By Cindy Nguyen
On April 5, 2023, Agnes Scott College welcomed alumni Courtney Faye Taylor for a live poetry reading to celebrate her debut collection, “Concentrate.” The reading took place at 6:30 p.m. in the Luchsingers Lounge and almost every seat in the Luchsingers Lounge was occupied by an enraptured listener.
Familiar faces of the English Department could be found in the crowd: the Drs. Stamant, Dr. Bobby Meyer-Lee, Dr. Willie Tolliver, Emily Hansen, and Anna Cabe.
Behind the podium, Taylor wore a ruffled black top with matching pants and a pair of round, gold-rimmed glasses. Her hair was worn in thin cornrow braids that fell down her back like a waterfall. A television screen stood beside her to provide her presentation with visuals.
“Concentrate” combines both poetry and photography to tell a story about Black womanhood and racial violence. In the book, Taylor relays the tragedy of Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old Black girl who was murdered by a Korean shop owner named Soon Ja Du, who believed Harlins was robbing her. Harlins’s murder and Du’s lack of substantial punishment for the crime was one of the inciting incidents of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, where thousands of citizens rioted against police brutality for six whole days, but Harlans’s life seems to be largely forgotten in the present day. While the Black Lives Matter movement has achieved high visibility over the past few years, there is much work to be done to make sure that the memory of Black women who are killed by police violence aren’t left by the wayside during protests. Other themes that Taylor touches upon in “Concentrate” include the tension between the Black and Asian-American communities.
Through her powerful lyricism and striking photography, Taylor effectively brings Harlins back to life for the thirty-five minutes of time her reading took up, reminding the audience of Harlins’s humanity instead of reducing her to a symbol of victimhood.
After graduating from Agnes Scott College, Taylor received her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. “Concentrate” is her first published book of poetry and it is already a finalist for the 2023 NAACP Image Awards and the 2023 Lambda Literary Awards. She has also received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, and the 92Y Discovery Prize. Her work can be found published in The Nation, Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets.
The poetry featured in “Concentrate” is highly experimental and striking. Taylor takes inspiration from many unexpected places, such as angry Yelp reviews, and uses the memory of sitting in between her aunt’s knees so her hair could be done as a framing device for “Concentrate,” as it was there she first learned of Harlins’s death. The fact that Asian-Americans own most of the stores that sell black hair and beauty products is a prominent subject in “Concentrate,” due to the connection Taylor makes between Black women’s relationship with their appearance and the violence they face from police.
She navigates the racial tension between the Black and Asian-American community with grace, especially when it came to incorporating the lyrics of the rapper Ice Cube, who wrote a song that referenced Harlins’s murder, in one of her collages. The collage featured images of posters in Asian-owned beauty parlors that connected the faces of Black women with potential thieves.
“‘Black Korea’ was a rap song released in 1991 and it was written most likely as a response to Latasha’s murder but also just a general reflection of anti-blackness in Asian-owned businesses,” said Taylor, “When I first created this collage, I removed the stereotypical phrases in the lyrics that refer to the shop owner as ‘Chop Suey’ and ‘Oriental.’ Instead, I had these open brackets to indicate that there is some language I have chosen not to replicate.”
“Keeping them in there felt like I was reproducing the harm but later, when I spoke with my editor, we talked about how that removal is like a sanitation of what happened in the context of racial opposition in that time period,” said Taylor, “I put the words back in there to show that in Ice Cube’s song, ‘Black Korea,’ rectifying anti-blackness means protest and boycott but also harm back for the harm received and how complicated that might be in our movements towards justice.”
You can buy “Concentrate” for $17.00 at Charis Books & More, Agnes Scott’s local queer bookstore. On top of being a unique contemplation on racially-motivated violence, the poetry collection also advocates for the power of memory and the right that Black women have to occupy our collective memory.