White Stains and Glistening Black

Ellen Gwin

Dr. Anton Vander Zee

American Poetry

27 September 2022

White Stains and Glistening Black

     According to the Poetry Foundation the Black Arts Movement symbolically began the day after Malcom X was assassinated in 1965 when Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones at the time) said he would leave his home in New York’s Lower East Side for Harlem. (The Black Arts Movement). This movement created a space inspired by the current political climate for black people to emphasize self-determination, “a separate cultural existence for Black people on their own terms, and the beauty, and goodness of being Black” (The Black Arts Movement). This allowed for what Margo Natalie Crawford describes as when black people in poetry not only found creative power as a matter of reaching inside, but also as a matter of reaching out, “from the realm of inner consciousness to the outer realm of collective action” (95). This is also what Neal would refer to as a way for black people to develop “‘a new synthesis; a new sense of literature as a living reality” connected to their own experiences” (Shockley 183). One of the collective ways some poets in the Black Arts Movement approached the new style of poetry was by appealing to oral and aural traditions (Shockley 186). According to Crawford, “the soundtrack of the Black Arts movement was jazz, soul, rhythm, and blues, and the spoken word that paved the way for hip hop” (96). A.B. Spellman believed that most Black Arts poets desired to be jazz musicians in private (Crawford 94). Not only did black people draw on jazz and oral tradition for inspiration, but of current Black vernacular speech, and experimentation with sound, spelling, and grammar (The Black Arts Movement).

     Carolyn Marie Rodgers was a poet strongly associated with the Black Arts Movement. She attended writing workshops led by Gwendolyn Brooks and workshops held by the Organization of Black American Culture. She also founded Third World Press, an black-owned press company, alongside Haki Madhubuti, Johari Amini, and Roschell Rich (The Black Arts Movement). Structurally, Rodgers wrote in a free-verse style using street slang which some men found “inappropriate” for a woman” (Nelson 529). Her poetry addresses issues surrounding intersectional feminism as well as ideas surrounding Christianity and “the church’s foundational role in her life” (Nelson 529). 

     Rodger’s Poem “Mama’s God” is a free-verse style poem about how God has no race. The poem begins by the speaker stating their mother’s God was not a white man and neither was Jesus. The speaker goes on to say that they, the speaker and the mother, had the color black: the color of “her arches and trials, the tribulations of her hearts” (Nelson 531). One could also interpret the “they” in “the color they had was the color of / her arches and trials, and the tribulations of her hearts” as referring to God and Jesus as a reflection of her own (and others’ collective) hardship (Nelson 531). The speaker then states that, while praying, their “mama” never had a savior who would ignore her  just because she was black because who she was praying to “didn’t and ain’t got / no color” (Nelson 531). 

     Rodger’s poem speaks to both oral and aural tradition. In this poem, “Mama’s God,” Rodgers uses repetition of the words “mama,” “never,” “was,” and “had” to create a soothing rhythm and call upon aural tradition, a staple of the Black Arts Movement. The swaying of the form where one line is adjusted left then one adjusted right also adds to this lullaby-like feeling, making it feel more like a prayer or a hymn.. The use of past tense and “to be” verbs also creates a sense of storytelling akin to oral tradition.

     True to the Black Arts Movement, Rodger’s poem speaks to a collective black experience: navigating a relationship to Christianity in White America. With Christianity being a religion thrown upon black people during the African Diaspora, the white representation of Christianity remains prevalent (i.e. white depictions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints). Because of this it would be difficult to conceptualize a personal relationship with Christianity, especially when one is told humans were made in the image of God yet no representation of a black God or Jesus exists. This idea becomes increasingly interesting to explore when Shockley introduces Addison Gayle’s idea that “the idealization of the color white as symbolizing purity, goodness, and beauty, and the demonization of the color black as taint, evil, and ugliness across centuries of European thought” (181). When these ideas of white as pure and black as impure are floating around it’s hard to actualize a relationship with Christianity as a black person if one feels inherently impure and unable to attain a life free of sin. When the speaker in “Mama’s God” states that God has no color the speaker states that God olds love for all: black, white, sinners, and saints. 


Questions for the class: Do you feel there’s a way to begin writing literature in a light where the color black, disconnected from politics, could symbolize purity? How do you think black people navigated Christianity in a White America back then and how has that relationship changed now?


A book recommendation I have that explores the idea of a black Virgin Mary is Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

Something else I found interesting while writing this is in Natchez, Mississippi there is a lady with the last name Killelea who paints black Virgin Marys (I have one on my bookshelf).

Our Lady of Czestochowa, Polish Black Madonna and Jesus

One Response to White Stains and Glistening Black

  1. Isaac September 28, 2022 at 10:21 pm #

    Hey Ellen! I really liked reading your post, and also that painting is really awesome—the face reminds me of Picasso who took a lot from African Mask art. I really enjoyed your focus on the Rodger’s poem “Mama’s God.” It was probably my favorite out of all the reading. The aural quality of it was very interesting and the symmetry of the consonance I found to be very enjoyable to read. But beyond the aural qualities, I found the content to be very heartbreaking in its alienation. Representation is certainly a hot topic in today’s media, but with religion, and especially in the Black experience, I haven’t heard too many discussions about the two. And it feels cruel, the false, arbitrary idealization of the color white in relation to god, given the fact that Jesus was definitely not a pale white male, he definitely had more of a dark complexion. Him being the God made flesh certainly should give importance to how the flesh actually looked. But even beyond this its also a God that was just forced onto Black people after the African diaspora. It’s all a mess it seems. But the mother’s faith in the poem does not seem any less genuine, if anything it seems more genuine because it’s able to go beyond the representation of Christ, and shows God as the person who won’t turn their back on anyone regardless of their color.

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