Altering Auras, Ideas, and Dreams: Naming and (re)claiming a Poetry for the Public's Health

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Health Promotion Practice

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Acclaimed poet, playwright, and journalist, Angelina Weld Grimké wrote a play titled “Rachel” in protest of The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted a racist, demeaning view of Black people in the Reconstruction South. In response to the film, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commissioned a series of works that would directly counter this hateful rhetoric and subsequently supported the first productions of “Rachel” in 1916 and 1917 (Howard University, n.d.). According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the program notes referred to the play as “the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of ten millions of Colored citizens in this free republic” (GLIAH, n.d.). Despite being written over a century ago, the play’s premise remains timely. The protagonist is grieving after witnessing the injustices of Black life in America. She vows never to become a mother to avoid the shared suffering of those who lose innocent children to a world of racism.

Arguably, Grimké used her pen and poetic prose to dramatically “treat” the illness of racism. By extension, as Co-Editors of this new section, “Poetry for the Public’s Health,” we follow in the footsteps of Grimké and echo Audre Lorde (1984) when she said, “And who asks the question: Am I altering your aura, your ideas, your dreams, or am I merely moving you to temporary and reactive action?” (p. 38). Not only do we believe that public health has generally failed to “alter auras,” but it has systematically excluded the forms and expressions of knowledge most capable of doing so from their rightful place within the research and practice canon. In doing so, public health has not only foreclosed deeper engagements with creative works like Grimke’s as germane to health, healing, and social action, but has created the illusion that creative ways of knowing, modes of resistance, and sense-making have somehow not been integral to the social and cultural survival of those of us at the margins from day one. Thus, rather than altering ideas and dreams, public health has in many ways functioned to truncate, interrupt, and defer them—manufacturing a knowledge and practice landscape with the aura of a microwaved hot dog wrapped in a soggy regression.

We believe it is beyond time to unsettle this landscape—to remind us who we really/fully are, to remember and re-member our legacies of creative resistance and/as healing, and to reassert that poetry never has been and never will be a luxury. Centering “Poetry for the Public’s Health” here is both an act of resurgence/insurgence against the historic and contemporary decision-makers and powerbrokers of our field and a committed praxis of the rich histories of Black Feminist, undisciplined, and griot legacies in which we are informed, honor, and cultivate.


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