The Sealey Challenge: Say Her Name

Zetta Elliott's SAY HER NAME, in front of yellow & purple flowers & against a stormy sky.
Say Her Name

I first heard of Zetta Elliott’s Say Her Name when one of my professors shared a poem from its pages after police stormed an apartment and murdered a young woman in Louisville, and I knew it would be part of my Sealey Challenge this year: it is a book of this year, and for this year, and yet it is timeless too, rooted in the past, reaching toward a better future.

Elliott writes of roots, and of the power of grandmothers and grandmothers’ grandmothers, running in one’s veins, and Say Her Name celebrates its roots and its grandmothers, showcasing the words of Phyllis Wheatley, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde, each one a giant; honoring mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers in word and image.

Elliott also speaks to the present, memorializing women lost to the sea, today and yesterday and in the past. She honors women and children whose lives have been snuffed out by white supremacy and the violence of misogynoir. It says her name, again and again, and in the back of the book, Elliott says her name—their names—again, giving names, events, and more, making Say Her Name part history book as well as poetry.

But Say Her Name is a celebration, too. It celebrates life, and sisterhood, and the bonds of Black women and Black families. Like Mahogany Browne’s Black Girl Magic it speaks of the ugliness wrought by hate, but it punches up, hard, celebrating beauty and sisterhood and love. Black hair is here, and Black Panther, in Wakanda and here in the United States. Elliott reaches for the stars and worlds beyond this one; she sings defiance and joy in a series of short, sharp haikus, which set the tone for the coming section.

Say Her Name goes beyond words: it is a combination of Elliott’s words, rooted and branching, and Loveis Wise’s color-drenched art. They work in tandem, almost a graphic novel, reaching beyond the grief of words and histories towards something greater. (I do wish that there had been higher contrast on several full-bleed pages: they are emotionally powerful, a tremendous use of ink, but as a dyslexic it’d be easier for to read with that higher contrast.)

Say Her Name is beautiful, and powerful, and fierce. It is poetry for this moment, filled with police riots and white supremacist violence, but it will be poetry for tomorrow, too, even when tomorrow is better. It is rooted deep in history and in folklore and in family, and it branches up into the stars, and a more equitable tomorrow.

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