What is #TheSealeyChallenge?
August marks the start of the #SealeyChallenge, a month-long reading challenge where participants set a goal to read 31 poetry books or chapbooks. And for once, I remembered that the challenge started on August 1st!
Named after Nicole Sealey, a renowned poet and educator, the challenge started in 2017. Sealey began the challenge after becoming the executive director at Cave Canem and realizing she wasn’t reading as much as she liked. She ended up sparking a movement when she put out a call on social media to her fellow poetry lovers to join her in her personal challenge to read more poetry.
After four years, the Sealey Challenge has been transformed into “a movement of poetry lovers reading a book a day and sharing their reads with the cyber world.” This has led to readers forming lasting bonds through their love of poetry.
My Goals for The Sealey Challenge
To keep things simple for myself, I set out a goal to read a minimum of four poetry books (or a book a week) in August to complete the Sealey Challenge just to factor in time constraints and it being my first experience with the challenge.
Published in 2020, Un-American is an attempt by Geter to make sense of the personal tragedy she and her family suffered when her mother died of a stroke when the poet was nineteen. The collection was nominated for a 2021 NAACP Image Award, long-listed for the 2021 PEN Open Book Award, and received a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly.
In an article on Poets & Writers’ websites, Geter states that she used Un-American as a means to “make [her] and [her] family’s wounds metaphorical because up until then, they had been so physical, so palpably devastating” for them. The collection also served as a way for Geter to connect to her Nigerian homeland after losing her mother and to better understand her father, a Black man who grew up in Alabama and Ohio “in a country that doesn’t much care for Black boys and men.”
Introduction to Hafizah Geter and Section One of Un-American
For me, reading Un-American felt cathartic.
Geter writes about her personal experiences from the vantage point of a casual observer. Using pithy lines to create charged scenes, she invites readers into her memory while shrugging off any notions of being overly sentimental about what she’s referencing even when it is painful to recall.
Take the closing lines of the poem, “The Break In,” for example:
Tonight the distance between me, my mother, and Nigeria
is like a jaw splashed against a wall.
I close my eyes and see my father
sulking like a pile of ashes,
his hair jet black and kinky,
his silence entering a thousand rooms.
Then outside, trimming hedges as if home
were a land just beyond the meadow,
the leaves suddenly back.
When I close my eyes
I see my mother, mean for the rest of the day,
rawing my back in the tub
like she’s still doing dishes.
Here, Geter relays the story of having her house broken into. Flitting between the perspectives of her mother, father, and self, Geter sifts through their collective memory to present a cohesive picture of the traumatic event.
Listing each person’s emotions in the poem’s lines, Geter masterfully uses snapshots to show her readers how her interpretation of events is filtered through her parents. But, what’s more, Geter tells her story through an antiseptic lens, as if she is one step removed from the story she is relaying.
While personal, Un-American also draws on the complex history of America and interrogates what it means to be “American” while simultaneously being labeled as “other.”
With the collection’s first poem, “The Pledge,” Geter speaks of the division between her mother and father and shows the difference in her understanding of being American in contrast to her parents’ knowledge of this identity. Geter builds on this theme in the second section of Un-American.
In this section, she weaves together her parents’ story and sets the foundation of their life story up against tributes to Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner in her four “Testimony” poems.
Second Section of Un-American
With the second section, Geter takes an interrogative stance drawing on the political and cultural perspectives of being Black in America and gives voice to the layered experience of being Black and American.
In this section, if a reader is too focused on only seeing Bland, Rice, Brown, and Garner as martyrs or civil rights figures, they’ll miss the way Geter uses each of the “Testimony” poems as transitions and layers her parents’ story over each poem to make sense of her own life story.
Geter shows intimacy mixed with tragedy to develop her family’s story in the reader’s mind’s eye and connect it into the tapestry of American heritage. This approach is fitting since the poet consistently shifts her focus from using a macro lens to tell a story of being an “American” to a microlens when she tells pieces of each member of her family’s story.
For instance, she mentions Sandra Bland’s death in Wallace County, Texas in the first “Testimony” poem focusing her pen on showing a wider angle of brutality against Blacks in America:
As if the humiliation can never be done,
there were typos in your autopsy report.
The words:no signs of struggle.I thought, my body is your body,
is a temple on fire, is a blinded mask,
is a jail cell, is light as a paper bag,
is the sound my father makes
when, after so many years, he says my mother’s name.
And then Geter swiftly switches focus to tell her father’s story in “Alabama Parable,” giving readers a close up look at her own heritage:
My father looks down the barrel
of a shotgun house,
sees in my grandmother
hurt like prayer
is a kneeling position,
sees that fearing
the wrath of God can make you
name any angry man, King.
Finally, the poet fills in the narrative again and connects her father’s story to the larger story of Eric Garner in “Testimony (for Eric Garner)” using contemporary persona poetry and using the symbolism of kings and a blue-collar upbringing:
This love is blue-
collar work, this exile,
heritage. I don’t regret
the kings and queens I’ve made,
though police keep fucking
up. Keep kicking
down the door
inside me. Master’s tools steady
trying to burn our cribs down.
my children search mirrors
For suspicious activity. Marker 4:40.
the hourglass imitates
me. Judge, the wolves,
This second section also holds my favorite poem, from Un-American, which is “The Leaving,”
Of all Geter’s collection, if I could get you all to read any poem, it would be “The Leaving.”
As a lover of Warsan Shire’s poetry, I immediately gravitated toward this poem’s imagery of immigrants transitioning between space and place.
A Nigerian proverb
that when you lose your bridge,
climb down the mountain.
Instead, my mother grabbed
the Atlantic. Enough for a path
to carry daughters.
“The Leaving” is where Geter’s work shines as it draws together the intricate familial mythology she writes about throughout Un-American. In this poem, Geter folds all her themes into a neat bow showing how difficult it is to be Black and immigrant and woman in America.
This poem also touches upon the prevalent theme of mother-daughter relationships and being a family of mixed citizenship status. Drawing on her own experiences, Geter tackles the inherent harm that Black people face to their personhood through state-sanctioned violence alongside the everyday occurrence of being alive in America.
Section Three of Un-American
The third and final section of Un-American is about going through the motions of healing after tragedy strikes and returning home to your country of origin once you’ve set up roots elsewhere.
Where section one sets up the themes of Un-American and introduces readers to Geter’s family, and section two positions the family’s story into the wider frame of the American narrative, Geter turns her focuses inward for section three while connecting her family’s story to Nigeria.
In this third section, she moves on from talking about state-sanctioned violence against all Black bodies in America to switch gears to the violence these bodies experience in Nigeria. Here, Geter writes about trying to build up her identity as a Nigerian American finding herself in-between the respective cultures of her parents.
Poems like “Out of Africa” and “Three-Hundred Girls” track Geter and her sister’s journey back across the Atlantic to connect to their Nigerian heritage. Lines from “Out of Africa,” such as:
Something in my sister knows
it is easier in China than America to give her children
uncolonized language, easier to raise black boys to be men
Who never forget duty or home.
Or, lines like the following from “Three-Hundred Girls” draw the reader’s attention to how Geter and her sister must go outside the U.S. to gain access to that security and proximity to power that alludes to them in their father’s country of origin.
We eat fufu, efo, and egusi soup.
My sister, bowl after of jollof rice.
Like a woman no longer living
outside the language of her happiness
Yet, even in this moment of security that Geter and her sister enjoy for this brief sojourn in Nigeria, the poet intersperses violence into the sisters stay in “Three-Hundred Girls” juxtaposes the safety the sisters feel against the kidnapping and subsequent violence the Nigerian girls from the Zamfara school face:
Fourteen Hauwas, like me,
she says, as though I’ve forgotten
mothers in Chibok are still
weeping on the floors of classrooms
burned into burial grounds.
My Nigerian passport
Using “harm” as a constant theme in Un-American is understandable since being Black across the Diaspora carries with it a specific brand of harm that the average Black person knows intimately. However, it is often harder to understand when the danger comes from within our own bodies instead of from an external source.
In section three, along with the images of her and her sister reconnecting with their Nigerian roots, Geter conjures up images of the diseases that ravaged her parents. To me, this depiction of illness, besides self-discover, illustrates the cyclical nature of existence Blacks around the world are forced to live within when facing state-sanctioned violence and balancing just trying to exist peacefully.
For example, poems in section three oscillate between global depictions of violence, Geter remembering her mother, and the poet attempting to care for her ailing father while grieving and crafting her own multi-hyphenated identity.
This raw depiction of emotions in these snapshots of her poetry is what made in Un-American a cathartic read for me. While her writing is terse and to the point, the images she crafts with her poetry are full of life and well-honed to hit readers right in the feels.
At its core, Un-American is an introspective look at Geter’s family. However, the collection also asks readers to consider who gets to be a part of the American story while calling us to bear witness to the trauma and pain that comes with being labeled as the “other.”
All that being said, Un-American is a poetry collection I would highly recommend.
Are you all participating in #TheSealeyChallenge?
Thank you to Wesleyan University Press for the gifted copy! All thoughts and opinions are my own.