Blackness was once a soft spot. A vulnerability. Black people have always been strong, but “blackness” was once a collective Achilles Heel. It was strong enough to withstand a middle passage and resilient enough to bellow slave songs of freedom, but it whispered when “Massa” came around. It looked up to the heavens, but cast its eyes toward the floor when White women walked past. It stood up for freedom, but simultaneously sat on the back of busses.
But Blackness is armor now. It is frustrated and unsmiling. Lately Black art has reflected this. It is unflinching obstruction with arms folded. It is the defiance of fist raising and unapologetic noncompliance. Any art labeled “conscious” or “woke” has become grizzled and hard. Works like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me” or Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” find their beauty in the sour matter-of-factness that stares you in the eyes and dares you to… whatever. Black art don’t dance no more, all it does is hiss.
When I received a copy of Dasan Ahanu’s “Everything Worth Fighting For: An exploration of being Black In America,” I didn’t know what to expect. Although I knew him as a spoken word artist, I was also aware that he was a scholar and researcher of hip hop holding the Nasir Jones fellowship at Harvard. I knew he was an English professor and had sat in one of his workshops on the fundamentals and contextual literary devices used by–wait for it… Lil Wayne, Beyoncé and Kanye. I didn’t know if “Everything Worth Fighting For” was a work of scholarly critiques, an autobiography or a series of essays. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a collection of poetry examining Blackness from a fairly unique perspective.
“Everything Worth Fighting For” is Black-skinned but not scowling. It shares the pain and the forlorn wistfulness of the Black experience without feeling hopeless. It is Blackness, once wounded, and still pink from peeling off the scabs–healing but not yet healed. What sets it apart from a lot of art that explores the Black existence is that he doesn’t contextualize this actuality as existing in a White world, he simply writes of existing, which makes this collection extremely human.
…we’re all just balloons
Strung to existence on earth
but desperate for the heavens.
The poetry begins with personal fragments of Black lives that lay bare hope, sorrow, joy and despair. It is the syrupy reminiscences of passed-down wisdom in “Grandfather’s Parable” that instills confidence but reminds that “the devil is watching. It is a hopeful open letter to a child in “Dear Daughter.” It is the dreamy optimism in “Litany for Tomorrow” that proclaims “there are those of us who prefer optimism over fear,” who “don’t want to see demons in mirrors…” The poetry reminds the reader that Black people are more than simple survivors of slave trauma and Jim Crow remnants. He eschews this collective pain for a beautiful narrative of personal sorrow in “Lula.”
Even through his aspirational humanity, Ahanu does not shy away from the harsh reality of Blackness. The second third of the collection dives into this, but uses the same introspective intimacy which somehow makes the poetry even more revelatory than the intimate pieces of the first third of the book. “Burn” feels like Ahanu is exposing a personal internal conflict be once wrestled with between the clean-handed, scholarly elitism of the “Black intelligentsia” and the still-smoldering fire of revolutionary youth. Or maybe he just exposed my innermost conflict when he speaks of sitting in a an office of a college established to educate freed slave wondering how he “got talked into tying the slipknot.” He reveals our collective connection to the lost fearlessness of youth when writes “there is a conscience who wants to be his pen pal.” Damn, I miss that.
It becomes unabashedly critical of society in the latter third of the collection, and here is where Ahanu’s collection shines. These are not poems fit for church services or fireplace mantle picture frames. “Sciaphobia” (the fear of shadows) is as haunting as it is brutish in its truth.
But hoods filled with dark skin are not dangerous
Do not be fooled
I know who really made hoods famous
“Safe”–the story of the arrest of a poet–is at once a harsh criticism of a cop and the cops. The collection becomes political and social commentary without ever losing its personality. It never preaches. It barely teaches. Ahanu slices opens his chest, lays its contents on the table, allows you to examine it and says, “Look at this. I hope you can learn something from it.”
Books are made for different purposes. I consumed “Between The World And Me” was on plane trips and train rides. Novels like Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” are for vacations and road trips. Then there is the category of books I buy most often–ones I can consume in short, intermittent bursts and know that those few minutes can fulfill me. “Everything Worth Fighting For” is this kind of book. Read it while waiting in the long line at Target, while on the toilet or while taking an Uber ride across town. Each poem is an individual Jenga block for a collection that shows, at once, how diverse and dainty Black existence can be.
Dasan Ahanu’s Everything Worth Fighting For: An exploration of being Black in America is available in paperback and Kindle edition here: