‘C.R.E.A.M.’ was written by Danez Smith, a queer, gender-neutral black American who uses the pronouns they/them. They are the author of several books of poetry and have received a number of awards. Smith first became known as a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective and this particular poem was published on Poem-a-Day by the Academy of American Poets in February of 2017.
Smith utilizes a powerful, moving, and genuine tone while addresses themes of racial injustice, economic disparity, happiness, and perseverance.
Throughout the poem, Smith takes the reader into a speaker’s thoughts, dreams and fears. This speaker, who could be Smith theirself, speaks on their obsessive focus on money. It haunts their days and nights through its necessity and ephemeral nature. Race, sex, and economics are tied together in almost every section of the poem. The speaker makes sure to go into striking and touching detail about the different challenges a black person faces when trying to raise themselves out of poverty than a white person does.
Through personal depictions of want and need Smith’s speaker alludes to a larger need to address the racial wealth gap, the prison-industrial complex, and make reparations to the black community.
You can read the full poem here.
‘C.R.E.A.M.’ by Danez Smith is a single stanza poem that contains thirty-five unrhymed lines. The first thing a reader will notice when looking at the text of ‘C.R.E.A.M’ is that the lines are scattered all over the page. They do not line up with the left-hand margin as do the vast majority of lines in verse and prose. Instead, the intentions vary. The lines, which are also of different lengths, are spread out, forcing the reader to jump left, right, and down in order to get from one line to another.
This lends the poem a great deal of movement and influences the pattern and rhythm with which one moves through the text. Smith’s background as a performer might be considered when analyzing this feature of the text. Perhaps they chose to arrange the lines in this way in order to better mimic the way the lines would sound it performed out loud.
Additionally, Smith makes use of italics within the text. There are a few moments such as in lines twenty-nine and thirty. While there are a number of reasons that Smith might’ve chosen to place specific phrases like “20 bucks I can borrow” and “reparations” in italics, it is more likely than not that this was done in order to place extra emphasis on these phrases. They stand out from the rest, even in amongst the lines that ignore the traditional rules of indention.
Also important to note, the poem begins with a dedication. It reads, in italics: “after Morgan Parker, after Wu-Tang”. This is likely a reference to Morgan Parker, an American poet, and novelist. The second part of the dedication “after Wu-Tang” acknowledges another source of inspiration for the poet. Wu-Tang Clan is an American hip hop group formed in 1992. They are regarded as one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time.
Within ‘C.R.E.A.M’ Smith makes use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, there are several images and themes that reoccur within the poem. These include making and spending money, intelligence, freedom/imprisonment, and race.
Anaphora is another kind of repetition. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, the pronoun “I” begins eleven of the forty-seven lines. There are other moments where longer phrases are repeated, such as at the beginning of lines eighteen and nineteen with “I feel most colored when I…”
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “sometimes” and “synonym” in line fifteen and “b” and “black boy” in line forty-seven
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This is one of the most powerful techniques in ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and is seen throughout the text. For example, the transitions between lines one and two as well as nine and ten. The vast majority of the lines in the poem are enjambed, lending it a very specific rhythm and drama.
In the first lines of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, the speaker begins without capitalizing the first letter. This makes it feel as though the reader is entering into the poem in the middle of a thought or feeling. The reader becomes an immediate part of the speaker’s intentions without preamble.
The speaker tells the reader that they think about “money” in the morning. They use a metaphor to compare money to a “green horned lord”. It is always there, like some kind of green devil that controls the speaker’s life. Lines three and four introduce a feeling of disorientation and helplessness as this speaker describes, metaphorically, stumbling through a forest. They don’t know where they’re meant to go, but they know they aren’t headed toward “salvation”. Rather, the thoughts on their mind are of a “prison made of emerald & pennies”. This is a very clear metaphor associating the temptation and pursuit of money to prisons from which one can’t escape.
Moving out of this fantastical, nightmare world, the speaker depicts their “wallet” as a place in which they keep “anxiety & condoms”. There, they can return to their fear for the future and the money they’ll have to support themselves as well as another base human need, sex. These two things are related at this moment and will continue to be related throughout the rest of the text.
The next line of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ is striking, and could very possibly be personal to the poet. Smith is HIV positive, and the next phrase that references selling oneself and then the confession, “but now my blood spoiled” feels although it might be associated. But, without a clear statement on the poet’s part, it is impossible to say for sure.
This set of lines returns again to the theme of money when the speaker says that they’d “rob a bank but” they’re a poet. This is an interesting contrast to consider and something that is inescapable as one proceeds through the lines.
In the next section, the speaker poses scenarios. They consider the possibility that “If [they were] white” then they would “take pictures of other pictures & sell them”. This statement alludes to the differences in life experiences between black and white people. If the speaker was white they’d be able to fake their way to success, doing something meagre like taking photos of other people’s photos. Their whiteness would carry them forward. But, the speaker is black and comes from “sharecroppers who come from slaves who do not / come from kings”. This line is very powerfully enjambed and while personal to the speaker, also asks the reader to consider their own identity, heritage, and privilege.
In the next lines of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, the speaker admits to sometimes (by which they really mean “often”) paying the “weed man” before the “light bill”. This connects to the chaos of their speaker’s own life and their need to find calm and peace amongst an overwhelming and unjust world. That peace and pleasure sometimes come before basic necessities like electricity.
The speaker adds in the next lines that they’d like “a grant or fellowship or a rich white husband”. These lines seem as though they are half meant in jest and a half in order to start a conversation about racial injustice and historical, racial financial disparity.
The connection between race and money is expanded in the next lines. The speaker says that they never feel as “colored” as when they look at their bank account. They can feel the way their life is different simply by being born “colored”. The speaker then references a Jay-Z and Kanye West song, stating that yelling the lyrics to that song also reminds them of their color.
The next lines continue the theme of money and introduce physical imprisonment, more so than what has been depicted so far. next, the speaker describes a summer they spent “stealing from ragstock”. They know that jail works in a number of different ways and when they think of their history, they think of the possibility of ending up in prison. It would be a way to “live rent-free” but it would also, in the end, make “white people richer”. This could be a reference to American for-profit prisons and the prison-industrial complex.
In the next lines of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ the speaker continues to discuss the connection between their own life, the lives of other people in the black community they know. They explain how people being “locked up for selling drugs” is really being locked up for “trying to eat”. These lines are once again connecting money, life, imprisonment, and basic necessities.
In a particularly poignant line, the speaker says that there is no more “black tax than blackness”. Being born black is as high of a tax as one might come across in their life. This is linked in with being “American” and “poor”. Here, they are referencing a cycle of poverty in American where the poor get poorer as they are unable to pay fines and fees that pile up after not paying other fines and fees.
It is at this point that outside intervention is needed. That is going to come, or should come, by way of “reparations”. This is the word used in contemporary American society to refer to additional social and economic contributions to black families and communities in order to address the racial wealth gap that started with the enslavement of black Africans.
The next lines of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ are filled with self-questioning. The speaker is unsure how to feel about themselves when “white institutions give” them money. But at the same time, they need that $20, they need a way out whether that is through borrowing or playing power ball.
In the last lines of ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, the speaker looks to their past. They remember how their “grandmamma” was “great at saving” and their “grandfather” kept his money hidden along with his gun. This is one part of their family. There is another part, of which their aunt is included which, “can’t hold on to a dollar, a job”.
The poem concludes with the phrase “the b in debt is a silent black boy trapped”. This once again ties race and economics together. Reminding the reader of the work that needs to be done to fix the racial wealth gap not just for a monolithic black community but for individuals who, like the poet, have their own stories, lives, and futures.