I would not know I was a poet if I had not been told

Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Regardless of political orientation, it is undeniable that this nation is on an uncertain path for many of its constituents, particularly for women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, the LGBTQIA, undocumented, and low-socioeconomic-status community.

For many of us, myself included, this environment breeds a noxious kind of fear: one that is ever-present and weighted, like a stone in the mouth.

It’s rooted in a present that encompasses a set of possible futures so varied that they are not easily categorized. None of the language available seems broad or terrible enough. Every day I cycle through an ever-growing list of fears, a list that shifts every time I look away, just enough so that it is unrecognizable by the time I get back to it. It doesn’t help that it retitles itself constantly. (American Fascist. The End of Civil Liberties. The Great White Fear).

For me, a writer, life is a process of naming, of grouping like terms. A thing named is a thing seen. A thing seen can be empowered or, alternately, resisted. All my life, I’ve had names: the ones my parents gave me, Delali (God lives in you) and Abena (born on a Tuesday); and the ones silently levied on me by society — femme, black, fat — that feel, at once, fiercely claimed and imposed.

Ultimately, when I called myself a poet, I became a thing truly named. It is poetry and my work in the arts that has confirmed my existence in a culture that seeks to erase me in thought, action, feeling and consideration.


For background: I am a Ghanaian (plantain-loving) American (hardhead) born in Houston to a mother from North Carolina and a father from the Motherland. I spent my childhood on The Continent (the dark one) until age 15, when I voluntarily moved to the backwoods of Northwest Michigan (the white snowy ones) to study creative writing.

In Michigan, at Interlochen Arts Academy I lived in a place where my physical form garnered much attention.

In America, blackness backed me into a corner (loud, fetishized, exotic) that I could only write myself out of.

My first Michigan fall I began a regime of eloquence as resistance. I wrote a series of poems (title: “Blaxploitation”) about black women and their relationship to hair.

One of them (title: “Threshold”) centered around a name: Madame C.J. Walker; the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire. A woman created the first commercially available chemical hair relaxer for black women. A woman who, ironically, used the assimilation of black bodies as her way into a realm of never-before-experienced black success. It was a path I found (like silence in response to a white hand on my natural hair) dangerously seductive.

Poetry worked me through the paradoxes of Sarah and C.J., leading to my first win in a local competition. At the Michigan Youth Writers Conference in Kalamazoo, I read my poem on a stage behind a lectern, the spotlight on me so bright that I could not see the audience in the darkened auditorium, so bright that I could not be sure they were actually present until I heard the applause.

The validation of that moment was twofold: I had expected a recognition of my words, but I had not anticipated the validation of myself. Under the lights, I had the name of “poet,” and with a name easily identifiable, readily summoned, I could be seen, finally seen. I felt succinct, purposeful. The power of that moment scared me.

In competition, I gained recognition writing poetry about my body, my race, my confusion over my appetite for the white maleness I spent hours trying to narrativize. Delali-as-poet led to moments of great triumph. At 18, I became a National YoungArts Foundation finalist and, subsequently, a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. The summer after my high school graduation, I stood in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C, flanked by wall-sized blow ups of the same Madame C.J. Walker poem I had written three years before, a gold medal inscribed with the signature of the first black president on a thick, red, white and blue, ribbon around my neck. The message seemed heavy-handedly clear; it was as though someone had been calling my name for years, and for the first time I had looked up.

Inevitably I’ve found myself back at the beginning. I still have my names: still Delali and Abena, still fat, still black, still femme, still poet, always resisting. In I would not know I was a poet if I had not been told, consistently, by those around me. Outside validation of my work led to an inner confirmation and confidence otherwise inaccessible. Now, more than ever, the names that we give ourselves mean everything. The process of self-affirmation is what will help us define our fear, and ultimately, conquer it.

Delali Ayivor is a Miami-based 2011 YoungArts winner in writing and a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She explores post-colonial identity through poetry. She will be in conversation with poet Natalie Diaz on April 18 at YoungArts’ “Salon Series: Women + Words,” in collaboration with O, Miami Poetry Festival.