I went to the Oakland Museum of California to see an exhibit about the Black Panthers last month. All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 was a moving, beautifully curated consideration of the impact the Black Panthers movement had on communities around the country.
Toward the end, I watched a series of videos displayed on a massive screen that took up an entire wall. They were oral histories mixed in with poetry performances, including one by Chinaka Hodge that was absolutely stunning.
While the exhibit leans into the underappreciated social programs the Black Panthers created for their communities, Hodge’s poem invokes the revolutionary spirit that fueled the organization’s creation. It’s exactly the kind of poem we need right now to fight the top-down totalitarianism that threatens to roll back 50 years of civil rights progress.
I don’t believe in fate, but the next day I popped into a bookstore on Potrero Hill and spotted a copy of Chinaka Hodge’s collection Dated Emcees, which was released by City Lights Books last year. I had to have it, and I devoured it on the plane back to San Diego the next day.
The poems are extended riffs on romantic relationships. Hodge deftly crosses over from personal experience to cultural commentary with the ease of a lyricist, and her poems are particularly poignant when the two intersect, as they do in her couplets about Tupac and her haikus about Biggie, one for every year they were alive.
of all the lyrics
the realest premonition
rings true: you’re dead. wrong
While the poems in Dated Emcees aren’t as reactionary as her performance for Black Panthers at 50, there’s no armed resistance against those we let into out hearts.
I will turn my thoughts to moths and free them one at a time into a shoebox. I’ll shake the cardboard and rattle the flightless flying things ‘til their wings fall off. And then eat them to know their taste and wonder why they don’t have bones.
That’s a description of a particular kind of feeling that didn’t have a name before Hodge pinned it to her specimen board, but it lives inside of me now. With Dated Emcees, Hodge stakes her territory as an artist with a commanding presence both on the stage, as well as on the page.