The fine and noble tradition of protest poetry is in safe, strong hands with this latest collection from Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Ellis is a poet and photographer who is also Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and teaches in the Lesley University Low Residency MFA Program in Cambridge, MA. He is well known in poetry circles as an activist and a poet who resists the imposition of labels and upholds the wholeness of humanity. His first full-length collection, The Maverick Room, was published by Graywolf Press and won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. He is also the author of a chapbook The Genuine Negro Hero (Kent State University Press, 2001) and the chaplet Song On (Wintered Press 2005).
As the title states, this is a collection that addresses what it is to be black in this day and age. While the sentiments expressed can easily be transferred to any of a range of minority groups, the context is squarely that of black people in America. Ellis explores the rise of Barack Obama, the life and death of James Brown, and that of Michael Jackson, as he delves into where we as a society have come to in relation to equal rights and opportunities for black people. He also explores writing as an act and as a way subverting difference.
The very first poem, “As Segregation, As Us” calls into question the act of labeling as a method of fostering difference. Ellis asserts that giving a group a name or a point of difference, has them “forced into skin”, and means that they are automatically judged in specific ways. We are each an individual, like nothing other than ourselves, and deserve to be judged as such:
“Shut up about Sameness. Shut up about Difference.
I don’t allude like you. I don’t call me anything.
These genres these borders these false distinctions
are where we stay at
in freedom’s way.”
This is the key theme of the collection: we are all people and deserve to be judged equally. Ellis wants to be measured as a poet not as a Black poet. Emily Dickinson is a poet not just a female poet, Jackie Kay is a poet not just a gay poet, the act of labeling their work, or Ellis’, marginalizes them and their achievements.
“Ways to Be Black in a Poem” continues the examination of the Black voice in literature. Ellis discovers the common stereotypes that define Black American culture and the way they are represented in poetry. The talk, the walk, a perception of profanity, and a lack of “edjumacation”, these are the markers that Ellis references. Again, the question Ellis asks is why people, specifically Black people, are defined by historically inaccurate labels and perceptions. Does the label define the person, or does the person get to forge their own path?
Also included in this collection are examinations of the role of publishers and their ilk in whether a piece of writing is made available to the public. In “The Judges of Craft” Ellis tells tales of empty words and promises: “Much as I admire the stirring aspects of ‘The Obama Hour’ I regret to have to report that its overall effect is a little too strident for me. Sorry.” It is the control of his craft, of his vocation, that is the core of his issue. The writing is his, for him, by him. To be made to write to order, to fit in, goes against what it is to be a poet. One might as well write pop songs.
There are two memorial sequences in this collection as well. The first is about James Brown and includes some wonderful photographs. Ellis hails Brown as a leader in the civil rights movement and a music pioneer. The second is about Michael Jackson. While this sequence generally praises his musical abilities, it also casts a critical eye on some of Jackson’s other, more questionable behaviors. Perhaps most noticeable is the suggestion that James Brown stood up proudly as a strong Black man while Michael Jackson seemed to want to fit in with the white community. Another way to view this is that Jackson resisted the label of ‘Black’ while Brown embraced it: “Say it loud / I’m Black and I’m proud.” When all is said and done, no one can say that Michael Jackson was a conformist.
There is much to like in Skin, Inc. Thomas Sayers Ellis has a strong clear voice and is not afraid to clearly state his position on a number of issues. His call to account of the publishing industry is timely and highly relevant to a wide range of artists. His resistance to the labeling and classification of artists and the arts is also obvious and appropriate. He is a talented poet with forthright views about the way the world should work, and he is not afraid to assert them. As the title states, this is indeed an identity repair kit. Within it are the tools required to fix the catalogue of issues and breakages that have developed over years and generations.