Body and Voice in Elizabeth Acevedo’s "The Poet X"
By Alejandro Zuleta
Voice is often lost in a society that anchors its opinions on the exterior—the body. The body becomes a fixation for analysis on a superficial level, whether it’s to see how fat, skinny, ugly, or pretty the body is. The body also denotes a person’s race; it is through this person’s race that outer scrutinization can become even more emphasized. These intense, analytical stares, meant to formulate opinions on that person, develop, as a result of societal ‘normalizations,’ the common thread of hypersexualizing Black and Latinx femme bodies. Elizabeth Acevedo, a renowned Dominican-American slam poetry artist, is known to communicate complex issues of race and gender through her spoken word. Now, in her novel, The Poet X, she offers a platform to express these issues by contextualizing them through the novel’s protagonist, Xiomara Batista. The Poet X creates a narrative of the life of Xiomara, a young Afro-Dominican living in New York City struggling to find a space to voice herself in highly restrictive settings, as her body is sexualized and emphasized over her voice. Thus, the isolation that Xiomara experiences is a part of the societal struggles that remain much too common for individuals of Black, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx origin. Xiomara’s identity is indicative of the different space she occupies under gendered, racialized, and religion-based societal norms as an Afro-Latinx woman.
To begin with, Xiomara’s experiences throughout The Poet X reflect the perpetuation of patriarchy and how it shapes Afro-Latinas’ expectations of their bodies, as well as others’ expectations of Afro-Latina bodies. Imani Perry, a significant contributor to scholarship on race, especially as it influences issues such as law, literature, and music, and current professor at Princeton University, delves into patriarchy in her book Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, which helps us build a foundation on how patriarchy functions and how it remains propped up. It also, however, explains how patriarchy is a result of modernity, reminding us that it did not always exist. Understanding the recent conception of patriarchy in society lets us analyze the different ways it is perpetuated in the novel. On one hand, the street and religion are two of the contexts that continue to police Xiomara and her body. On the other hand, the most explicit example of patriarchy comes from Xiomara’s interaction with Aman near the end of the novel. In the poem titled “The Next Move,” Xiomara worriedly anticipates Aman’s reaction to her wanting to stop their sexual encounter; she states, “I wait for him to call me all the names / I know girls get called in this moment. / I sit up and hold my bra against my chest / with no memory of how I became undone. / When his fingers brush against my spine / my whole body stiffens. Waiting” (Acevedo 328). In this scene, Xiomara reveals the disgusting social norms that are placed on women as the pressure of implicit and explicit expectations of sexuality are placed on them. As a woman, patriarchal norms say that Xiomara should expect to be used—for sex— while men are seen as uncontrollable in sexual contexts and should be absolved from blame for any of their actions. Xiomara’s instinctive stiffening to Aman, expecting him to unleash an onslaught of sexual slurs or even worse, is simply a product of society’s silent acceptance of harmful patriarchal standards as it serves to undermine what sense of security Xiomara may have.
But while patriarchy and its norms are acquiesced to, interestingly enough, Aman and Father Sean serve to subvert these perpetuations of patriarchy in their interactions with Xiomara. Instead of throwing her out or verbally abusing her, Aman gives her his t-shirt and lets her stay (Acevedo 328). Father Sean, the priest at her church and a longtime family friend, is patient and supportive of Xiomara in her coming-of-age journey. In this capacity, Father Sean and Aman seem to conflict with the patriarchal standards of society. They stand as pillars of support for Xiomara and exceptions to overwhelming patriarchal norms. It is within this societal context that Aman, as a recent development in Xiomara’s life, and Father Sean, as he’s seemed to know her since her childhood, contrasts with Xiomara’s awareness of overarching norms. She understands patriarchy’s effect on the status of women in society and how it impacts her. Aman’s reaction was a pleasant surprise considering what could have been a violently different result. This context simply describes some background on Xiomara’s identity as an Afro-Latina, focused on gender. It extends further into the hyper-sexualization and exotification of Xiomara as an Afro-Latina as her identity amplifies the already overwhelming standards of patriarchy on her body as she is perceived by some as only an object.
The objectification of women in a patriarchal society and the assertion of power on Black bodies play into Xiomara’s recognition and feeling of her body as bigger and ‘more important’ than her small voice. This dichotomy of voice and body is represented in the field of Black feminist theory, where the inequalities faced by Black women are acknowledged and explored. Zora Neale Hurston, an Alabama-born African American author, anthropologist, filmmaker, and famous folklorist, is a central figure in Black feminist scholarship. Famous for portraying racial struggles in the early-20th century American South and research on Haitian Vodou, Hurston succinctly summarizes Xiomara and other Black women’s experiences. In the second chapter of her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s character Nanny identifies Black women as “de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston 14). As animals that are known to carry weight, to be rode on, and to be used, Hurston’s parallel between mules and Black women simply articulates the implicit societal perception of Black women as animalistic and unimportant. This comparison emphasizes a minoritization within a minority for Black women in a patriarchal society. Being Black and being a woman contributes to Xiomara’s feeling of smallness in voice as she bears the weight of popular views in the United States and at large.
Xiomara’s poem “Ants,” where she’s forced to kneel in front of her mother’s altar of the Virgin Mary, is an allegorical representation of herself similar to that of Hurston. She says, “My big is impossible to make tiny but I try to make ant of myself…I’ve learned that ants hold ten times their weight…can crawl through crevices; have no God, but crumbs…they will survive the apocalypse” (Acevedo 199-201). The poem gives repetition to Xiomara’s experience of feeling small and irrelevant. Contrasting this feeling of smallness is Xiomara’s recognition of her “big,” her body, and of how her big can’t be ignored and sculpted to be seen as small as she, that is, her person as reflected in her voice, believes she is. Hurston’s own animalistic comparison and Xiomara’s coincide and stress the theme of carrying weight—that of burdens and of other people. In phrasing ants as having “no God, but crumbs,” Xiomara alludes to her own lack of place and representation in religious spaces, in part due to how patriarchal they are. In turn, it translates to her marginalization because of the scraps that she is left to consume and the crevices ants—she— “can,” but are actually forced to, crawl under. Within this parallel lies Xiomara’s illustration of the struggles she faces in accepting her own body, heavily policed but also overpowering, and voice, excluded and unrecognized.
The exclusion of Xiomara’s voice is simply paradigmatic of a larger under-representation of Black women. Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as bell hooks, is a major contributor to Black feminist literature. She has published more than thirty books and numerous academic articles and is known for her work on the intersectionality of race, gender, and capitalism. Notably, bell hooks exposes the marginalization of Black women, even within feminist circles that supposedly aim to end sexism and gender oppression. In the introduction of her book, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, hooks talks about how discussions of race focus on Black men and how discussions of gender focus on white women (hooks 7). In these discussions, Black women are typically erased and forced to assert themselves within both spheres through their own efforts. “The Imperialism of Patriarchy,” a chapter in Ain’t I a Woman, delves into how Black men and men of color attempt to challenge and usurp the power of white men through their conquest of women (hooks 94). It follows that Black men abuse Black women due to their own frustrations with their oppression within society due to racism and other disadvantages. This conquest of women and assertion of power on Black women is typically seen in the act of catcalling, which tends to be concentrated on non-white, poor women.
The Poet X presents a few instances of this type of assertion of power, in particular when Xiomara’s butt is groped in “In Front of My Locker.” In this scene, Xiomara talks about how she is made to “feel so damn small inside” and “about how weird it feels to be stared at / and touched like public property” (Acevedo 218-219). Xiomara’s feelings are a result of systemic patriarchal power. Her feelings of marginalization and insignificance parallel the non-inclusion of Black women in major discussions of race and gender. These societal norms exclude Xiomara from a common space and make her feel alone—a feeling that is further amplified by her intersecting identity of being Latinx.
Xiomara, as an Afro-Latina, occupies a different space, even as she shares much in common with other Black women. Patricia Hill Collins, a renowned academic focused on race, gender, and class, especially within the African American community, has published more than forty articles and essays in various fields, most notably sociology. In her book, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, Collins uses a chapter called “Prisons For Our Bodies, Closets For Our Minds” to elaborate on common depictions of Black women in the U.S. Four ‘types’ are described: the Mammy, the Matriarch, the Welfare Mother, and the Respectable Black Woman. The mammy is a Black maid that is overweight, dark-skinned, and non-sexual/asexual; the matriarch is sexually aggressive, emasculating, and non-passive; the welfare mother is uncontrolled sexually and poor with low morals; and the respectable black woman is hard-working, middle-class, and non-sexual. These four categories are stereotypical classifications of Black women typically seen in media. However, Xiomara complicates these categorizations of Black women as she is not only Black, but Latina. Although both Black women and Latinas are often hyper-sexualized, Xiomara’s experience of the hyper-sexualization of her body as an Afro-Latina is intensified, while she faces the exotification of her body as well. Thus, the intersections of her identities lead her to not steadily fit into any of the categories described above and the space they entail.
Afro-Latinas occupy a different space in relation to other Black women and Latinas because of their intersecting identities with both. “Bodies and Memories[S1] : Afro-Latina Identities in Motion,” a piece composed by Ana-Maurine Lara within Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora, edited by Marta Moreno Vega, Marinieves Alba, and Yvette Modestin, exposes how this different space impacts Afro-Latinas in U.S. society. Lara writes, “The spaces that Afro-Latinas in the United States occupy are undefined spaces that result from the ways in which race has been constructed in U.S. society. Because of these constructions, and the institutions built around them, many Afro-Latinas are often not seen by Black Americans or by other Latinos. We must, in turn, push to be seen” (Lara 23). We see similarities between the positions of Afro-Latinas in society and the positions of Black women talked about earlier by bell hooks, in addition to the difference in the categories analyzed by Collins. In the same manner that Black women are excluded in discourses of race and gender, Afro-Latinas are deemed invisible by Black Americans and Latinxs.
At the same time, although Xiomara occupies a different space as an Afro-Latina, she falls under the same oppressive, patriarchal societal norms as the Black woman poet in “Spoken Word.” Xiomara articulates a feeling of loneliness, but also solidarity, in “Spoken Word” when she says, “We’re different, this poet and I. In looks, in body, / in background. But I don’t feel so different / when I listen to her. I feel heard” (Acevedo 76). Although their experiences may differ vastly, the identities Xiomara and the poet share, and the oppressions they face, allow them to relate on some level. In a society that marginalizes those of Xiomara’s skin complexion, or hair type, or gender, or identity as a whole, to hear a voice that speaks to some core part of her own thoughts leaves her breathless.
It is apparent that patriarchal interconnections with race and religion have heavily marked Xiomara’s experiences throughout the novel. These connections explain Xiomara’s difficulties in finding her own place and voice as she occupies a different space from the very beginning. In fact, many Afro-Latinas encounter the same scenario. Just as Black women are excluded from discussions of race and gender, as black men and white women dominate those two spheres respectively, Afro-Latinas also find themselves excluded within spheres of commonality they share with women, Black Americans, and Latinxs. As noted by Lara, it becomes necessary for them to forge their own space within these spheres, something we find Xiomara striving for, with great difficulty, throughout the novel. Her struggles are representative of a larger, systemic struggle in being minoritized within a minority already heavily oppressed by society. Societal norms are the binds that constrict Xiomara, even as she attempts to claw her way out in this overwhelming coming-of-age narrative. Although she can’t escape the pressures, expectations, or norms dictated by society, she does succeed in acknowledging and eventually accepting the different space she occupies. In doing so, she ends up finding her voice.
Alejandro can be reached via email at email@example.com
Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. New York, HarperCollins, 2018.
Collins, Patricia Hills. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism.
New York, Routledge, 2005.
hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. South End Press, 1981.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1937.
Lara, Ana-Maurine. “Bodies and Memories: Afro-Latina Identities in Motion.” Women Warriors
of the Afro-Latina Diaspora, edited by Vega, Marta Moreno, et al. Arte Público Press, 2012.
Perry, Imani. Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation. Duke University Press Books, 2018.