Warsan Shire – Backwards



by Warsan Shire

The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.
He takes off his jacket and sits down for the rest of his life;
that’s how we bring Dad back.
I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole.
We grow into smaller bodies, my breasts disappear,
your cheeks soften, teeth sink back into gums.
I can make us loved, just say the word.
Give them stumps for hands if even once they touched us without consent,
I can write the poem and make it disappear.
Step-Dad spits liquor back into glass,
Mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place,
maybe she keeps the baby.
Maybe we’re okay kid?
I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love,
you won’t be able to see beyond it.
You won’t be able to see beyond it,
I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love.
Maybe we’re okay kid,
maybe she keeps the baby.
Mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place,
Step-Dad spits liquor back into glass.
I can write the poem and make it disappear,
give them stumps for hands if even once they touched us without consent,
I can make us loved, just say the word.
Your cheeks soften, teeth sink back into gums
we grow into smaller bodies, my breasts disappear.
I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole,
that’s how we bring Dad back.
He takes off his jacket and sits down for the rest of his life.
The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.

Warsan Shire’s poem titled “Backwards” paints a heartbreakingly beautiful story of, what I interpret as, the disappearance of a father from one’s life. Despite my inability to determine whether or not this disappearance is intentional, I find that the language used creates striking imagery of helplessness and pain; the body, surrounded by surprise and desperation, grows into “smaller bodies” and the “breasts disappear.” It creates of the image of someone trying to disappear into the ground beneath them out of shame, pain or humiliation. In the case of the poem, the reason is one that ties to the disappearance of her father, who, she desperately wants to walk “backwards into a room,” the room being the household.

What strikes me most is the role of nature in creating the personification of a tree and other natural things. The “stumps for hands, and use of “sink” reminds me of sinking into the ground, the earth, the dirt. If we look at the theme of nature and “natural occurrences” as a prevalent voice within the poem’s narrative, one can infer that the father might’ve experienced something “natural,” like death, once he left home and can no longer return. Hence, the speakers desire to “rewrite this whole life.” After the biological father’s disappearance, or death, enters the “Step-Dad” who, if the speaker could rewrite history, “spits liquor back into glass.” This suggests that the Step-Dad suffered from substance abuse—the line before demonstrates the impact of this substance abuse on the family, seeing as how the line before states that “mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place.” In a different life, the speaker’s biological father would remain and thus the family would avoid any future abuse or pain.

While this poem’s connection may not be as obvious to our class, I believe it connects in ways that we are now starting to discuss. Warsan Shire, a woman of color and a poet, is writing about a painful familial experience. While the origins of this experience are unknown and left up to interpretation, I can’t help but make the connection to how in class—through the literature we’ve read and discussions we’ve had—we see the way in which societal conventions shape familial dynamic and experience. What are your thoughts on this notion? Is your interpretation of the poem similar or different to mine?

A Picture of Pain and Hope

My year-long internship at the Brooklyn Museum–and exposure to Sanford Biggers’ Blossom–provided me with the experience of not only researching the piece, but also teaching its physical and symbolic manifestation of materials and emotion tied through historical tragedy. Because of my past experience with this artwork, I was slightly disappointed in myself once I realized I had failed to make the connection between Blossom and our class earlier–but the connection is striking.

Created by Sanford Biggers in 2007, Blossom is an artwork that combines a tree with a piano, which seems to have collided with the tree, resulting in its distorted placement. The image of a tree and a piano recklessly fused together already begins to create a striking symbol of life and its beauty or hardship. This is further heightened by the way the piano–which is attached to a MIDI system–plays “Strange Fruit.” While the song played is Biggers’ arrangement, its meaning remains; “Strange Fruit” was popularized in the 30s and written as a protest towards lynching. Blossom itself is influenced by the events that took place at a high school in 2006, in which nooses were hung from a tree on school grounds.

Given the inspiration behind the artwork and the elements it incorporates–the bodhi tree, piano, and song–the juxtaposition created by these elements serves to exemplify a powerful aspect of how historical tragedy and trauma is dealt with. To clarify, Biggers created a bodhi tree, which is the tree that Gautama Buddha reached enlightenment. Not only is a tree symbolic of life and healing, but Biggers chose to create a bodhi tree, which represents enlightenment. The pairing of this tree with a broken piano that plays the notes of a protest song hints at a hopeful future, while still acknowledging past suffering and pain.

I feel like this analysis reflects the present conditions we’ve been discussing in class. The rise of movements that challenge the status quo coupled with events and people that try to stifle these movements reflects pain and suffering, but also hope and healing. Now, we’re at a time in history where we can look back on the past and present and acknowledge trauma, while still hopefully looking towards a future.

Living Laboratories as Emotional Sites


I found this image while I endlessly scrolled through Tumblr, immediately stopping to take a closer look. The image was taken by Ian Berry, a British photojournalist, in South Africa in 1969 and was captioned “A young black girl looks after a baby girl for a white family.” This image, coupled with its caption, strikes me as a reflection of the emotional turmoil and/or emotional imbalance within a living laboratory.

At first, I was simply focused on the expression of the young black girl’s face; her expression is one of discomfort, resignation, and detachment. I couldn’t help but feel an extreme amount of sympathy for the girl, who looks like she feels everything but comfort. Her physical position in the car also reflects a sense of discomfort; she’s leaning forward onto the structure in front of her, which can be indicative of her need for physical support or exit from the car. While her expression is one that captivates and intrigues, the juxtaposition created between the young black girl and the white baby is intensely effective in relaying a message. This message is one that speaks volumes on the dynamic between black and white bodies; while the young black girl feels discomfort, as expressed by both her facial expression and position in the car, the baby behind her is sleeping. The contrasts are extremely direct; the young girl is awake; the baby is sleeping; the young girl is uncomfortable and distressed; the baby has a space to rest and looks relaxed.

What I’m trying to convey is that a living laboratory has physical components, as seen through the weaponization of medicine on black bodies, but it also has psychological and emotional components as well. This image has nothing to do with physical harm or violence, yet, as seen in my analysis, I believe that it has all to do with the emotional impact of a living lab and its oppressive dynamics. I do believe that when discussing and viewing a living laboratory we should focus on the physical harm or violence imposed on people of color, but I think it’s also just as important to openly discuss the different ways violence and oppression manifests itself. What do you all think is an effective, or the most effective, way in dismantling and reframing a living lab?

Half of Dermatologists Say They Weren’t Trained to Spot Cancer on Black Skin


This article very shortly, but effectively, discusses the intersection between race and medicine, particularly in medical schools and the training provided to prospective doctors/dermatologists. The article briefly mentions how half of physicians in a survey believed that there were “biological differences in pain perception between blacks and whites”, but also that they were “30 percent less likely to give pain medication to black patients than white patients”.

This statistic reflects the historical attitude we analyzed in Unit 1–an attitude that dehumanized black bodies in an effort to perpetuate subjugation and slavery; the parallels between the history we read in Medical Apartheid and the 21st century medical field are scarily similar in this respect. Just like Washington noted and explored the “scientific racism” prevalent in colonial times, demonstrating the ways white doctors experimented on black bodies and how they justified their actions with the idea that black bodies had a higher pain tolerance, this article points out that same mindset and from that we can see the continuity in scientific racism. Evidently, this attitude continues to manifest itself in the medical field.

This attitude is also built through medical schools and the ways in which they fail to effectively train dermatologists, who confessed that they “were not trained to spot signs of cancer on black skin” which leads to a higher mortality rate for black Americans who aren’t effectively treated in time. I know that in Unit 1 we discussed the way scientific racism manifested itself in the past and the ways it has engrained itself into the present; but, who’s to blame in this situation? Is it the individual or the institution? Who is responsible for creating and enforcing what’s taught in medical schools and what can be done about it?

When Minority Students Attend Elite Private Schools



Back in 2013, The Atlantic published an article that explored the placement of minority and lower-income students into elite private schools and the impact this has on the psychological and emotional development of the students.

I found this article while researching the discourse of reparations in present-day America. One of the arguments in support of reparations advocated for reparations in the form of school grants that would be given to black students in order to give them exceptional educational opportunities. While this article doesn’t discuss reparations, it does discuss the misconception around the “ticket to upward mobility” elite institutions supposedly grant.

Despite the educational opportunities, private schools simply don’t provide a healthy and psychologically sound environment for minority and lower-income students, who are met with an overwhelming sense of discomfort. This discomfort stems from an environment that stereotypes, degrades, and alienates minority students, who are often the only students of color in their classes. And while private schools, like The Dalton School, are making the effort to diversify their student bodies, more consideration needs to be placed on making the transition for these students an easier one.

In class, we’ve explored not only what counts as a living laboratory, but also the relationships and workings of each living lab. In this case, elite private schools serve as living laboratories that harbor an oppressive environment, impacting the health of the minority students who attend these institutions. The negative relationship between the students’ health and academic environment is one that reflects a history of degrading and belittling people of colors’ appearances and intelligence.