I recently discovered the powerful force that is Kai Davis, her work resonates with me and I hope that it touches a piece of you as well.
I wrote this paper for a literary theory course, realized that no-one had posted any comprehensive papers on this work and figured ‘why not?’.
A Postmodernist Reading of Poet Kai Davis’s “Fuck I look like”
Davis’s poem “Fuck I look like” (attached) is a work that largely reflects the many oppositions and unfortunate alienation that come along with being a black intellectual. Kai Davis is a contemporary poet who has gained recognition after becoming a two-time international grand slam champion, winning 2011’s Brave New Voices competition, and 2016’s College Union Poetry Slam Invitational. Davis is an African American lesbian best known for her spoken word performance. Her works deal largely with race, gender, and sexuality. While her polemical poem “Fuck I Look like” can be understood and appreciated through a variety of critical lenses, a postmodernist reading, particularly through the lens of post-structuralism, offers a most illuminating interpretation of the poem.
The first thing one notices about Davis’s poem is that it defies traditional poetic forms; it is performance-on-paper, which in itself is a postmodern trait. Davis aligns herself with postmodern modes of expression by choosing to expose the illogical expectations or conditions that occur in established systems. The system she deconstructs in this poem is education and its setting in a typical classroom. Its first line is a truncation of the sentence, “(What the) fuck (do) I look like?” and calls immediate attention to the fact that she (the author) is not stupid and fully understands the stereotyped expectations of her as a Black person:
‘Fuck I look like?!
No, really—‘Fuck I look like?!
I look like you got me fucked up is what I look like! (Lines 1-3)
This opening argues that who she is (emphasis added) has been determined by forces outside of her control and suggests that she is no longer willing to be subjected by these forces. This illumination of the socio-cultural forces that shape the way individuals perceive, experience, and respond to racism reflects a post-structural, critical race theory-inspired gesture.
Davis continues by using figurative language to successfully identify microaggression as it is often exercised in university settings, particularly the “belief” by some that Black people are not intellectually adept:
You looking at me like I’m not supposed to be standing here next to you.
Like, we in the same class but your idea of advance is too advanced
And my mind can’t match you. I think it’s my vernacular,
How I got half the consonants and twice the apostrophes
So my philosophy can’t be valid
Like I speak slave and you speak slave master. (4-9)
Here, Davis begins a technically complex performance of language emphasizing and owning the historical conventions that characterize postmodernist literature. She explores the effects rather than the causes, revealing that truth or reality is “undecideable” (Leitch et. al. 6). Lines 10 through 13 features the use of coded language (“This isn’t a plantation, it’s a classroom,” line 10) and a “you-say-I-say” signifying section that proves intellectual equality before dismissing it all in line 13 (“…it really don’t matter.”).
This deliberate undermining of her own meaning is one of the main features of post-structuralism: “the rejection of ‘reason’ as universal or foundational” (Leitch et. al. 22). It also indicates the kind of word play associated with M. M. Bakhtin’s concept, heteroglossia as described in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2/E:
Living language exhibits heteroglossia, the term Bakhtin famounsly uses to describe….’languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour’” (1073-1074).
By noting the folly of her language and the members of her own race, Davis again aligns her perspective of events with other postmodern texts, which have a tendency to argue that all societal rules and ideologies are designed as a means to control others with the ultimate goal of maintaining social and political systems. In further support of postmodern ideologies Davis challenges the literary canon, arguing against its racial bias in lines 14-19:
You also seem to like judging a book by the color of its author
Because apparently Maya Angelou is inferior due to her grammatical errors
But white man Mark Twain can write a whole novel in nothing
but grammatical errors
And that shit is a literate masterpiece.
In these lines Davis asserts the idea that the current literary canon divides what is considered high and low art based on color and gender rather than literary content. Postmodern authors have a reputation for publicly questioning the validity of the literary canon, especially in regards to its racial and gender bias. But in addition to questioning the validity of the canon and its genres, Davis questions the validity of oppressed people’s complaints as well as the immediate alienation she experiences in the company of her African American peers:
According to my people, I act smart, so I act white.
So I can’t be black and be smart because black people are dumb?
All this is – is self hate!
And to them that’s acceptable because white people told us niggas not to read 300 years ago
And now niggas are telling other niggas not to read.
What are we afraid of?
It’s like we think giving 100 percent means giving 100 lashes! (Lines 33-39)
Here, Davis seeks to expose the stereotype placed against African American intelligence. Davis’s assumed framework for this argument is that oppression has made a deep psychological impact on people of color, so much so, that they have bought into and are now cooperating with the intended oppression.
She concludes the poem by evoking perhaps the intended purposes of maintaining oppressive political and social systems:
And my people don’t even know that we are working with our oppressors.
Just passing on the torch, but we can’t pass the bar
Because the bar has been set so low that we are crushing under the weight. (Lines 40-43).
Thus, through the postmodernist lens of post-structuralism, Kai Davis’s poem appears to give voice to those subjected to power structures, while also critiquing those who participate in their subjugation.
Thoughts about Kai Davis’s Poem and Other Critical Theories
Postmodernism, post-structuralism and critical race theory in particular, are only two of the numerous literary theories one could choose to analyze Davis’s text. Among other equally effectives ones are queer theory, feminism, and reader-response. Davis’s inversion from speaking for the oppressed to speaking about the role of oppressed in their subjugation invites Derrida’s analytic procedure, deconstruction (Leitch et. al. 23). By alluding to the system of chattel slavery, Davis’s poem could be read effectively through a Marxist or post-colonial approach. In fact, eco-criticism seems to be the only theory that would not yield a productive interpretation of the work.
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Davis, Kai. “Fuck I look like.” http://genius.com/Kai-davis-fuck-i-look-like-annotated.
Leitch, Vincent, et. al. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton,
Kai Davis performs “’Fuck I look like.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NISakKDA