When Rap Spoke Straight to God cover[Tin House Books; 2018]

When Erica Dawson was writing When Rap Spoke Straight to God, she found herself becoming increasingly disheartened with what was happening in society. She writes in an interview conducted over Facebook chat that “Frankly, white men seemed intent on silencing women, especially women of color. Our experiences and opinions didn’t matter. We were robbed of our subjectivity, our complexities. It was extremely important to me to use my voice, and to fully own it, and to use it to acknowledge the experiences of other women, even fictional women.” And, Dawson does just that. When Rap Spoke Straight to God is a long poem that directly addresses the texts of the typical white male-dominated literary canon while reclaiming and centering, not only her experiences as a Black woman, but the experiences of the women who are generally silenced or all but invisible in these texts. She doesn’t steer clear of the Bible, nor does she turn away from other culturally foundational texts such as those from myth and fairytale. Dawson is in deep interaction with every text she comes across, and she makes it clear that she is on equal footing with the characters there whether they are god/desses, holy people, pop stars, angels, Jesus or even the Christian God. Within these pages, Dawson speaks boldly in the name of reclamation and healing, not only for her own sake, but for those who never got a chance to have a say.

Further, Dawson incorporates her physical landscape, her home, the home of her friends and family, the prevailing news, societal ills, and personal experience. She pulls up those experiences, as well as Black culture as she knows it, so that it may stand toe-to-toe with all that is otherwise imposed. The prescribed canon does not speak to the Black experience. And even as that experience includes just as many struggles and imbalances as it does boons and beauty, Dawson brings the Black canon and experience necessarily to the front:

I was looking for “texts” that speak to the Black experience. I couldn’t find that experience in the [literary] Canon/the Bible/etc. Even though a good deal of rap music can be just as misogynistic and problematic as what I’ve found in the Bible and other books, I still feel extremely connected to much of the genre — rappers like Wu-Tang, Lauryn Hill, and others not featured in the book. I understand the frustration that U-God expresses in the phrase “You ain’t heard us in a minute” even though he isn’t talking about religion. I relate to Lil Kim’s insistence on highlighting the beauty of the female Black body. Embracing the Black canon, whether it’s our music or visual art or poetry or whatever is most definitely paramount. We can speak for ourselves. We don’t need someone else to tell us about our experiences.

For the reader, this book feels like an initiation into the Black canon, this textual realm that never takes what has already been imposed and touted as written in stone at its word. Untruths are outed, and the “saviors” who have made so many fantastical promises are made for once to listen. Dawson sits them in a chair for a tête-à-tête and lets them know that they have not delivered on any of their promises, and then, knowing that nothing will change, carries on with the women she has rounded into the conversation, and those mothers, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers who have been carrying forth all along — all of these women continuing to do the work of reclamation and healing in the end.

Dawson is in relationship with these characters, and points out that though the male figures in these texts are so often depicted as gods and saviors, they are out of touch and emotionally unavailable. “I wish I’d dream a Lady Jesus exists,/ insisting in the garden’s olive trees,” one section of the book-length poem reads. Dreaming and believing in a character like this is not only a source of inspiration, but a powerful foundation for a necessary rewriting of lineage and the canon.

But in the meantime, the narrator is in a sense navigating on her own. She relates in our interview that “To do this, I had to relive painful emotions and make myself remember incidents of harassment and assault; but, to reclaim my voice I had to claim these experiences, acknowledge that they happened, and give myself a chance to heal, on and off the page.” The saviors weren’t there to help her, and she told them so:

Sometimes even Jesus needs to hear the truth. I grew up thinking there was this all-powerful God who would jump in and save us when we needed him. I trusted that. But it’s not true. Get him a gun and it’s still not true [“Get it right Jesus. Get you a gun.”] It’s not going to happen. We can’t rely on that and just sit back and watch the world implode. We have to do the work to save ourselves. And I definitely feel like it’s us women who are pushing for a better future, who are pushing for change. We are the hero we need, not a mythical man or a real man or any man. We are the strength we need.

These realizations were hard earned. It is deep and consistent work that leads towards standing up to and negating the imposition of external demands:

To hold — grasp, carry, or support,
detain, incarcerate, intern,
impound; the what after the court;
archaic: Girl, you got to learn
your place. Adhere; maintain.

The girl does not accept her place, and this act is powerful. She faces these external demands, persists in finding truth that coincides with what is felt in one’s body, what is lived. Though she queries the gods, often even mouths off at them, she finds answers via her own initiative and her own striving. Through her poetry she expresses the belief that there is no separation between nature, spirit, and the body. Living itself is recognized as holy and requires no prescribed performances.

The poems in this book do not elevate the spiritual, nor do they treat the carnal as dark or something lesser than Spirit. For example, in these lines we are reminded that “The gospel says that flesh gives birth/ to flesh and it gives birth to spirit.” The spiritual, the mythical, the practical, the life lived even as it is imposed upon exists on the same plane. Everything is sacred here, especially life itself. Dawson reminds in our chat that “Life and living are the most valuable things we have. Life is holy. Just getting up every day is divine. The power of the human spirit, to me, is the most powerful ‘entity’ out there! Our experiences are sacred, and we should praise ourselves for surviving and pushing forward. We should be revered.” This kind of talk is what enables Dawson to look the archangel Gabriel squarely in the eyes, and have a much-needed heart-to-heart with Jesus.

Dawson’s book moves with the kind of energy needed to knock the block off of all the lies we’ve been told. It challenges the cultural expectations of women, the moments in which Blackness is treated as invisible and/or a commodity, and it interrogates a distant or absent God, interweaving religion and culture and shining a clarifying light into scripture, myth, and fairytales to seek out what lies beyond the wall of what has been told versus what has not been told. This book also shows examples of the fleeting miracles, or “sparks” as the author calls them, that occur just from living. “I saw peace, one time,” Dawson writes, “And I saw dusk that plagiarized my one/ and only prayer — .”

In the book’s first poem, the narrator, who is coming of age, grows into her personal power by some important realizations. The god that she has learned about is inaccessible, and has all but in fleeting moments, abandoned the landscape; the fairytales promulgated as hope are nothing more than deceits, and the women in the Bible are all too relatable.

I knock out Sleeping Beauty, fucking cock
her on the jaw. She falls into the briar.
Pussy. I find her prince. I up and sock
him, too. I call each one of them a liar.

The narrator doesn’t see herself in the stories of princesses “who lie there underneath/ a spell of something better still to come.” The narrator reclaims a power that would otherwise be denied, and extends to the silenced women of the white canon a voice. It’s a powerful act that can only be seen as sisterhood. For example, we hear the voice of Virgin Mary loud and clear (at last!):

           I deserve a steed for this.
The sex that didn’t need bodies. This swag. No hip
craned nearly out its socket. Not one flex.

Mary owns what she deserves for her labor and knows that she was not paid; she sees clearly the denial of the natural needs of her body, and the silencing of her personhood in the service of men. Joseph is silent in these lines so that Mary may speak. This is a powerful moment, as is what happens next when the narrator, who is finding sexual desire and pleasure for the first time, finds herself on equal footing with these women. She recognizes her holiness as aligned with all the women in the stories she has heard and read. Her holiness is embodied. There is a recognition here that all of these women’s bodies are invaluable, that their experiences are sacred, as are all the facets of their lives. The profane is a lie. The idea of the whore is an untruth. Mary Magdalene is raw, sensual, and also a healing woman. Living and holiness are not separate, they are intertwined. Dawson gives Eve a voice, too:

She said, I preceded you,
Adam. You didn’t have to fracture you,
break frame to find me.

This is how the narrator finds her lineage in a world where God and miracles are largely absent, but for fleeting moments. The body carries all of the senses. “I know the bodies of the body well.” The body is not separate from spirit, and through these lines, through this deep inquiry of the silent parties of these texts, even “the Holy Spirit finds its voice,” and we learn that the flesh and blood of god could be a woman’s.

I’m a maenad shape-
shifting inside a sheltered cave. 

And when the grave sky’s body-farm
of gods and gutted animals
serves me, you’ll eat me, masticate
me with your tongue. My mouth, a bit
of gristle.

There are so many examples in these pages of how the stories told across texts do not match up with actual experience. It becomes apparent, because of the way the narrator experiences fully in her body, that the texts can only feel true if one is disembodied. But all things affect the body, even the news. In Dawson’s second section of her poem, we read that

Today, the paper boasted this —
Five Local Policeman Tied to KKK
italicized as if to shout, It’s new.

There is a constant threat of disembodiment in the landscape, and it is an extension of the texts that inform that landscape. Taking note and paying close attention to one’s own experiences seems to be an anchor and compass here, where the narrator can then sift through the stories, ask questions about what is missing, extend a hand to those who never get to speak. This feels like a way in which the narrator can then secure connection and sometimes mentorship (“I got everything I need in Virgo”), and also camaraderie.

Finding meaning, a sense of self, even when the stories don’t align with what life looks like, and/or when reality pushes against or pulls apart any sense of structure, are acts the author navigates. There are moments of serenity and beauty, but they never last because reality hits; the grit and violence of landscape interrupt the light of every miracle.

Get it right Jesus. Get you a gun.
This is your chance at vigilante.

Bring this shit home and fucking ante
up your omnipresence. Because
in the beginning, there was
it good?

This is how powerful a character we need for the kind of change necessary for a different kind of life where Black women’s bodies, and the bodies of their friends and families, are not threatened with disembodiment. “Some kind of Jesus, though I’m never saved,” she writes of a lover. Jesus, the lover, are outed as irresponsible, aloof, and possibly apathetic. The canon and its gods have failed us. The canon and its men have failed us. Dawson composes her own prayers and blessings, no longer waiting for a savior to come:

Dear Lord, please
bless all the girth of black
Mandingo-looking Hercules,
cracked-out preemies, the ashy knees,
negroes yakety-yak

Bless this
matter. Black life apparently,
now matters. Saw the effigy
on FB.

The narrator has joined in the tradition of women carrying all of the emotional labor right down to the book’s final blessing/prayer. And she isn’t pussyfooting about it. Along the way to the book’s final resolution, she’s yelling at all the saviors who have ultimately failed us, and she shows by example how to band together with the mothers and sisters whose voices get lost in patriarchy’s texts.

Tameca L Coleman is a singer, writer, massage therapist, itinerant nerd and point and shoot tourist in their own town. Tameca has published work in many genres, and has also performed and recorded music with many different bands. She doodles sometimes and likes weird music and dancebreaks. For more information about their work, follow @sireneatspoetry.

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