‘Affirmative Action Blues’ is a probing poem on the brutality against African American people and the significance of love in the context. Elizabeth Alexander wrote this piece in reaction to the horrendous actions of LAPD police personnel on an African American man named Rodney King. He was brutally beaten for rash driving and disobeying traffic stops in 1991. It took Rodney 3 long years, filled with trauma and distress, to ultimately get justice.
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‘Affirmative Action Blues’ by Elizabeth Alexander is about the police brutality against Rodney King and what the poet thinks of this event.
Alexander begins the poem in the present tense with the scene of the trial of four white policemen who brutally beat Rodney King without caring about his civil rights. There were two black men (one King himself and another might be his lawyer) trying to convince the bench of white men that the event, indeed, is in strict violation of civil rights.
Then the speaker talks about a separate event at her office where she convinces her boss not to use the word “niggardly” in front of her again. Though this word is tied with the etymology of “nigger” or “negroes”, she somehow feels offended for the resonance of the double “g” sound.
Just after the event, she dreams of another scene, where she finds herself in a rodent-filled office that makes her not only feel offended but a bit scared. Her boss advises her to keep her space clean in order to keep these vermin away.
In the next lines, Alexander keeps readers engaged in the main subject of the poem that whether the police’s actions can be justified. Alongside that, she asks, can African Americans really get along if such events keep occurring in the United States?
You can read the full poem here.
Right now two black people sit in a jury room
To use the word “niggardly” in my presence again.
Alexander’s ‘Affirmative Action Blues’ begins with an allusion to Rodney King’s Traffic stop incident that occurred on March 3, 1991. It was one of the incidents of police brutality on African-Americans. The speaker of this piece does not describe the whole incident at the beginning. She rather speaks about the trial of four white police personnel who tortured King.
She depicts the scene of the trial room in Southern California. There two black people, Rodney King, and his lawyer are trying to convince the jury consisting of nine white men, about the violations of King’s civil rights in that incident. Four white officers brought their batons in order to beat and smash King as if he was a “beautiful piñata”.
“Piñata” is a decorated figure of an animal containing toys and candy. It is playfully beaten as part of celebration and enjoyment. On that day, the officers actually drew a similar kind of sadistic pleasure by torturing King ruthlessly. So, Alexander says that they took him as their “piñata” which they bashed, celebrating racism.
In the following lines, the speaker talks about a similar incident yet different from the historic event. Like the victim tried to convince the judges, the speaker tries to convince her boss not to use the word “niggardly” (a synonym of miserly) again. She somehow finds this word offending or having a derogatory sound similar to the term “nigger” (sometimes, abbreviated as “nigga”).
He’s a bit embarrassed, then asks, but don’t you know
of my skull bleeds, and my face erupts in scabs.
Hearing the speaker’s comment, the boss gets a bit embarrassed. He knows the root of the word does not hint at any racist slur. So, he asks the speaker whether she knows about the term’s etymology or not. However, she is not yet convinced by the fact. She is of the view that though the root of “niggardly” is not offending, it resonates with its homonym. The sound in itself has a battering effect on her mind.
She warns the boss not to use that word as long as he lives. He should be righteous with the choice of words. After reading this line, the speaker not only seems engrossed with the indignation of blacks but also concerned with the language she uses.
In the next lines, the poet shifts from the topic and talks about a dream. She visualizes a meeting with her colleagues in a particular place. Suddenly, she finds herself screaming loudly. It feels as if her veins inside the skull would explode and her face would erupt scabs.
In the dream I use an office which is overrun
was “Venus,” that there was such a thing as a disease
In these lines of ‘Affirmative Action Blues,’ she describes the dream she has. In it, she is in an office that is overrun with different kinds of rodents such as mice, rats, and baby otters. She is particularly concerned with the otter that peers at her from an exposed water pipe.
The round face of the otter alongside the etymology of its name (“otter” is also used as a racist slur for African Americans). It reminds her of the term “Negroes” which is also used in a derogatory fashion to point at blacks. The term originated from Latin niger, meaning “black”.
The character of the boss (representing an intellectual white man who is moderately racist and outwardly liberal) comes up with a solution to this problem with rodents. He suggests she keep her office clean in order to get rid of these vermin. It sounds more like a racial comment about society other than a solution to keep the pests away. This comment shows the fundamental idea of racism that sounds like a promo of some popular pesticide brand.
The thought of cleaning reminds her of the suffering of black people who live in underdeveloped areas. She thinks of those who are restricted from getting an education at all. Some of them suffer from AIDS or any kind of deadly disease.
In the next lines, she talks about the term “venereal diseases” as AIDS comes under it. The term comes from the Latin term Venus that is the name of the goddess of love. The etymology of the word is paradoxical. She interprets the term “venereal diseases” as “disease of love”. Probably, the idea of unprotected lovemaking gave birth to the name of this category of disease.
of love. And meanwhile, poor Rodney King can’t think straight;
Analysis, and we can’t dance our way out of our constrictions.
In this section, Alexander returns to Rodney King by keeping her personal thoughts aside. Her speaker thinks of the prevalence of universal love and brotherhood in a world where every now or then innocent black people are denied their rights or physically harassed. Whether the tortured can really get along, is the question that readers have to ask themselves.
Those who wish to be optimistic, say one “can’t hit lick with a crooked stick”. It means we cannot totally reject an idea out of a dispersed incident happening in some corner. Can they really justify Rodney King’s suffering with this point?
According to Alexander, they cannot. When a straight stick (or baton) came out of nowhere and cracked King’s joints, not for his crime, but for his black skin, he might have realized he was not a piñata of whites. He was a man who too had the right to his life, liberty, and equality. On that day, he realized that “amor vincit omnia” is nothing but a myth. If love (amor) conquered (vincit) everyone’s (omnia) heart, he should be treated as a man, not as an “otter” or some “rodent”.
The speaker knows the power of love. It has changed the way she thinks. She knows that love is not an analytical idea as a political agenda. It is something that cannot be decoded scientifically. She also knows the fact that blacks cannot dance their way out of social constrictions. These two contrasting ideas create tension in this section.
I know that the word “niggardly” is “of obscure etymology” but probably
This section of ‘Affirmative Action Blues,’ is indented from the main text. Here, Alexander discusses the etymologies of several derogatory terms that are applied to African Americans. Firstly, she refers to the term “niggardly” again to clarify the fact it is “of obscure etymology”. It probably originated from the French Norman (also known as late Middle English) term nigon or in the sense Chaucer and Shakespeare used it. If it is so, there are no issues. The problem appears when the term “nigger” sounds exactly like “niggard”.
“Niggard” means a miser or a stingy person. Hence, their roots are not the same. But, a “may-be-the-same” is still there in the speaker’s mind.
In the following lines, she talks about the etymology of “nigger” for clarification. She thinks perhaps they are related. According to her, the alliterating “g” sound within the terms, acts as the front teeth of a rodent. They gnaw at her conscience whenever she hears them. The reference to “rodent” and its etymology in the last lines now make sense. It justifies why the speaker saw the rat, mice, and baby otter in her dream.
I know so many things, including the people who love me and the people
I am a piñata, Rodney King insists. Now can’t we all get along?
In the last section of ‘Affirmative Action Blues,’ the speaker talks about herself. She is aware of many things that include the people who love or hate her. In Tourette’s syndrome, one says the things that suddenly come up in her mind, without knowing the word is real or offensive. Likewise, a number of terms come knocking at her mind’s door. These include “vermin”, “screed”, “carmine”, and “niggardly”. All these terms are somehow associated with Rodney King’s suffering.
In the last line, the speaker provides a scenario. If King insists that he is a “piñata” of those white officers, can we get along with it? This question is posed to readers to ponder upon.
‘Affirmative Action Blues’ is written in an unconventional style. It shapes a number of narratives fused into a singular narrative of Rodney King. All these events or imaginary situations are tied with the brutality against black people. The overall poem is loosely connected. There are a total of 48 lines that are stuck together in a single stanza. In the last few lines, Alexander uses indentions in order to present the etymologies of several terms. Besides, the text is written in free-verse, meaning there is no regular rhyme or meter in the poem. It is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker who is the poet herself.
Alexander’s ‘Affirmative Action Blues’ contains the following literary devices.
- Enjambment: It is used throughout the text to internally connect the lines and make a reader go through consecutive lines in order to grasp the ideas. For instance, it occurs in “Right now two black people sit in a jury room/ In Southern California trying to persuade/ Nine white people …” and so on.
- Allusion: Alexander alludes to a number of historic events. Firstly, this piece is all about the Rodney King traffic stop event of 1991. Besides, there is an allusion to the “blues”, a music genre that originated in the “Deep South”.
- Irony: It occurs in “They were smashing a beautiful piñata was/ “a violation of Rodney King’s civil rights”. This device is also used in other instances.
- Metaphor: The term “piñata” is used as a metaphor of Rodney King who was beaten by four white policemen. The white men drew sadistic pleasure from this act. That’s why Alexander uses this metaphor.
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the terms “niggardly”, “nigger”, “stick”, and “roden” in the poem.
‘Affirmative Action Blues’ appears in Elizabeth Alexander’s second poetry collection Body of Life. It was first published in 1996. In this poem, Alexander frames an interesting title that refers to the music genre that originated in the Deep South of the United States. It has African American roots. Alexander alludes to this genre in order to establish a connection between the present and the past. The common thread is the essence of protest that is present in both the name of the genre as well as her poem. Through this piece, she asks a probing question to us regarding whether African Americans can really get along with others if incidents like Rodney King’s physical harassment keep taking place.
Explore more Elizabeth Alexander poems.
The title of the poem harks for “affirmative action” from humankind as a whole. This piece adheres to the essence of protest that is present in the music genre blues. Collectively, the title demands an answer from readers regarding why Rodney King was beaten and whether African Americans can get along with the privileged white people.
Elizabeth Alexander’s poem ‘Affirmative Action Blues’ was first published in 1996. It appears in one of the best-known poetry collections of Alexander, Body of Life.
It is a free-verse lyric poem. Alexander writes this piece from the perspective of a first-person speaker who represents the poet herself. Besides, the text contains a total of 48 unrhymed lines that are grouped into a single stanza.
Rodney King was an African American who was beaten by four white police officers while he was running away from them. It occurred on March 3, 1991. The LAPD officers beat him with batons during his arrest after the chase. It took him three long years to ultimately get justice.
In this poem, Alexander’s speaker finds the word “niggardly” offending as it sounds similar to the word “nigger”. She is well aware of the fact that this word originated from the term “nigon” meaning ungenerous or stingy. But, somehow the harsh “g” present in the term disturbs her mind.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly explore the themes present in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem ‘Affirmative Action Blues’.
- ‘Bullet Points’ by Jericho Brown — This piece explores the crimes in America, particularly those of the police against African Americans. Read more Jericho Brown poems.
- ‘Power’ by Audre Lorde — This poem is based on the murder of a ten-year-old black boy Clifford Glover by a racist police officer Thomas Shea. Explore more Audre Lorde poems.
- ‘The Death of Joy Gardner’ by Benjamin Zephaniah — This piece is about the death of a Jamaican student Joy Gardener. She was killed by racist police officers. Read more Benjamin Zephaniah poems.
- ‘Nothing’s Changed’ by Tatamkhulu Afrika — This poem talks about the apartheid system in District Six near Cape Town in South Africa and explores racism. Explore more Tatamkhulu Afrika poems.
You can also read about these incredible poems of the Black Lives Matter Movement.