Drawing from her Palestinian roots, as well as her experiences of growing up in Brookryn, poet Suheir Hammad’s collection, Born Palestinian, Born Black shows readers what it means to struggle as a woman, as a Palestinian, and as an immigrant. Hammad’s strong voice takes us to the broken streets of Brooklyn, the war torn Palestine, and the intimate conflicts that make up this speakers’ friendships and family. She breaks traditional poetry rules, oftentimes embracing the language of the street. Here, Hammad offers us a personal account of poverty, war, and survival.
From the beginning, this collection holds nothing back. The language is unflinching, and oftentimes shocking. The speaker immediately pulls readers out of their comfort zones. In the poem “blood stitched time” the speaker reflects on the ongoing crisis in Palestinian: “stand under the strain of false peace jammed up hopes / we speak with dried olive branches / caught in chests” (lines 34-36). The speaker, mourning, says she is tired of “watching kids get bombed and blown” (line 25). Then, we are taken back to the streets of Brooklyn, where the speaker says the following about her people’s refugee statuses in the United States: “whose mouth was jammed silent / with food stamps in brooklyn” (lines 42-43). I love Hammad’s writing because of its rawness and uncleanliness. Her words don’t try to be pretty in their protest, but you can count on each poem delivering a lot of truth.
In the poem “99 cent lipstick” the speaker looks back at the harsh streets of Brooklyn that raised her. She laments the friends she lost to jail and drugs, and reflects on the ways “we killed each other with / a fear that wasn’t even ours” (lines 69-70). The language in this poem is accessible to many. Through Born Palestinian, Born Black Hammad creates a space where everyone can grieve, and where she shows us that suffering is something we all feel. The speaker is doesn’t forget her origin, and pays homage to Brooklyn, and to Palestine.
Born Palestinian, Born Black took me a few days to read. I was amazed by Hammad’s voice and urgency. Each poem has a life of its own, a movement that is uniquely hers. The collection was originally published in 1996 by Harlem River Press, but was reprinted in 2010 by UpSet Press (The University of Arkansas Press is the distributor of Upset Press).
Buy Born Palestinian, Born Black here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about UpSet Press: “UPSET PRESS is an independent press based in Brooklyn.The original impetus of the press was to upset the status quo through literature. The press has expanded its mission to promote new work by new authors; the first works, or complete works, of established authors, including restoring to print new editions of important texts; and first time translations of works into English. Overall, the Press endeavors to advance authors’ innovative visions and bodies of work that engender new directions in literature.”
View Suheir Hammad on TED Talk below: