I love this poem. It is such a contrast to the way many Americans’ view skin color, even today. The title is perfect. My favorite stanza is the first one. I like the imagery. What an artfully crafted piece of work. :-)”.
With this thread we started off a discussion that has left me richer than ever. And I’d like to share some points with the others here…
1) Did I address the fact that I was writing about LH from childhood memory as part of my individual ‘color’ consciousness?
2) was it incorporated into a cultural universe where color/race was noticed/pointed out quite deliberately and as a tool for derision of the ‘other’ or just as an innocuous observation? That I wrote “dark-limbed poet”, is it because as a child I was inherently aware what ‘dark’ and ‘fair’ meant to a 10-year-old?
Jen’s observation that an American would speak/write differently (I believe some times, never) about skin color was a delight and I’m glad Jen and I went on to have a long discussion on a topic many would simply avoid.
— 1) I THINK… back then I didn’t have much of an ‘individual’ awareness or consciousness about skin color or what it might or might not mean… All I was aware of is that Rama or Krishna were blue/dark, Shiva too after wearing that ash coating all over and all that’s because it seemed a special quality possessed only by special gods! Ah, and Draupadi, the heroine of the epic Mahabharata too was “krishnangi”! And a beauty.
— 2) As for my upbringing in a certain cultural universe, I grew up in a liberal household with a spiritual mom (all Krishna worshippers on her side of the family) and a commie father (many commie uncles and an aunt who’s like a Joan d’Arc to me…) although paternal grandparents were diehard Shakti (goddess) followers, mostly believers of the Tantra or the Lokayata school of philosophy. Color (as a marker of race) was probably the least discussed aspect at home. I say the least, because when it came to describing individuals, often it went like this — “oh our neighbour, the dark gentleman with a moustache…” or “X’s new bride is quite fair although her dark sister is prettier… “.
No doubt some folks employed a certain bias based on these indicators but as a child I saw and heard very little of it from my folks. Then caste, that Indian social monster, was pooh-poohed at all levels because it popped up everywhere even if you didn’t believe in its rigors. Religion and creed/faith was a private affair, even for the older members who frowned upon the commie brigade!
So a child’s mind registered things it saw/read with a question/surprise:
“…why the smaller typeface said:
Poems by a dark-limbed poet, a collection,
I had no idea then”
The editors of the book put that blurb in there for an obvious reason, now I know better. It was not about racism or commenting about skin color, it was an assertion “Poems by a dark-limbed poet” (krishnanga kobir kobita — in Assamese). Jen rightly pointed out that this was really special, to be able to write/speak about a people in terms that were celebratory.
Celebratory it was. Krishna the god is ‘krishna‘ (literally means dark), so is Rama the King of Ayodhya, and so is Queen Draupadi (nicknamed Krishnaa), whose best friend is Lord Krishna!
However, a 10-yr-old is still surprised to encounter the “krishna”-ness among mortals:
“Dark limbs were not seen
On our book covers
Only limbs were, but then
Krishna is just not a word
For a god, it dawned on me
But skins and cheeks and
Strong arms of poetic force
On my table”
The word “krishnanga” (krishna + anga = dark limbed) in my child’s consciousness had signified the entry of a new entity. It was all about a celebrated name called Langston Hughes, the reference to him an assertion by those writers/editors/publishers who championed the cause of avant-garde literature, protest poetry and songs, alternative discourses and exhorting the sun to rise in a new direction — “hey xurjo uthi aha” in Assamese… and this bit I understood much later when my adult mind realized:
“Also the end of crowing nights
When a poet came home
Inside the covers of a book, smiling:
“That day is past!””
Just as today we celebrate ‘Jewish poetry’, ‘Asian-American writing’, ‘South-Asian fiction’, I am immensely proud that some of these vernacular literatures in India had long ago opened up their doors to the world in order to celebrate the “Krishna” or “Krishnanga” poets and writers.
Thank you Jen, for inspiring this lively discussion!
Postscript: After finishing this note I found this picture of Goddess Kali in Wikipedia. Kali literally means ‘black’ but it is also believed the etymology includes the Sanskrit word ‘kaal’ meaning time or eternity. As a child I saw different statues of Kali in different shades — midnight black, deep blue, dusky etc. — with different names as well, like, Smashaan Kali (goddess of the cremation ground); Shyama Kali (the dark/blue Kali), and Bhadra Kali (the householder’s goddess)
Image from the Internet (Wikipedia): Goddess Kali