38 The Poetic Intersectionality of Identities: ‘Genius’-ing a Poem – Assignment

Authors: allia abdullah-matta, Ariana Benson, Hayes Davis

Target Group: Advanced Undergraduate, Graduate

Note: Practitioners should introduce and frame intersectionality 

Unable to grasp the importance of Black women’s intersectional experiences, not only courts, but feminist and civil rights thinkers as well have treated Black women in ways that deny both the unique compoundedness of their situation and the centrality of their experiences to the larger classes of women and Blacks. Black women are regarded either as too much like women or Blacks and the compounded nature of their experience is absorbed into the collective experiences of either group or as too different, in which case Black women’s Blackness or femaleness sometimes has placed their needs and perspectives at the margin of the feminist and Black liberationist agendas.

Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw

from “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” University of Chicago Legal Forum, Volume 1989, Issue One, Article Eight


Read: Toward a Pan-African Poetics” by Kwame Dawes (Furious Flower 2019, pp. 147-153).

Use this essay to provide a diasporic context for the concept of intersectionality. See excerpts below for framing examples.

…Identities are formed by the positive exploration of an essence–an essential self, if you will. In that sense, an identity affirms something that preexists and that emerges out of a positive understanding of who we are and what makes us who we are. At the same time, however, a collective identity may be imposed and yet embraced out of necessity. The logic is simple. If one’s enemy sets you off as a single entity so as to be able to manage you and to rationalize its system of abuse, exploitation and control, the alliance to resist this phenomenon has been handed to you, and ignoring it is usually a mistake (p. 147).

“I am a subject of Pan-Africanism. This is a simple fact of my birth, my nurture, and the choices I have made as an adult in the modern world” (p. 148).

Read: “Voyage of Kianda: Art Formerly Known As The Sable Venus Speaks Back” by Sherese Francis (Furious Flower 2019, pp. 194-197).

Assignment One: Poetry Genius

This assignment was inspired by the “Genius” website—as in Rap Geniusas a way to teach students about the practices of close reading and textual intersectionality: that is, understanding the ways that poems derive meaning from and build upon referring to history, identity, personal culture, and even other poets and poems.

This assignment requires some pre-work on the part of the instructor: select a poem that contains an abundance of potential “genius points”—places where references to language, culture, history, identity, etc. can be researched and discussed in a way that adds further context to the poem—and highlight them within the text of the poem.

Then, have students select six “genius points” (more on this below) to research and analyze for context, added meaning, and potential connection with other poems. In the following class, discuss students’ annotations with the following questions in mind:

  • What new information about language, culture, history, and/or identity did you discover in one of your annotations?
  • Which genius points” stumped the class (were left blank/un-annotated)? Let’s research them together and see what discoveries we can make about these points.

On “Genius Points:”

Genius Points” fall into two major categories:

  • Cultural Reference: terms specific to an identity group
  • Historical or Literary Allusion: terms rooted in/derived from specific history or work of literature

Instructors, when reading the poem before the assignment, should identify “genius points” of discovery, and place them into one of two categories. It may be helpful to go through the text of the poem and highlight “genius points,” using a different color for each of the aforementioned categories. (Ex. in the Francis poem below, “blackface” would be highlighted blue, so that students understand that they should use this “genius point” to do research on the term and its history, as well as its use in other poems). Then have students read the assigned poem and choose six of the “genius points” (two from each category) the instructor has outlined:

Example: Using the below “genius points” from “Voyage of Kianda: Art Formerly Known As The Sable Venus Speaks Back” by Sherese Francis, select and annotate three “genius points” from each category.

Historical “genius points” (line number): blackface (4), crossing the ocean (11), my arrival (15), middle passage (36-7), “Crossing the Kalunga” (38), belly of your ship (46), manifest destiny (53), “whipped/them into Delphi” (80-1), Poseidon (87), Angola (93), Anglo Union Jack (94), “Louisiana prison/after it was a plantation” (96-7), “Embedded deep within me” (116-17)

Cultural/Intersectional “genius points” (line number): token black (18), white gods (19), white pearl (42), dancing the semba (60), congo cobras (64), Kipula and n’golo (72), capoeira (73), leafy greens, okra, fish in calulu, caruru and callaloo (74-5), Laveau (76), gumbo (77), Zombi (78), Nzambi and Evambi (79), chimpanzee (90), “babbling fool” (91), baboon-gargoyle (92), Quilombo and Maroon (101), Calypso (105),

Potential for Accessibility/Community Use: After completing the assignment, the poem will have been “genius-ed”—complete with helpful explanations of language, historical/cultural references, and literary allusions—much like a song on Rap Genius. The annotated poem itself then becomes a community education tool that can be used to explain certain more difficult-to-understand parts of poems for all levels of education and information access. This way, folks (thinking of those in community workshops and/or younger folks who may not know all the references or histories a poem utilizes) across multiple levels of access and education are given a tool through which to read and appreciate the poem. These could be compiled into a database as well.

Assignment Two:

Find another poem from Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry that corresponds well with the Francis poem (Example: “Girl with the golden contacts at the Walmart” by Opal Moore, p. 114) based on sharing language with one of the “Genius points.”

Have students write a short poetry explanation (instructor chooses the page number guidelines) that compares the way both poems use the shared “genius point(s),” exploring how the “genius point” works similarly and differently in each poem and the ways in which the poems point to the layers of intersectional identity.

Additional Resources:

  • “Combahee River Collective Statement.” The Combahee River Collective (1977).
  • “The Urgency of Intersectionality” (TED Talk) by Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • Morgan, Joan. When the Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. Simon & Schuster, (2000).
  • Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) State University of New York Press; 4th edition (March 1, 2015).


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The Furious Flower Syllabus Project: Opening the World of Black Poetry Copyright © 2024 by Anastacia-Reneé; allia abdullah-matta; Ariana Benson; Mary Beth Cancienne; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Shameka Cunningham; Hayes Davis; Tyree Daye; Angel C. Dye; Brian Hannon; T.J. Hendrix; DaMaris B. Hill; Meta DuEwa Jones; Shauna M. Morgan; Adrienne Danyelle Oliver; Leona Sevick; James Smethurst; Dana A. Williams; L. Lamar Wilson; Carmin Wong; Dave Wooley; and Joanne V. Gabbin (preface) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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