“I can summarize the elements that these three authors have in common: eroticism and the corporealization of Africanness, the subversion of the feminine figure through Black religiosity, and marronage in the fabric of the body”
In this essay, I will consider a selection of poetry written by three women, identified as Afro-Colombian and with an active political participation in the processes of acknowledging their African ancestry and the history of slavery, as well as the processes of remembering and resistance by Black people, their knowledges, feelings, and organization. These women are Mary Grueso, Ashanti Dinah Orozco, and Rosa Chamorro. I want to read their poetic and aesthetic contributions from the ritual of the body placed in their oeuvre as a political textuality that deconstructs and de-structures the imaginary and the stereotype of the Black woman, at the same time as it restores the spiritual condition of being Black in daily life and in the cosmogony outlined by the aesthetics of their poems.
I share with Eliana Díaz Muñoz her critical reading of the text Antología de mujeres afrocolombianas, a compilation carried out in 2010 by Giomar Cuesta and Alfredo Campo in which the necessity of validating a category of authorship for the women who have written poetry throughout different historical periods up until the twenty-first century stands out. Díaz Muñoz points out the de-politicization, neutralization, and white-washed treatment of this selection, despite its valuable contribution to the visibility of the words and work of the women gathered in the text.
I also think the anthology editors’ contribution to defining the writers as Black women, dedicated to the vocation, is central, given that this acknowledgement recounts precisely the de-structuring of the colonial and exoticized imaginary of the Black woman, recognizing her as author and intellectual in a society that still objectifies and marginalizes women and views them as objects of desire or in traditionally patriarchal spaces. In this sense, I recognize the value of the anthology.
I want to read in this essay a selection of a couple of poems by each of the authors in which the relationship between ritual, the body, and the word are evinced as a political transgression with poetry. In this way—although I am not interested in the discussion around including oral textualities, given that this is a more complex construct and subject—I do want to emphasize that in Mary Grueso’s poetry there is an intent to use the colloquial word in order to bring the reader closer to the popular register. A sort of textual transfer of orality in writing that is also a political aesthetic in the poetic proposal. Chigualos, gualies, alabados (chants of funereal ceremonies and mortuary rituals from the Colombian Pacific), river songs, and popular poems with the sonorization of the Pacific coastal dialect make up this author’s poetic oeuvre. The acknowledgement of ancestors and of the Afro-Colombian woman is expressed in the vast majority of her poems.
In Rosa Chamorro’s poetics, in her book La Sierra Negra (2018), she lets us see the ontological relationship between body, nature, and word. The poetry is telluric; the word of the nurturing earth and everything it contains is a poetics of resistance by nature vis-à-vis precariousness, taking the Black world out of any exotic imaginary, and exalting that of the woman towards abundance and life. With it, the body-word is merged with the roots of the Sierra Nevada, of the Black family, of the drums, and of Black people living life. Without speaking from Afrocentrism, but rather from a natural picture of Black peoples that approaches everyday serenity, while at the same time convulsing and singing the social truths lived by impoverished and marginalized communities. The woman is herein that natural body that thinks herself alongside the other and engages in order to give life, to dignify.
“I UNDERSTAND THE FEMININE HEREIN NOT AS AN ESSENTIALISM PROPOSED FROM EACH AUTHOR’S POETICS, BUT RATHER AS A RITUAL VINDICATION WITH THE WORD THAT THE WRITERS ENUNCIATE IN ORDER TO GIVE LANGUAGE TO THE SACRED”
Complementing these politics of ritual and body, Ashanti Dinah Orozco, in her book Las semillas del Muntú (2019), presents us with a cosmogony rooted in her words, each one an incantation, a spell that revives in readers the lives of their ancestors. What is not said travels in the Black ancestral body, in the woman who gives a name to the muntú universe for universal Africanness, from her intimate, transhistorical, and transoceanic condition. This metaphysics of the feminine body expounds with abundant metaphors, fecund with beauty, with subtle irony, with the divine, and with the oneiric. This book is a ritual in itself. It is the bible and the act of being Black.
Finally, beyond entering the debate on sex-generic position about the authors and being a woman (and additionally a Black woman, which points to a double subalternation in the Colombian literary milieu), I interpret in the poetry of these authors their dissimilar contributions to poetizing the Afro-Colombian woman’s body and her politico-ontological condition, which surpasses the biological discussion and instead recovers a sort of vital knowledge about the feminine. Their authorship is nourished by an atavistic knowledge that dictates their very poetics from each individual contribution and is found precisely in the image and the treatment of it, in a kind of political response to being a Black woman, which in their poetry is authored as a ritual form and with othering knowledge, thereby de-structuring any stereotype. This is also how Díaz (2018) reads it in her critical essay on the anthology.
We paid tribute to Mary Grueso at the Biblioteca Popular Carlos Gaviria. We spoke virtually, through the means permitted by the pandemic—one of many tributes of which this writer is deserving for having opened a path for contemporary women writers. She is originally from the village of Chuare on the Napi River in Guapi, born in 1947. She is proud of being descended from slaves. She began her studies on the coast and earned her bachelor’s degree in teaching at the Universidad del Quindío. Later on, she specialized in Cultural Project Management and in Recreation at the Universidad los Libertadores in Bogotá. She works in recreation and cultural development, and she is one of the black-soul members of the Museo Rayo in Roldanillo. She has been a university professor at the Universidad del Valle, ICESI, the Universidad Libre, and the Universidad del Pacífico. At the Ministry of Culture, she has been successful in influencing the spread of Black culture in the country through her poetry and in childhood education. Her work as a cultural agent earned her a doctorate honoris causa from the Universidad del Valle in 2021.
The blood runs
creating a concert within me
and all of a sudden, my mouth begins to lactate
word after word
of an ancestral song.
Rise up, Black woman!
A voice orders me
from deep down within me
Didn’t you hear the marimba?
And the guasá neither?
Didn’t the cununo come to invite you?
Didn’t you hear the sound of the town crier bombo?
Don’t be deaf to the ancestral calling.
I Am Black
Why do they call me dark-skinned?
When dark-skinned is not a color,
it is the Black race that I belong to
and God made me Black.
And others rearrange the story
sayin’ I’m of color
supposedly to make things sweeter for me
and so I won’t get offended.
I’ve got my pure race
and of this I am proud,
of my African ancestors
and the beatin’ of the drums.
I come from a race that has
a story to be told
that breakin’ its chains
With blood and fire they broke,
the chains of oppression,
and that yoke of slavery
that for centuries crushed us.
The blood in my body
starts gettin’ all riled up,
it goes to my head
and starts protestin’.
I’m Black like the night,
like the mineral coal,
like the innards of the earth
and like the dark flintstone
So don’t pretend
sayin’ I’m of color,
callin’ me dark-skinned,
because it is Black that I am.
I met Ashanti Dinah Orozco at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo studying Linguistics and Literature. Over the years, I found out she was encouraging and training student teachers at the Universidad Distrital in the Afro-Colombian Studies Program. I acknowledged the force of her words in her poems, and I published a number of texts authored by her in the Revista Literariedad. She was born in Barranquilla (Colombian Caribbean); she’s an Afro-Colombian activist, poet, and educator. She is also a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) at Harvard University, in the Department of African and African American Studies and in Romance Languages and Literatures.
A Calabash of Water for My Dead
Only the memory of memory congregates the dead.
The edge of the sky along with the calendar of rains accompanies me.
I am never alone.
All of a sudden, they are here and now in my dreams.
Thinking, sometimes, my heart listens to them.
I summon them and an ocean of light emerges.
I feel them alive within me:
They travel in waves through all my bones
A legion rises within.
Their painted faces cast spells in my blood.
They leave traces of their breath in my paths.
I carry their shoots under the garden of my eyes.
I have on the tip of my tongue
Their laments, their saudade.
The robust accent of their steps beats
like the walk of a free leaf,
like a seed that murmurs in my hands,
like honey ecstatic in the tempest of my feet.
Here, on the altar of this table,
I invoke the energy of their names
as a tribute to life and death.
This morning I will give thanks, I will honor their lineage,
I will plant their voices in calabashes of water.
Orgasm of Creation
According to an ancient myth
the cosmos copulated,
our origin was orgasmic,
something like the same pleasure-pain we feel during the
friction of sex.
Perhaps the moaning of a star ejaculated
On some galaxy
And it exploded like the yolk of an egg in a thousand colors.
With the force of the wind, it was indispensable that a fleck of seeds spread out
inaugurating life on earth.
I met Rosa Chamorro in her home in Villa Epicuro, where she plays the drum and summons the rain. She was born in Sucre in 1985. Her academic background is in Philosophy, and she specializes in Public Policy and Gender Justice. Currently, she is finishing up her master’s degree in Afro-Colombian Studies at the Universidad Javeriana. She has worked as a social and political activist for the civil rights of Black communities of the Colombian Caribbean. She practices drumming in order to accompany her poetry. She’s an essayist and researcher of ancestral music. She has published the books Luna en Fuego and La Sierra Negra.
You are corn chicha, coconut ointment
And a little bit of firewood taste on the lips.
You pass your time singing in front of the river,
hoping for the ships to get lost like a maríamulata*,
black girl, you sing in the afternoons
by the Magdalena.
And the untouched Church, as if the years
didn’t hurt it,
puts together her wedding dress,
every day she waits…
The wind that passes
the rain perhaps
solid like the earth,
tell of a love in confession,
In vain one washes in the river,
or the cicada changes its skin,
the song remains in the soul,
it’s the same pain
we feel when we’re born.
Your grandmother knitted bougainvilleas,
winding them up like jingle bells,
and she waited for the immortelle
to come back to life in the mornings.
Have you seen the oriole hang its nest?
It appears here it disappears over there
Does the black girl bring death, or does she bring life?
every day the rooster sings at dawn!
I am the yam that stands up on a walking stick,
the cicada that hides in the earth.
I am perhaps the river,
or the rough sea, or the swamp
that hides behind
Aren’t I perhaps
the orange clouds
at dusk over the Magdalena?
And this crazy breeze
that pounds like wave over the earth.
And I am
the taste of firewood in my mouth
the mattock in the hand,
my Black grandfather’s gaze.
The bunch of plantains
that cost me
the first rebellion:
A forgotten Macondo.
I can summarize the elements that these three authors have in common: eroticism and the corporealization of Africanness, the subversion of the feminine figure through Black religiosity, and marronage in the fabric of the body. From what each author proposes, one can read, in summary, an ontology in a feminine key from which one reads the Black woman with her own imaginaries and sentiments going beyond the stereotype ascribed to her, and from which one can read her into culture.
I understand the feminine herein not as an essentialism proposed from each author’s poetics, but rather as a ritual vindication with the word that the writers enunciate in order to give language to the sacred from each of their visions of the everyday, of the intimate world, and even of the collective. In this way, the combined reading allows me to see their writing as an aesthetic politics that vindicates the power of the word from its vital drive, the power of the erotic as producing life through the literary.
Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio
*Maríamulata: A common bird on the Caribbean coast.