Dichotomies and Dualities: A Review of t’ai freedom ford’s & more black
Review by Danielle Dudak
When you first pick up t’ai freedom ford’s second poetry collection, & more black, you may wonder where to begin. The double-sided book immediately disrupts the traditional linear reading experience and challenges you, the reader, to initiate the literary relationship – to turn the book over and over in your hands as you take in the seamlessly repeating blend of titles, illustrations, and ampersands.
The nearly symmetrical covers, designed by artist Alexandria Smith, do not suggest a front to the collection. Instead, respectively titled The Skin We Speak and the skin we speak, both images depict two Black bodies baring their breasts and curves, nipples touching as they stand in waist-deep water. These bodies are evocative and undeniably queered as they peer out at the reader with a sense of cool authority. Their doubling signals the dichotomies and dualities contained within the poems: whiteness vs. blackness, public vs. private, Black art, Black bodies, Black language, Black queerness.
Each half of the collection has its own praise page, acknowledgments page, and author bio. Each separate set of poems claims its own personality and narrative arc as the book’s overarching themes and threads converge. Many of the individual poems honor and interact with the work of historical and contemporary Black artists and leaders including conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, visual artist Wangechi Mutu, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and photographer Carrie Mae Weems. ford calls up these visionaries as both a source of personal inspiration and as a testament to the traditions and voices of Black communities.
This is evident in ford’s poem “i sell the shadow to sustain the substance,” epigraphically after Sojourner Truth and Glenn Ligon. In conversation with Truth’s iconic carte de visite portrait and Ligon’s related work, which quotes from Truth’s portrait caption, ford confronts the historical struggles of Black women. As Truth fought for ownership over her image, mind, and body, so too – albeit in a different era and under altered circumstances – does ford, so too do contemporary Black women. The poem reads:
is this body possible? or do i
merely exist as melancholy gesture –
self-portrait as shrug eye roll blank stare
sacrificing shadow the body remains
Despite invoking artists and responding to their work, Ford’s poems stand on their own. Their explorations of Black art, Black love, and Black life are independently rich, inviting the uninitiated to take part in the observations and deconstructions. The poems rely less on reader's previous or outside knowledge and instead make room, engaging in conversation in an accessible way. ford’s poem “instructions for a freedom,” after Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski’s drawing of the same name, does just this:
… shooting stars ain’t nothing but black
chicks doing back flips fuck flux: gravitate
black & rotate that axis till this universe
Moleski’s drawing features thick Black and Brown bodies in positions of power, femme figures unafraid of physical or sexual exertion. Her canvases are cosmic forces of nature, fantastical rides into a Black spiritual realm. ford’s poem radiates this same energy, sharing Moleski’s vison while simultaneously crafting an original lyric landscape.
Many of ford’s poems follow the legacy of Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets, trading Shakespeare’s tempo and form for the influences of jazz, hip-hop, and African American Vernacular English. These substitutions infuse ford’s poems with contemporary relevance and representative power. This includes one of the two possible opening poems, “#notorious.” The poem’s final stanza reads:
cannot contain us tame us us anger shameless
thus anger hangs us we be beautiful & blameless
hollywood shuffle nigger entertain us must be
tragic traffic target you don’t know us
till triggers name us murder us we famous –
The title, taking the form of a hashtag, references both Twitter’s frenzied 24-hour news cycle and the platform’s active social justice communities who often draw attention to brutalities inflicted upon Black individuals. The rest of the poem then goes on to confront the violence of white supremacy and questions society’s insatiable appetite for Black entertainment, i.e., Black suffering. Unknown until gunned down, digitally memorialized and thus suspended in death, Black bodies are exploited as their private histories and lives are abruptly turned public. And yet, at the same time, art is arguably made from community as individuals rally in opposition to meaningless death – a Black refusal to be forgotten.
Much as ford’s poems invoke memorable artists and moments, you will not soon forget her collection & more black. Gloriously confrontational, unyieldingly critical, and at times challenging, & more black offers a dynamic and creative space for the exploration of Black experiences. Above all, Ford’s collection is a skillful celebration of Blackness in a world rife with complicating dichotomies and divisive dualities.