Angry. Unintelligible. Accidental baby mama. These are just a few of the stereotypes faced by black women. Whether it pertains to their names, their hair, or their bodies, black women continue to be labeled before they are listened to. This treatment inspired slam poet Sha’Condria Sibley’s jarringly honest poem “Black Woman Steps Up to Mic,” as seen in the video above.
Sibley performed her piece on October 10 in the final round of the Texas Grand Slam, Texas’ largest annual slam poetry competition. Over the span of two days, she competed with 40 other talented slam poets from all across the nation and all walks of life—and was crowned the competition’s first female winner.
Sibley uses her talent for spoken word to paint a striking portrait of the plight she, too, has faced: The inner monologue black women can be predisposed to hear in a society that is quick to judge. The poem also echoes the anxiety poets harbor before getting up on the stage. Sibley fuses the two concepts in hopes her audience and fellow poets will not only listen, but also identify with her struggle. I spoke to Sibley about her inspiration for the poem and her journey as a black female poet.
Your poem was a powerful yet accessible reminder of the daily prejudices black women face. Have you been through any personal experiences like this that inspired you to take a stand?
As a black woman with a big name, I know people are going to hear my name and automatically assume something about me. These assumptions often ignore the fact I attended two great universities and have a successful career. A supervisor once asked me what name I would rather put on my business card, to which I responded, “Of course my name!” A name, like skin color, isn’t indicative of who you are as a person because it’s something that’s given to you. Other times on the job, I’ve been in meetings and my colleagues are automatically talking over me and won’t let me express my viewpoint. And the more it happened, the more it became obvious I was the only woman of color being treated this way. You don’t want to believe people are that ignorant, but when it happens that often, there seems to be no other logical explanation, especially when those who deny your input end up resorting to your proposed ideas and don’t give you credit. My poem is the experience of living in others’ preconceived notions.
Fresh off your recent win, and as a poet who is gaining traction, are you now also seeing negative comments from people you don’t know who, similarly, “see you before they hear you?”
I once made the mistake of reading the comments under my videos and see the assumptions they make about me, a black poet named Sha’Condria. People just hear the name and think I’m probably a baby mama and uneducated and from the ghetto. Sometimes these things happen casually, outside the Internet—even when it’s not intentional. We live in a world where women are portrayed in ways that adhere to age-old tropes: a woman’s skin color or body type must dictate her mannerisms. People will look at women and immediately jump to conclusions on her being a certain way because of how she looks or talks. I know black women who are kicking ass in the courtroom, on a sports team, or in any other profession despite what people make us out to be.
Who was your target audience?
I wrote this poem for people who may have been guilty of not listening to someone based off their initial presentation or other superficial characteristics; it’s more for the offenders than the offended, but it also serves to give strength to the offended. I hope it makes my audience think and really listen to not just a poet, but a person. And considering the dual purpose of the poem–of my nervousness as a person of color and as an artist preparing to speak–the bigger purpose was about being cognizant of people’s voices and experiences before giving them an opportunity to speak. Sometimes I wonder what would it take for mankind to realize how alike we really are. If my audience acknowledged black women’s regulated voices, great. But if they only connected with the preceding tension before exposing one’s art and self, that’s also fine. The point is to approach each other with an open mind and not to judge.
Although your poem stems from your own experiences as a black woman, it strikes a chord with those who have experienced similar judgment and silencing as you. When did you decide to channel the suffering faced by black Americans into spoken word?
As an artist, it’s inevitable–there is no choice involved. Although my poetry has always taken a more personal approach, I’m challenging myself to write more about what’s going on in the news. There is a quote by Nina Simone that says, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Our responsibilities as artists are to speak for the people who may not have a voice–to speak for people who may not be brave enough or do not have a platform from where they can be heard. I’m a firm believer that the struggles I face aren’t just mine–I’m lucky enough to be the vessel through which these thoughts come to fruition, but this poem doesn’t belong to just me. Writing about these experiences is selfless and rewarding, yet very taxing at the same time.
What is your poetry inspired by and what do you want it to achieve?
I’m very inspired by the Harlem Renaissance era, which was one of the pinnacles of artist-meets-activist. Also, the writers of this era allowed their work to speak for something bigger than things that were just beautiful–it was more about art reflecting the ugly and the painful. Poetry was then famous for being beautiful and romantic, but it’s so necessary to have it also be used to address hardship and struggle.
As a little girl I would also read poems by Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, and other prominent black poets and they would set me up to feel valuable, smart, and worth it—regardless of my skin or gender. When I wrote, I felt my words were important because writers who looked like me wrote words that are now timeless. I want my poetry to achieve that level of timelessness, that some little girl or boy years down the line can read my work and feel they can achieve anything, despite having to navigate a world where their voices might be policed.
Nikita Redkar is the editorial intern for Fusion who loves writing all things pop culture and feminism - sprinkled with the occasional punchline. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.