Review by Maria Bolaños
Book Review: Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat by Khalisa Rae
Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, published in April 2021 by Red Hen Press, is poet Khalisa Rae’s debut collection, following her 2012 chapbook, Real Girls Have Real Problems. Rae is a poet, queer rights activist, journalist, and educator in Durham, North Carolina, and a graduate of the Queens University MFA program. She is Managing Equity and Inclusion Editor of Carve Magazine, Consulting Poetry Editor for Kissing Dynamite, Assistant Editor for Glass Poetry, the Writing Center Director at Shaw University, and writer for NBC-BLK and Black Girl Nerds.
Heard we rattle in the walls, small
and rat-tailed rumbles, people
ignore. They swear we’re just the pipes –
from “Collaring Our Native Tongues”
A fiercely vibrant offering reminiscent of Southern Gothic style, Khalisa Rae’s Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat takes an unflinching look at the racist legacy that undergirds the idyllic images of Southern domesticity, and explores the complicated relationship between home and the Black body – specifically, the Black Girl’s body – that is traumatized by slavery. This collection confronts us with the painful, enraging dilemma: Where can a Black Girl go when her home is the source of her trauma, when the architecture of the place, from foundation to furniture, stands as a monument to her oppression?
The book’s first section is called Fire, and perhaps it’s named for the physical violence inflicted on the Black Girl’s body. But it could also be named so for the energy that she must summon from her body in order to resist white patriarchy:
...And that’s what they will come
for first – the throat.
They know that be your superpower,
your furnace of rebellion. So, they silence
you before the coal burns…
from title poem, “Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat”
Silencing is a suffocating force throughout the section as the Black Girl struggles against her environment. In “Southern Foreclosures,” the history of slavery is unspoken and unrecognized by white locals, but Black Girl sees the ghosts of her enslaved ancestors haunting the state fairs, homes, and empty fields. The hate that killed them still threatens her own body in the present day; the reader’s skin prickles alongside hers as she drives down solitary back roads. “Circus Acts: No More Black Girl Magic,” rips back the curtain to reveal the through-line from Saartjie at the freakshow to Beyoncé at the Super Bowl: the objectification of Black women’s bodies exhibited on stages set by white hands. There is no glamour in this Black Girl Magic ability to contort and be contorted; it’s driven by survival. Rae shows us, with spark and heat in her words, that the real Magic is Black Girl’s persistence and resistance.
If Fire burns the house with rage at the physical constraints of being Black in a white environment, then section two, Wind and Water, explores emptiness and sadness as a kind of homelessness, like a tree uprooted by a storm. In her search for new refuge, the Black Girl must wrestle her ghosts and her demons, in the form of loneliness, predators, and imposed narratives of the feminine ideal. In “Cumulus Clouds,” we see the Black Girl’s feelings of emptiness stemming from the shame she comes to associate with sex, as we witness the maddening reality of female rape victims being blamed for their rape. Lurking predators stalk our uprooted, un-housed Black Girl who feels disconnected and insecure in her own body; her predators are everywhere and ever-changing, from frat boys to white knights who are drawn to using women’s vulnerability for their personal gratification, and who leave her with the consequences. Even when the men are gone, and Rae lets us share in the sensual beauty of Black Girl’s first real taste of joy in “Shucking Oysters,” we find ourselves in a complicated balance of “marvelous...imperfections,” of love and exhilaration still mediated in a form of consumption, of taking a creature and unhousing it from its shell, its own body. We admire the pearl, we breathe in the sea, but the image of the hollow shell lingers; where do we go from here?
The reader will find this answer for themselves as the book moves to its final section, Earth and Spirit. But don’t be surprised if the answer comes in many forms – forms which Black Girl with much love and not a little hunger, gathers to herself:
...I believe I am a hoarder
of perishable people...
…Instead of giving them back
to the earth, recycling the salvageable parts
of both of us, I affirm them, polish their scratches
and set them back on the shelf
from “Bone Collector”
We listen as the ghost in the Black Girl’s throat now sings, of finding satisfaction in the body, of community built upon shared struggle, of belonging to the earth itself. The land holds all of these histories, and they are more than ghost stories, more than intangible myth. The bones of Black Girl’s ancestors are in the earth, and their voices are in her throat.
Maria Bolaños (she/her) is a Filipina-American poet, book reviewer, and freelance writer. Her most recent work focuses on Fil-Am culture, and on retelling Philippine myths from the perspectives of the myths' women and other marginalized characters. Her poems are featured or forthcoming in Antigone, Touchstone, Marías at Sampaguitas, and Chopsticks Alley, among others. Maria lives in Tovaangar (Los Angeles), unceded Gabrielino/Tongva land. She writes poetry, essays, and book reviews on her Instagram, @mariabeewrites.