Johnson Converts Insults to Compliments in Poetry

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

Editor’s note: This article contains a racial slur.

Spoken word poet Janae Johnson opened her performance Saturday at the Cat in the Cream with a “basketball poem.” She filled the room with empowering lines: “She’ll be picked last, but she’ll outshoot the entire team” and “He mad — she on the sixth grade team as a fifth grader.” While slam poetry can often be emotionally draining because of its heavy themes, Johnson’s piece, which focused on the achievements of Black female athletes, set a tone of success and triumph. “She win,” the closing line of the poem, was a theme that resonated throughout the evening.

Johnson herself has gained much recognition within the slam community. Originally from Sacramento, CA, she is a 2015 National Poetry Slam champion and the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam champion. She has also coached and advised the Simmons College (Speaks) Slam Team in Boston, but recently moved to Berkley, CA. Her performance at Oberlin was one of her first this year. She explained that “this show is keeping me accountable for performing.”

Johnson’s poem “Dyke Movement” turned homophobic words into a humorous and supportive creative work that expressed her outrage. She explained how she wrote the poem about a man who said, “Uh oh, beware of the dyke movement,” as he walked passed her. “I just went in on him,” she said. Her poem describes the man as “the kind of boy who skips rocks in the bathtub and wonders why things aren’t going nowhere,” and “the kind of boy who lives vicariously through WorldStarHipHop.” Through repetition, Johnson builds the persona of a homophobic man. The refrain “the kind of boy” sends the message that ignorant people, are all too similar. The anaphora shifts toward the end of the poem to an empowering “I will take” refrain, as in the line, “I will take your clothes and wear them better than you, boy.” Johnson ends with a clinching line characteristic of her poetry — “Beware of my movement.”

Another poem, “Black Rage,” also focuses on Johnson’s identity as a Black queer woman. She tells the story of getting into a fight at school with a white girl, and how her mom made her apologize to the girl afterward. Reflecting on the experience, Johnson writes, “Eighteen years later, think about this thing called Black rage, think about how my mother saw it first and perhaps feared its teeth. Think about all the good reasons to call me a nigger. Think about how that white girl didn’t have a good reason to call me a nigger, and she threw the first punch and I was the one who had to unlearn to fight.” By uncovering the racism operating in the interaction, Johnson’s poem legitimizes Black people’s experiences of feeling like they need to apologize for defending themselves. OSlam poet and College senior B.J. Tindal, who opened for Johnson, read a poem that prefaced “Black Rage” well, since it also dealt with respectability politics. With lines like, “See me place the word please before most sentences,” and “Do not ask me to say thank you to prove that I’m deserving,” the piece illustrates Tindal’s experience with language reflecting internalized racism. While Johnson’s poem talked about how society forced her to “unlearn” to fight and to feel rage, Tindal’s piece illustrated unlearning oppressive patterns of speaking in overly polite language.

Though much of Johnson’s work speaks to personal experience, Johnson took a moment to step out of her own perspective to perform “Black Girl Magic,” a persona poem. The work was based off characters from In Living Color, a sketch comedy television series with a mostly Black cast that aired on Fox in the 1990s. One of the characters is a young girl named Lil Magic, whose inability to do anything right and lack of talent became a frequent punchline. Johnson’s poem is written from the perspective of Lil Magic’s mother, who is taking her to film auditions. Johnson writes, “Those other white girls in the waiting room were all pale and blue eye make-up. And they’d look at my Magic as if they just spat her out in a lukewarm water fountain. And I’d wonder if they be askin’ their mamas if they’re beautiful every morning, or if they already stepped into this world knowing the answer to their own questions.” Johnson overturns racialized beauty standards with the mother’s self-affirming message to her daughter. The end of the poem reads, “One day, you’re gonna look in the mirror as if it were the first time you ever seen yourself. And you gonna see all that black. You gonna see all that womyn. You gonna see all that shine. And the only thin’ you gon’ hear is: Yes. Yes. Yes.” The persona form, which works synergistically with the performative aspects of slam, emphasized what it means to support your child as a Black mother within a society framed by white privilege.

To close, Johnson chose to present a classic queer love poem — something without which many slam performances wouldn’t be complete. “Hallelujah,” filled with double entendre, boasts bold lines like, “A second chance is a second coming.” “I feel so welcome in this church,” Johnson said.