Ain’t about trying, it’s about doing. How
else you plan to survive? Live a life of
trying and you just end up tried . . .
All that one child was tryna buy
was a drink.
From “The Talk”
Courtney Faye Taylor’s debut collection, Concentrate, bridges documentary and verse to offer a powerful reflection the murder of Latasha Harlins and its impact on the greater Los Angeles community. Taylor quickly establishes herself as an apt storyteller and strong technician of the craft as she moves from familiar poetic forms to visual poetry, poignant dialogue to found poems. Concentrate, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is a timely and innovative entry into documentary-style poetry that offers all the narrative elements of C.D. Wright’s One With Others and the experimental use of historical artifacts in Mai Der Vang’s Yellow Rain. Taylor aptly grounds the collection in lived experience, humanizing Harlins and deliberately avoiding the familiar tropes that so often flatten Black trauma.
The collection opens with an untitled prose poem in which the speaker admits, “So far my sentence as a Black woman has been hard to hone…Put graciously, Black womanhood has been a limb that’s fallen asleep beneath me…” This brief entry works to establish the collection as an intentional pursuit into Black womanhood and the underlying factors that contributed to Harlins’ murder, but also into the author’s seemingly conflicted relationship with Black femininity. The entry ends with the ominous confession, “In any Black sentence, you’d love nothing more than to make no mistake.” This line is a haunting transition into the story of Latasha Harlins, as the author readily acknowledges the internalized pressure she feels to do Harlins’ story justice, as well as the pressure to get things right for herself. There’s an implication that Taylor understands how her debut opens her up to public scrutiny, something that is no doubt intensified by her decision to address a murder that contributed to some of the most intense riots in American history.
Taylor emphasizes this pressure in “The Talk,” the first titled poem of the collection, where the speaker engages in a dialogue with her Aunt Notrie. When Aunt Notrie alludes to “that one child” trying to buy a drink, the speaker assumes she is speaking about Trayvon Martin. Aunt Notrie responds, “South Central. You wasn’t even/thought of yet, so just/let me tell it.” Taylor’s use of dialogue and scene to set the stage for the investigation that informs her collection is masterful; in the span of just three pages, she introduces a generational bond, displays a quintessential scene of Black womanhood and speaks directly to a generation of readers for whom Latasha Harlins is unfamiliar. Taylor also introduces the layers of anti-Blackness at play in Harlins’ murder as the speaker assumes Harlins’ murderer is a white man, only for Aunt Notrie to point out that Soon Ja Du is a Korean woman.
“A thin obsidian life is heaving/on a time limit you’ve set,” the second section of the collection, introduces the numerous ways that Black women are systemically isolated and dehumanized in American society. Spanning two pages, Taylor interweaves a series of statements used in the study, “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites,” with brief poetic responses to illustrate some of the internalized biases that contribute to anti-Blackness. She next juxtaposes the poem “Should Be Considered,” with images of Black women and various phrases pulled from police reports that describe Black women. The remainder of the collection continues to situate false assumptions and prejudicial statements about Black womanhood alongside original stanzas that continuously recenter Black women as human beings, effectively reinventing memory by retrofitting the voices of disappeared and murdered Black through the poem’s speakers.
The part of the collection that lingers with me most is the third of four memorials Taylor offers in the fifth section of the collection. This memorial includes a poem written by Harlins, as well as one written by Taylor when she was in elementary school. Together, these poems remind the reader that Harlins, at fifteen years old, was a child with ambitions, with hopes, with fears. “Latasha wanted to study law,” Taylor writes near the end of the memorial, “a dream had in the aftermath of her mother’s murder. Latasha understood there to be a world of women nonwhite and wounded, a world of mothers refused long, healthy lives. She recognized there to be a world lacking people who cared about this, people unwilling to give what they have.”
These lines echo what I believe to be the most important message in the book, and the most difficult thing to process about Harlins’ murder: namely, that the generational violence inflicted against women of color is seemingly inescapable, and that hope is a kind of resistance. It is impossible to read this memorial without acknowledging that Harlins is not a tokenized story of trauma, she is a young Black girl who wanted nothing more than to help other women of color. For all the pressure and fear around getting it “right” that early poems imply, Taylor does get it right. She refuses the trend of parsing out Black trauma and instead breathes life back into Latasha Harlin, a child who chose hope and dreamt of a better, more supportive world for all women of color, who resisted every attempt to quell her spirit and temper her ambitions.