National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was established in 1985 to encourage women to take charge of their breast health by getting mammograms. Mammography is used to screen breast abnormalities for both men and women. As I did my research on breast cancer, I was drawn to the word “abnormal” as it was very much present throughout each blog and medical site. What exactly is “abnormal,” and how do medicines, treatments, and surgeries correct abnormalities?
I’ve come across various blogs and journal articles that talk about how various body types are abnormal, especially if they belong to Black women. Of course, there are articles on Sara Baartman, a Khoi (South African) woman who became a spectacle of white male sexual desire because of her voluptuous body. Featured in a London exhibit, she was subjected to poking and ordered to parade before a white audience that was fascinated by her “abnormal” buttocks.
As an end to this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve decided to write this piece in hopes that women will take charge of their health which also means embracing the differences in their bodies—not as abnormal, but as beautiful and unique. There are several poems that give women the space to embrace their bodies:
“Homageto My Hips” by Lucille Clifton
“WomanPoem” Nikki Giovanni
“IfYou Saw A Negro Lady” by June Jordan
“Personal” by Shonda Buchanan
“Assam” by Nikky Finney
These poems counteract the historically racist and sexist views of the Black female body by offering speakers that critique those views as well as embrace their own bodies. Additionally, some of the poems above confess Black female insecurities and encourage (Black) women to look at themselves or touch themselves as ways to embrace their unique bodies. For example, “If You Saw A Negro Lady” reads,
sitting in a forty-year-old-flush
of solitude and prickling
from the new white cotton blouse
concealing nothing she had ever noticed
even when she bathed and never
hummed a bathtub tune nor knew one
This stanza could encourage Black women readers to question whether or not they have looked at themselves as well as the reasons behind their attention or negligence. Readers may also be encouraged to examine the experiences of elder women and the relationship to their very own. Questioning the time they (do not) spend with themselves may also encourage reader to examine its relationship to physical health in addition to emotional/mental health. “Personal” by Shonda Buchanan features several lines that use a particular tone to give confidence to female readers. By using phrases, such as “less than” and “overly ripe” or words, such as “saunter,” the poem present a self-aware protagonist who is not shy about sharing her “abnormalities” with her audience.
know that my breasts
are less than firm
saunter in certain places
like the meat of savannah peaches
straining to slip from their covering
As we end National Breast Cancer Awareness month and celebrate the poems that offer refuge to Black women and their bodies, we must also celebrate the lives of Black women who have written these types of poems and/or succumbed to breast cancer, including June Jordan, Margaret Walker, and Audre Lorde who stated:
“…I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.”