There is a term to describe this plight, “Double Consciousness”, created in 1903 by the noted black American academic W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the conflict challenging Black Americans in his ground-breaking “The Souls Of Black Folks”. It is closely linked to the notion of “Cognitive Dissonance” the confusion experienced as a result of holding values or beliefs that either contradict one another or conflict with experience and reality. Du Bois’s concept has been extended by others, most notably Franz Fanon in his first book written in 1952 “Black Skin, White Masks” and by black feminists who extended it to embrace the concept of “Triple Consciousness” resulting from being both black and female.
Poetry can readily confront both sides of such complexities, the positive and the negative, the up and downsides, the benefits and costs. There is another use of the term ‘double consciousness’ specifically in relation to poetry known as “Wordsworthian Double Consciousness”. This refers to the practice in poetry of examining apparently conflicting or contradictory concepts or emotions. Wordsworth did this in poems such as ‘We Are Seven’. So did Dylan Thomas most notably in his greatest poem ‘Fern Hill’. Perhaps the best and most succinct example is, of course, William Shakespeare’s perfect oxymoron “Parting is such sweet sorrow”
Not surprisingly, Du Bois’s use of the term has been examined by numerous black poets. There is a long list of them in the USA including Gwendolyn Brooks, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. The most recent collection ‘The Tradition’ awarded the Pulitzer for poetry in 2020 by the magnificent Jericho Brown examines both the bitter internal conflict of being black in Trumps America and being gay in a fundamentalist Christian community. James Baldwin produced probably the most acerbic statement of it in his 1960’s essay “The Fire Next Time” saying of his father “He was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”
Similar poetic exploration of the experience of those facing racism and bigotry have been provided in the UK by poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Poetry is enjoying immense popularity at the moment but not without controversy particularly the criticism that too much poetry being published today lacks strength of content or focus. The importance of message and context is something Portsmouth Poetry values in the community, educational and open poetry competitions we have run. The choice of collections we choose to review is prefers those poets who use this powerful supreme art form to make significant and insightful statements which extend and enhance our understanding and humanity. So we have been waiting for a new writer to exploit the capability of poetry to investigate the BAME experience both with pride and the literary scalpel. 'The Coconut Girl' is such a collection.
The Coconut Girl is a collection of 37 poems published in 2020 by Derby based poet Sunita Thind. Born in Bedford, Sunita is a Punjabi Sikh. The collection investigates and outlines the experiences of a Punjabi woman in the UK today including her battle with ovarian cancer which returned four years after her initial treatment. It is powerful moving poetry supplying an insight into the experience of others and a challenge to aspects of the BAME experience from a female perspective. The double consciousness is taken apart and placed under a literary miscroscope.
From the first poem it is clear that this is work with important things to say with righteous anger but with affectionate honesty. ‘Good Little Punjabi Girl’ describes the restrictions placed on women living in the UK with its opportunities and challenges. It is incisive, critical and contains some great lines such as the opening, “Shuffling off into extinction, she was the inferior protoype” and later “she is famished for freedom” and the moving description of a compliant sister as “adapted to the fundamental principles of sadness”
This is a poet unafraid to challenge the cultural traditions she clearly loves. The second poem “Punjabi School” relentlessly describes an abusive teacher “Mr C, by night a bone-chilling Punjabi Educator”.
Consider these opening lines for ‘Frozen Flowers’ about the death of an elderly woman:
“Her pale eyes still have lightening in them,
sliced peach cheekbones;
shimmering, pleated turban atop her halo
making acquaintance with death.”
Pretty impressive first two lines in an exultant and sensitive poem and it is followed, in contrast, by a raging angry poem about far right racism! Every poem is its own statement, a separate investigation of the beauties and terrors of being an ‘outsider’ in a land distorted by its empire past.
How far this fearless poet is prepared to go can be gauged by the poem ‘A Child Bride Unfurling In An Adult Galaxy’ which fumes against the abomination of child marriage, taking the scalpel of her poetry to a topic many BAME communities would rather not have aired.
“Bitter is your adult saliva,
tongue circling this pre-teen mouth,
tsunami of lust in your pants.
You are not civilised in your grief, Mr.
Marrying this soiled cherub?”
Sunita Thind is equal in her rage against the bigots who would direct their hatred at her and the darker realities of Punjabi life in India and the UK. She uses her skill as a poet to voice her rage as dual citizen and as a woman.
“Invite the lust into this male brawl
by the boys gagging for my lady parts.
Do they know these iridescent planets?
Circumventing dark instalments,
a glimmer in the twinkle and dew morn.”
Or the rebuke to a father angry at his daughters failure to comply –
“Petrol coloured was your anger,
burning the fat off me with your sulphur slurs.
The level of scarring,
apart from my kin”.
These topics are powerfully viewed from a female perspective which is visceral and sensual in its images. They are testing and uncomfortable, rightlly so, to a male reader, and brutally defiant in the face of cultural repression. Lines like,
“In the ancient dark I wish to be newborn in the violence of love”