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Breast Cancer: Black Women’s Bodies and Poetry

[By Simone Savannah]

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
overly
ripe
my
thighs
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.”

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