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On "We of the Streets"


Melissa Girard

Wright’s “We of the Streets” reminds me (not surprisingly) of the opening pages of Native Son. In these pages, Wright presents the psychic and geographic boundaries that confine Bigger Thomas, a network of intricate signs that everywhere express the fatal determinism of a life intersected by race and class oppression. The meaning of these social markers of oppression is most succinctly ingrained in Bigger’s consciousness in the poster of a politician pointing at him, the caption reading “YOU CAN’T WIN!” Without going too far on a tangent, I point this out to show the way that “We of the Streets” maintains a similarly constructed system of social markers: here, we have the same tenements, chimney-broken horizons, sticky-fingered babies, stringy curtains, the roar of the “L,” and even billboards. Yet, the poem works to recuperate these signs of shared oppression as emblems for collective empowerment. The streets, the literal and figurative boundaries of oppression, serve as the site of renewed optimism and strength.

“We of the Streets” is an extremely sensual poem. Even the opening line expresses power through scent:

Streets are full of the scent of us—odors of onions drifting from
doorways, effluvium of baby new-born downstairs, seeping
smells of warm soap-suds—the streets as lush with the fer-
ment of our living.

The smell of bodies, eating and washing, the intimate scents of daily life, fill the streets. Wright’s celebration of these smells, making the streets “lush with the fer/ment of our living,” counteracts the typical aversion to these kinds of odors in a public space—smells of living, personal people, literally bursting out of the buildings that seek to contain them. The odors announce an ownership of the streets by the people who live there. The scents are familiar, indicating a wide variety and number of people who call the streets their own. The streets are “full of the scent of us”; literally, the scent indicates an excess of power and energy, bodies ready to lay claim to their streets.

The poem continues, stating “our bodies are hard like/ worn pavement” (line 4). The poem is interested in the line between the body and the physical environment it inhabits. Like Bigger Thomas who feels the effects of racism and class oppression manifest in his bodily outbreaks of violence and sexuality, the “We” in this poem feel their bodies worn down by environmental oppression. However, the poem also states, “our frater-/nity is shoulder-rubbing, crude with unspoken love; our pass-/ word the wry smile that speaks a common fate” (line 5). The street that these people have come to love, is not only a physical boundary, but a site of its own production. The bodies of those residing here are not merely written upon by oppression: they are bodies that express what words cannot express, a fraternity and love due to shared oppression. Bodies express in public what words cannot always express; in this site of shared meaning, new possibilities emerge.

The poem focuses on this intra-community expression.

Our emblems are street emblems: stringy curtains blowing in win-
    dows; sticky-fingered babies tumbling on door-steps; deep-
    cellared laughs meant for everybody; slow groans heard in
    area-ways. (4)

Where Bigger Thomas looked around his world of stringy curtains and rat-infested one-room apartments and saw a world devoid of possibility, a world absent of meaning, Wright is here re-presenting that world as a way of identifying cultural specificity. Typical markers of poverty are reconceived as shared culture. The poem attempts to show the ways that signs of oppression produce a shared cultural language that can (and should) be radicalized as a foundation for collective action. 

The poem’s final stanza points toward this world of collectivization:

And there is something in the streets that made us feel immortality
when we rushed along ten thousand strong, hearing our
chant fill the world, wanting to do what none of us would do
alone, aching to should the forbidden word, knowing that we
of the streets are deathless…

The final stanza enacts a specific shift toward a vision of political empowerment, transforming the street, the home, into a site of freedom. That the streets are also home, makes the political vision that much more libratory. Those involved in the action will feel “immortal,” “deathless,” with the knowledge that they have transgressed the possibilities of individuality. In a world frightened and unable to speak its desire for freedom or for change, collectively, that freedom can take place. 

The poem’s political vision is presented in a somewhat lyrical form that is fragmented through line breaks and shaped through indentation. Words are hyphenated, sometimes awkwardly, in order to maintain the poem’s form. The highly descriptive “poetic” voice is held back by the poem’s boundaries. The poem also employs a number of semi-colons to maintain coherence among its often long sentences. The final stanza’s ellipses mark the transgression that the poem points toward, the breaking free of boundaries, and into immortality.

Copyright 2001 by Melissa Girard


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