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When the schools shut down in March, poet Leena Taylor transitioned from working in autistic support to supervising a residential program. The new job and its accompanying hours left her with more time to reflect and write. So, naturally, she wrote a book.
They Shot Anyway is a collection of Taylor’s poetry celebrating Black femininity, Black Muslim identity, and being American while Black. It’s both a celebration and a recrimination of her experiences as a Black Muslim woman, and the ways that quarantine amplified the complexities surrounding her identity.
“There were a lot of things to be angry about this quarantine,” says Taylor, “we were shutting down the country, we were staying at home, and even then, we’re still seeing Black people being killed by police. People talk about how Black Lives Matter is starting a race war, when really, we’re trying to end one.”
The themes of brutality and fear and unmitigated anger run through They Shot Anyway, incorporated with poems about Taylor’s experiences in a part of the Black community that is often ignored.
“It’s interesting to exist in a community that never gets acknowledged, especially when both Black people and Muslims are such marginalized communities, and then where there’s overlap, people don’t see us. And it’s strange, because politically Black people are usually liberal and Muslims are usually conservative, so here I am, and I’m both, and I can’t pick and choose the parts of my identity.”
In the middle of liberation
It’s her Muslim community, and the wisdom of the women who raised her, that inspired Taylor to claim her space. She talks of growing up in a religion that values womanhood and goes to great lengths to protect the wisdom and sanctity of women, if that protection sometimes veers too closely into infantilization. It’s the women themselves who ultimately drive Taylor to speak out. Growing up, she saw women fall short of the ideal of Islamic womanhood, and yet continue to show up to masjid, to claim space in both words and action, and demand the right to belong.
“Of course they belong. Of course I should speak my truth. Of course I am all the things: Woman. Black. Muslim. American. Of course I’m going to claim my space. As we all should.”
That same core community made Taylor a staunch feminist, one who has no patience for the tired stereotypes attached to the label.
The right to anger
“My chapbook contains a lot of anger, especially the first poem. And I’m not afraid of being labeled an “angry Black woman”, if anything, it makes me angrier. If me calling you out in poetry makes you mad, you’re the problem. We [Black women] have every right to be angry.”
They Shot Anyway may very well be Taylor lending her voice to the rallying cry for justice in America, but it’s also deeply personal and brimming with her natural effervescence. She was in conversation with other Black feminist poets during the course of the writing when she expressed doubts about including her more upbeat pieces, but decided to keep them in the final draft. Black Lives Matter means Black Joy Matters too, and it’s important that art exists outside the context of tragedy.
“Just by existing in a system that weighs you down, anything you create that’s positive is radical.”
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