By Mauricio La Plante
Students were surprised, when Compton born poet Robin Coste Lewis shared her distaste for the rap music native to her birthplace that movies such as Straight Outta Compton have popularized.
“Keep going I want you to say it,” she urged, as a student hesitant to ask her about the often sensationalized image Compton has tied to rap, “One of my least favorite movies—I know you guys want to kill me because your younger—is Straight Out of Compton. I hate that movie.”
To explain she said, “What you don’t know of course is that Compton was a site of profound literary production,” citing writers such as Wanda Coleman, often referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, and Octavia Butler, a Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction writer.
But Lewis herself, carrying a National Book Award under her arm, crafts poems beyond the spectacle of “Black on Black” violence that rap music glamourizes and at times incites, writing poems about slavery, and Black veterans going off to war, only to return to the home-front of racist subjection.
Lewis dedicated the majority of her time to reading poems that she wrote to transform violence and hatred towards Blacks, into beauty.
She crafted this motif by searching through images of Black women throughout history, many of which were intended to demean and classify them.
The title poem of the book, Voyage of The Sable Venus, was itself homage to the beauty of the painting The Sable Venus; Lewis derived the title of the book from.
But the idea the painting derived from was quite different than that of Lewis’s poem.
“Voyage of the Sable Venus is from a late 1700’s etching that is based on a late 1700’s poem, in the poem this fabulous Brit that talks about the equal oppurtunities of raping a woman, that it doesn’t matter if you rape a white woman or a black woman at night because it’s dark and you can’t tell the difference.” Lewis said.
The irony of the painting is that “it’s gorgeous” Lewis explained, and surrounding the Venus like black figure are cherubs, angels, and Triton. “It doesn’t make any sense until you realize that Triton instead of carrying a trident is carrying a flag of the union jack, so it’s a pro-slavery image, and there celebrating taking this black woman into slavery.”
“[I saw that] and felt compelled and repulsed at the same time.” Lewis said. “I’m very much interested in those intersections of beautiful horrors. How we’re so good at making hate so beautiful artistically.”
Lewis’s discovery of the etching marked the beginning of the project that became her book.
“I started thinking about that title, Voyage of the Sable Venus, and I was like that title is so gorgeous, are there other titles in the world that are this gorgeous, about Black women, or that contain Black female figures?” said Lewis.
So Lewis traveled the world for many years afterward, collecting titles—unbroken and unedited—that she used as her sole words for a surreal poem that tells the story of the Black female figure in Western Art from 38,000 B.C. to the present.
“Its 79 pages, but I promise I won’t read the whole thing,” Lewis said.
But the poetry was not the entire message of the lecture, as she talked about what she hopes to inspire.
“What every writer hopes if you do historical work is that you go look [into it], and realize that the [work] is a fracture of what’s actually out there. I can care less about this book and care more that maybe somebody will go look.” Coste said.
“I hope that writing is a conversation, and if I’m doing my part, then you’ll continue to think about it.”
But Lewis explained how we must surpass the superficial judgments of other people to apply our thoughts to the outside world.
Within the cover photo for the book, Lewis explained, writer Eudora Welty is looking at lingerie in a window, but instead we see a reflection of men in the background.
“That for me seemed to be intrinsically American,” Coste said, “That we’re all caught up in this projection onto reflective surfaces, usually each other’s bodies, like Black people look at white people and we don’t know what we see, and white people look at black people and they don’t know. We’re seeing ourselves, but we don’t know how to have that conversation.”
And that conversation is about each other. Back to the misconceptions of Compton, Lewis explained “It’s a matter of how we’ve allowed Compton to be portrayed in the media, and even sadder, how we have portrayed ourselves in Compton in the media.”
Therefore, Lewis emphasized communication is what the soup of borrowed artwork and racial issues in her book should stimulate, not just knowledge.
“Information is over-rated, intelligence is what matters, then we can have a conversation.”