My Mother was a Freedom Fighter

Aja Monet on what makes motherhood
Written by
(CBS News)
Aja Monet is an eclectic poet and spoken word artist whose range spans from East New York to her roots in Jamaica and Cuba. But her new book is decidedly domestic in scope. That doesn't, of course, mean it's provincial or tame. She and other young voices have helped light a fire in the trenches of movement culture, with free verse inspired by Black Lives Matter, the migrant experience, intersectional feminism and other contemporary social struggles that disrupt labels and upset stereotypes. The poem "My Mother was a Freedom Fighter," which Monet recited at the Washington, DC Women's March, pays a global homage to the thing that binds every movement, and every body: motherhood. Without apology, it testifies to maternity and modernity to challenge the safety zones of establishment feminism .

my mother was a freedom fighter

she testifies a night song on the wooly back of a mammoth,
shadowboxing rivulets, a mother’s cowl falls to her feet,
a fist in the pouch of a honey-hipped negra hill towering
over the country. the farmers of plantations, maid of motels
and mansions, nurse of hospitals and camps, shamans
in huts walking to work in dawn-fog. with heretic hands
a chupacabra suffering in solos, or a black unicorn refugee
panhandling at the border of an upside down dimension.

beguiled by bars bearing the burden of crimes of love,
cold-sweat, gloom, despair, omens. denied a passport
to mercy, a citadel of judgment. she was born in the bulwark
of bordellos and brothels. poor women lease love

in pawnshops shaped as men, traversing the sins of them,
unyielding wind blows her back into dirt roads and waves,
dimly seen. singed at the stakes or drowned at sea,
she studies the way of water and gills: a mermaid.  

she is an archipelago of shanty towns, she is invention and
necessity. found scraps, a bouquet of bloody music in her
hands. cane of sugar, leaves of tobacco, a cluster of bananas,
coffee beans, the husk of corn, a poppy seed, tea shrub, spikelet
of wheat, rice flower, gold nuggets, diamonds & coltan—she is
an incantation bellowing from the fields and mines. look for her
in the ruins, at the funeral procession, drunk off palm wine,
screaming in a traffic of arms. lonely, but not alone.
on the shores of goree, she pinched yam and okra seeds
in her baby’s hair, carrying the wrath of their stories.
for when the fowls come home to roost. enduring tides
of licks and whips, she wept by a mangrove and carved a spear

from her lover’s bones. spitting on her thumb, she smeared
shame from her children’s cheek, blessed in esteem. blighted
dreams born of zealous sires laying with her in a stretch
of orchids, honeysuckles, daffodils, cotton blooming,
or splayed on a cot during a conjugal visit. switch blade in her
boot, straw hat sitting on her braids, she touches herself
moaning, pleasure pours gently on her. she was captured,
the middle of a gun fight in broad daylight, muzzled
by averted ears, smarmy smiles, and what befell
their humanity. if ever a drought, gray clouds
gather on one accord and rally above her, for seasons.
further than the choice of children, she is beyond what names
her courage, she arrived quarreled by instinct, a petition
for presence. it was a woman who nanny’d neglect in maroon
parishes. hooting and hollering, she midwifed revolutions in rain
forests, amazons, and cities. sediments of her sorrow
beseeching. because the eye of the storm within her,
they called her magic. merely more, she was
a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.

Monet's collection is primarily about motherhood and rethinking what a life cycle truly means in globalizing world. But she occasionally delves into issues of imprisonment, violence and justice. In "For Fahd," addressed to the men imprisoned at Guantanamo and the betrayed memory of a "sanctuary of peace":

i am a woman watching
my country make enemies
of God, they'd sacrifice
the sunrise for a million lies
if they could/there are lives
beyond the diversion of eyes
his name is son
is brother
is father
there is a village where names
go to wander.

The reference to motherhood is elliptical, in the depiction of an incarcerated family. Still, in the background lie the crossroads of heritage, place, and alienation. The pathwawy sometimes gets twisted, though, when women break the rules, as in the self-imposed solitude of a rebel matriarch in "What My Grandmother Meant To Say Was..."


My children, riding on
the dragonflies of sacrifice, I left them. I turned back
many times, I almost became the devil they wanted
but I left. A devil, nonetheless. I was a woman ahead
of her time. I shimmered in the scars. I live in
the bloodline. I imagine more than broken families.
I come from the laughter of aspiring lovers, the lure
of trembling in another’s arms. What about what
I wanted? What of the loss—of culture, of dreams,
of home? There were many secrets. We fled from
the revolution.


The friction between love and the devil is near-impossible to capture in a single poem, lashing together the trials of exile and the pain of torn motherhood. Then again, every narrative of migration relates a kind of rebirth, pushing that fine border between loss and liberation.

--Michelle Chen, May 27, 2017



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