Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018) is a young adult novel in verse that follows the story of a young woman named Xiomara. The poems that make up the novel are framed as entries in Xiomara’s secret journal, where she writes poetry that she shares with no one. Over the course of the novel, Xiomara struggles to navigate high school as a young woman who experiences sexual harassment and often clashes with her strict mother. She develops a relationship with a boy in her class, joins a poetry club, and eventually begins to perform her poetry in front of her community. Her experiences are individual, but informed by the fact that she is a young Black and Latina woman. In the United States, stereotypes and negative media images of Black girls and girls of color contribute to the day-to-day and systemic racism that these girls face. Acevedo uses slam poetry, a form uniquely capable of elevating the voices of young people, to center the voice of a Black girl in a society that silences and essentializes Black girls and women.
In the United States, damaging stereotypes of Black girls and women have existed since the era of enslavement, shifting to accommodate changing times (Dagbovie-Mullins 749). Many of these images serve to hypersexualize Black women and girls. In the present day, media images of Black femininity infantilize Black women and portray Black girls as overly mature. The conflation of Black womanhood and girlhood and the stereotyping of both has damaging consequences for Black girls. As Sika A. Dagbovie-Mullins points out in her article “Pigtails, Ponytails, and Getting Tail: The Infantilization and Hyper-Sexualization of African American Females in Popular Culture” (2013), the public perception of Black girls as sexually developed and aggressive has led people to defend their victimization. Online commenters responding to musician R. Kelly’s assault of a minor justified his actions, citing the supposed maturity of the Black girl he abused (745-6). Dagbovie-Mullins points out that many people didn’t see a problem with Kelly’s actions because they believe
that an adolescent’s physical maturity is reason enough to believe that she is emotionally ready for sexual autonomy. This harmful and skewed reasoning reflects a national troubling tendency to view black adolescent females as sexually savvy and therefore responsible themselves for the sexualization and exploitation of their bodies. (746)
Dagbovie-Mullins points out that multiple “sexual scripts” control depictions of Black women in the United States (747). The supposed sexual “savvy” of Black girls is perpetuated through the trope of the “sexy schoolgirl,” which infantilizes Black women and blurs the lines between Black womanhood and girlhood. Dagbovie-Mullins considers this trope a spin-off of the “freak.” While the “freak” can theoretically derive power from her sexual aggression, the “sexy schoolgirl” can not, and a young girl certainly can not derive power from a sexual performance beyond her maturity (747).
In The Poet X, Acevedo engages with the issue of the sexualization of Black girls by portraying Xiomara’s encounters with hypersexualization. At the beginning of the book Xiomara writes about the beginning of summer in a poem titled “Stoop-Sitting.” In the poem, a group of men catcall Xiomara, saying,
‘Ayo, Xiomara, you need to start wearing dresses like that!’
‘Shit, you’d be wifed up before going back to school.’
‘Especially knowing you church girls are all freaks.’ (4)
The offensive diction that the men use demonstrates that Xiomara is sexualized and objectified because she, in the words of her mother, has “‘a little too much body for such a young girl’” (5). One man says that Xiomara could be “wifed up” before school starts, implying that her attractiveness will help her to achieve a goal of womanhood more valuable than education: marriage. Another man undermines the domestic connotations of “wife” by implying that Xiomara is a “freak.” He uses a trope that is, as Dagbovie-Mullins points out, primarily applied to Black girls and women, who are seen as sexually aggressive. To further complicate matters, the men believe Xiomara to be a freak because she is religious. Her religion requires her to remain chaste, but the men read this as a sign that she has a pent up sexuality available to the first man who tries to access it. The men who catcall Xiomara read her body, the physically developed body of a young Black woman, as a sign of her readiness to fulfill the demeaning sexual roles they attribute to (Black) womanhood. They negate her childhood and diminish her personhood.
Xiomara’s experience with the cat-callers is an example of how media representation can create and/or perpetuate negative stereotypes that then have tangible consequences on the lives of Black girls. The negative perception of Black girls in the United States leads not only to sexual harassment and abuse but also to disproportionate punishment and unfair treatment. In 2017, an important report from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law shed light on the unequal treatment Black girls receive in the United States. The report, titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” demonstrated that adults in the United States believe that Black girls need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort and that Black girls are more independent and know more about “adult topics” such as sex (1). In essence, they do not treat Black girls as children. The process by which children are perceived as or forced to act like adults is known as “adultification” (4). Black children in the United States have experienced adultification since the era of enslavement, when enslaved children were punished for displaying age-appropriate behaviors (4). Children in the United States have come to be viewed, both socially and legally, as not yet mature and therefore innocent. However, this construct of childhood has been applied primarily to white children, and Black children have been denied the same leniency (2-3). They are more likely to receive harsher punishment in school and to receive more punitive treatment in the juvenile justice system (9, 12).
In the process by which negative media portrayals and historical stereotypes become negative perceptions that lead to unequal treatment, the actual voices of Black girls are silenced. In The Poet X, Acevedo speaks back against such damaging images of Black girls by allowing Xiomara to tell her own story. By centering Xiomara’s voice and her own articulations of her thoughts and emotions, Acevedo allows a young Black woman to push back against the harassment she faces and express the complexity of navigating her transition to adolescence. When Xiomara receives attention from men, she experiences a “sancocho of emotions” (32). In the poem “After,” Acevedo uses anaphora to emphasize the gut-punching regularity of sexual harassment in Xiomara’s life:
It happens when I’m at bodegas.
It happens when I’m at school.
It happens when I’m on the train. […]
It happens when I wear shorts.
It happens when I wear jeans.
It happens when I stare at the ground.
It happens when I stare ahead. (52-3)
The parallel structure of the lines reinforces Xiomara’s helplessness: no matter what she does, the result is the same. The sexualization of her body by strangers simultaneously adultifies her— sometimes her abusers are “grown-ass men” — and strips her of agency. Through Xiomara’s reaction to the attention she receives from men, Acevedo depicts a Black girl not as invulnerable and sexually mature but as a victimized girl with a strong voice attempting to navigate adolescence.
Acevedo uses the genre of slam poetry to elevate Xiomara’s voice, and to demonstrate one path by which marginalized youth can gain refuge and agency as they begin to understand their identities in an unjust society. In their article “Slam Poetry: An Artistic Resistance Toward Identity, Agency, and Activism” (2016), Gholnecsar Muhammad and Lee Gonzalez articulate the multiple ways in which slam poetry can empower young people. First, slam poetry communities are spaces of refuge within which youth can learn to understand their identities. They write, “Slam provides an avenue to explore the world and self. It feels important in a way that other literary experiences may not be able to do” (450). Secondly, slam provides young people with a “platform to share the ideas, values, and beliefs they negotiate, which provides a sense of control in their struggle for identity” (450). This gives them a sense of agency they may not be able to access elsewhere. Finally, slam poetry creates an opportunity for young people to engage in activism. Because slam poetry is open to direct political expression and is performed, it can be a form of activism. As Lee and Muhammad write, “Language is used to warrant social change and because there is an audience and a critique of the world, it is a social and collective process” (450). Young people, especially marginalized young people, can engage in slam poetry in order to understand their identities both individually and within a wider social sphere, to gain agency in relation to those identities, and to participate in activism.
Acevedo also depicts slam poetry as an empowering genre for young people. In the process of writing and eventually gaining the courage to perform her poetry, Xiomara benefits in all of the ways outlined by Lee and Muhammad. Throughout her poems, Xiomara questions various aspects of her identity— her body and how it is perceived, whether or not she is a poet, her attractions and desires, her friendships, her family relationships. The process of writing helps her to articulate her emotions, and the process of performing helps her to express her voice within a community that will listen. It is through poetry that Xiomara attempts to make sense of the way society sexualizes her body. When Xiomara is sexually harassed, she feels an urge “[t]o grab my notebook, / and write, and write, and write / all the things I wish I could have said” (53). Poetry is a space in which Xiomara can express the thoughts and feelings that she can not safely express in other ways. However, this expression is incomplete without performance. Xiomara is only honest with herself, not with her community. This is evidenced in poems titled “Rough Draft” and “What I Actually Turn In,” which recur throughout the book (39-41, 126-7, 179-80, 244-8). In her first drafts, Xiomara writes honest poems in response to prompts. However, she turns in polished prose that does not contain her true feelings on the subject. Until she performs her poetry, Xiomara does not feel that she can be open about her actual thoughts and emotions.
Through performing her poetry, Xiomara finds a supportive community in which her voice is heard. In the poem “At the New York Citywide Slam,” Xiomara finally performs onstage in front of her family and friends.
With Ms. Galiano’s assistance: I let the poem rise from my heart,
With Twin helping me practice: I hand it over like a present I’ve had gift wrapped,
With a brand-new notebook: I perform like I deserve to be there;
With Aman’s (and J. Cole’s) inspiration: I don’t see the standing ovation,
With YouTube and English class: I don’t see Caridad and Isabelle cheering, or
With Caridad holding my hand: Aman and Twin dapping each other up,
With Mami and Papi in the front row: I don’t see Father Sean in his collar smiling,
With Father Sean in the audience: I don’t see Papi telling people “Esa es mi hija.”
With Isabelle and the club cheering: I look at Mami and I give her a nod:
I stand on stage and say a poem. There is power in the word. (Acevedo 353)
Acevedo uses the split form of the poem to highlight how the act of performing poetry is both a deeply individual experience of expressing one’s voice and also an act of relying on and creating community. The phrases on the right hand side of the colons all begin with “I,” and can be read as a standalone poem, highlighting Xiomara’s individuality as she stands on stage. When Xiomara “let[s] the poem rise from [her] heart” she assumes agency and expresses her voice. Throughout the phrases that begin with “I,” Xiomara repeats that she doesn’t see her supporters in the audience: the rest of the world falls away and she is alone with her voice. The phrases on the left hand side of the colons are dependent clauses that don’t all line up with the phrases that follow them, exaggerating their interdependency. All beginning with the word “with,” these phrases emphasize that Xiomara could not have achieved what she did without the support of her teacher, her brother, her boyfriend, her inspirations, her best friend, her parents, her priest, and her slam poetry club. They also emphasize the communal nature of performance poetry: it is the audience that gives a voice meaning by hearing it. The “power in the word” derives from the fact that it is heard. In this poem, Acevedo emphasizes the unique nature of slam poetry as a genre that can help a young Black woman find her individual place within a wider community.
Acevedo, a slam poet herself, makes use of the verse novel to elevate the voice of a young Black woman and to provide young people with a “tangible” way to interact with and perhaps be inspired by slam poetry (Grochowski). In an interview with Sara Grochowski, Acevedo says that she decided to write a novel when she realized her performed poems were not something that young people could physically “carry” with them (Grochowski). Writing in verse was also important to her. In a different interview with Sylvia Vardell, Acevedo states,
I knew from the moment I started the manuscript that I wanted to write [Xiomara’s] story in verse, not only because she herself was a poet, but because it was important for the story to be as close to the character as possible. (35)
Poetry allowed Acevedo to center Xiomara’s voice and perspective without distraction. Through the immediacy and complexity of Xiomara’s voice, Acevedo counters damaging images of Black girlhood in the United States. Xiomara’s experiences do not stand for the experiences of all Black girls. Instead, they demonstrate exactly what is missing from media representations that erase the voices of Black girls and women.
Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. HarperCollins, 2018.
Dagbovie-Mullins, Sika A. “Pigtails, Ponytails, and Getting Tail: The Infantilization and Hyper-Sexualization of African American Females in Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 46, no. 4, 2013, pp. 745-771.
Epstein, Rebecca, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia González. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. 2017. https://www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf
Grochowski, Sarah. “Q & A with Elizabeth Acevedo.” Publisher’s Weekly, 6 March 2018. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76224-q-a-with-elizabeth-acevedo.html
Muhammad, Gholnecsar and Lee Gonzalez. “Slam Poetry: An Artistic Resistance Toward Identity, Agency, and Activism.” Equity & Excellence in Education, vol. 49, no. 4, 2016, pp. 440-453.
Vardell, Sylvia M. “New Voices in Poetry.” Book Links, vol. 28, no. 1, 2018, pp. 34-37.