by Dana Stringer
In the poem “Skinhead,” the poet writes, “No, I ain’t part of no organized group,/ I’m just a white boy who loves his race,/ fighting for a pure country. (51-53)” Based on these three lines and the poem’s title, it’s not exactly difficult for a reader to identify the speaker in the poem. However, for any reader unfamiliar with the acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, and the popularity of this particular poem, it may come as a surprise to some readers to discover that the author is an African American woman. And that Smith’s white supremacist persona was created by her to speak the poem.
As poets, some of us are still inclined to follow the early advice we received from a well-intentioned instructor encouraging us to “write what you know.” And in a society saturated in self-help psychology that primarily places emphasis upon self and I, our ability to shift our attention away from self and focus on other can be challenging.
So, quite naturally, when we put pen to paper, we immediately plunge into the familiar and write the autobiographical details of our lives. Thus, our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences pervade our work. This is neither wrong nor bad. However, what Smith shows us, as well as other contemporary poets who abandon self to write about other, is that, by creating a character, embodying that character, and allowing that character to freely speak, a persona can give us insight and understanding about someone distinctively different than us, and perhaps elicit empathy in the poet and the reader.
Smith, however, may not necessarily be going after empathy. In fact, some poets are not. Poets rely upon the use of personas for many different reasons. For instance, a persona is often used as a revisionist tool to debunk myths, subvert constructs, remake narratives, reinterpret history, and the list goes on and on. But regardless of the reasons for creating and using a persona, the ability to immerse oneself in the life of another and adopt a different point of view enables us to gain a better understanding of other.
The poet and reader may not be able to relate to, identify with, or even share the same sentiments of the persona, but what happens is that the poet and reader begin to see things from a different perspective. Such an undertaking requires sensitivity and consideration for another’s feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, beliefs, and experiences.
In “Skinhead,” Smith puts on the skin of a white supremacist and walks in his boots, which goes beyond a mere impersonation or a staging of the character’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings. When a poet exhibits the ability to become intimately acquainted with a character, so much so as to suspend judgment as well as any preconceived ideas and perceptions, the poet opens us up to a life experience that we might not otherwise be interested in knowing about. Smith’s willingness to yield herself as a vessel in order to become the character is, in my opinion, an empathetic act.
The literary tradition of donning “the mask,” which is actually the meaning of the Latin word “persona,” is a long, rich, and interesting one. Poets have been using personas as an artistic tool for a long time, challenging and changing how we see and don’t see things. But more importantly, poets have been using personas as a way to enlighten us and promote understanding of other, which in many cases elicits empathy in us.
Dana L. Stringer is a poet, playwright, instructor, and freelance writer. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a Bachelors of Arts from Morehead State University. She is the author of In Between Faith (Black Picket Fence), her debut poetry collection. Dana’s work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines, and she has served as a contributing writer for several cultural entertainment websites. In 2011, she served as an associate editor for Beyond Words: The Creative Voices of WriteGirl, a literature anthology. She also has been a featured poet in various venues. Dana is also a produced playwright. Her produced plays and staged readings include:Kinsman Redeemer, ID, The Costume Waver, Soloman’s Porch,Colored in Winter, Secret Life in a Sacred House, and Looter. For more information, visit http://www.danastringer.com.