A collection of poems explores feminism, racism, and social justice.
Juanita, an elder stateswoman of human rights in America, was editor-in-chief of the Black Panthers’ newspaper in the late 1960s. Her experiences in Oakland, California, are chronicled in her much lauded, semiautobiographical novel, Virgin Soul (2013). A renowned novelist, poet, and playwright, she showcases her deft use of numerous styles of poetry and modified prose in her new book. Many of the pieces are set against the backdrop of rough-and-tumble Oakland while invoking the legacies and lessons of black poets like Dudley Randall and Langston Hughes. Permeated with themes of sexual and racial inequality, this collection of 50-plus pieces fittingly begins with a credo against toxic masculinity, conjuring the Greek figure of Lysistrata. Similarly sexually charged imagery is often featured throughout the volume. These subtle and not-so-subtle erotic performances juxtapose the viciously practical with the beautiful. A classically structured sonnet dissects how “brothers get ferocious when they fuck” while another poem includes the lines “softly pull nipples to hard ripple cord come / after checking for lumps.” This isn’t the only way the work subverts readers’ expectations; the collection often injects bodily disgust or mental discomfort into the pieces to catch the audience off guard. A return home to the staleness of a father-run household is punctuated by a screaming enema. A humorous prose piece about the use of the n-word is made all the more unsettling by the fact that it’s predicated on the death of a Latino man who should not have been uttering the slur in the first place. Keeping readers on edge like this is an effective tactic to drive home the importance of the subjects addressed. One poem considers men needing women to be their props a systemic issue. In another piece, the ethereal imagery of downtrodden egg- and worm-eaters’ rising up to reach a dispassionate white angel remains striking in its symbolism.
With the exception of a heart-stirring eulogy for a lost friend, the book often feels the most personal in works that focus on religion. A piece dedicated to the author’s shakubuku mother, the woman who introduced her to Buddhist nam-myoho-renge-kyo chanting, is a portrait of words that skillfully brings the person to life: “She looked like my real mother / thirty years back: their large lips ochre-beautiful petals blossoming beneath their loopy lidded eyes / ...her womanscent, / pussy-sharp in pungent spirals.” This same passion can be as heartbreaking as it is wondrous, as in a piece about an ailing father, willing to chant with Juanita at home, who refuses to enter a San Pablo, California, temple as he nears the end. On the subject of Christianity, the volume is considerably more critical, calling out Roman Catholic hypocrisy and seeing Jesus in the legions of white homeless, begging and defecating in the streets. Modern and historical hallmarks of social justice are present throughout, from Donald Trump’s rise and Harvey Weinstein’s crimes to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin’s “babymommadrama,” and the Gulf War. The author champions the causes of Hurricane Katrina survivors and examines police victims and tragedies like the fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson in Texas.
Unsettling, important, and unforgettable poetry.
Judy Juanita, a poet, novelist, and playwright, was the editor-in-chief of The Black Panther, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party, and has taught writing at Laney College in Oakland, California, since 1993. Juanita has long chronicled this country’s contradictions in various genres and has come out on the side of hope. Here’s an introduction to her work.
Virgin Soul: In Juanita’s semiautobiographical novel, a young woman joins the Black Panther Party, meetsmany members of the Black Power movement (Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale), and critiques the movement from a feminist perspective. Our reviewer says, “She runs into one of the movement’s contradictions: that women are seen as less equal than men in the fight for equality, reduced to ‘sexual cannon fodder in the midst of war.’ ”
De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland: In this starred essay collection, Juanita recalls a “goody-goody” childhood in 1950s America, “a Jell-O white bread land of perfection and gleaming surfaces,” and joining the Black Panthers. Our reviewer says, “Her incisive comments on Black life’s contradictions make this essay collection a winner.”
Homage to the Black Arts Movement: This starred multigenre work considers the revolutionary Black artistic and political movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Our reviewer says, “Juanita has created a dense and intriguing tribute to an important literary group whose influence still reverberates in American culture. Her works effectively embrace a wide variety of issues from gender politics to skin-color privilege within the Black community.”
Manhattan My Ass, You’re in Oakland: Our reviewer describes Juanita’s most recent book, published in June, as “unsettling, important, and unforgettable poetry.” Her poem “Laborers Day, 2016” ends with this hopeful, instructive note: “Let us return To music To art / To dance To sculpture To architecture / To faith in human goodness / To hope To each other / Let’s look up from our mobiles / And return To each other