We Are Not Here to Save You: Black Women & the Documentary Poem


And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our own lives. - Audre Lorde 


Writing, in particular the field of poetry, is contributing to the movement of bearing witness to a revolution, while also adding to and changing the archival history. In my opinion, some of the greatest contribution comes from the practice of docupoetics. Within my own work as a docupoet and from my readings of texts like Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow, Black female poets are engaging in and redefining the practices of docupoetics in order to retell, reexamine and refashion the histories and voices we are amplifying.

Docupoetry has a long history in poetics and craft. It has taken many forms beginning with ballads and cantos to include erasures and found poems from actual court documents, journal articles, interviews, and testimonials. In his essay “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy: the poet as journalist, historian, agitator” Phillip Metres defines the successful documentary poem as one that “withstands the pressure of reality to remain a poem in its own right… they testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence.”  Black female poets are doing just that and more. While poets such as Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyeser have paved the way for how docupoetic works are crafted and studied, the practice of docupoetry continues to evolve and Black women are redefining what docupoetry is and how it can affect change from an historical perspective as well as an artistic one.


It is not my job to save you America. It is not my job as a Black Latina to assuage your white fragility, to educate you or to help you understand my humanity. And yet, my social media feeds are riddled with quotes, tweets and hot takes about how “strong” Black women are and how Black women will save us all. What a burden to bear. What a falsehood.


What I believe in part, sets Black women docupoets apart from others working in this field is that while some docupoets prefer to create work that only uses the archive, and seek to separate the poet from the poem, poets like Natasha Tretheway, Claudia Rankine, Patricia Smith and myself often choose to include our own “I” or witnessing within the body of the docupoetic work. I believe that because of our position as Black women in the world, it is necessary and truthful for us to write and include these poems in the larger body of work because to neglect that “I” would only further silence and erase a part of the narrative. As poets we cannot, and choose not to work solely as objective historians, because we know how crucial it is to engage with the work on a personal level. We know it is necessary to show our readers the personal connection we have to the archive and the history itself because the ramifications of these histories continue to impact or daily living and oppressed existence. Thus, we are using the traditional practices of documentary poetics to shift the narrative focus and include the self within the archive, reclaim our agency, and redefine what docupoetry can look like.

By including our own voices (their personal “I” or even communal “we”) as a part of the narrative, we are able to interrogate our own positionality in the archive as well as add our voice and experience to the existing one. By doing so, the hope is that perhaps we can begin to create a new archive that challenges and expands the previous incomplete one.  

This of course then begs the question: is this ethical? Who has the right to manipulate and use documents in order to change the narrative? I believe that the responsibility lies on the poet to address and name her positionality within the narrative and be self-aware of whatever positions of power she may hold. She must also acknowledge that the truth she is constructing invariably means that other truths are left out, and questions will remain beyond her book of poems because the investigation does not begin or end with her.


If Black women are truly here to save us all, why is that when we speak, we are often told to “tone it down,” or “relax?” Why are our voices often perceived as angry or hostile? Why, if we are the most educated population in America, are our experiences and voices often left out and ignored?

We have been silenced for too long. We have swallowed our anger and our stories for far too long. And in different fields all across society, politics, academia, art, in the classroom and on the page, we are using the power and influence of art and language to make change. 


What then, is the poet to do once she’s taken the archive and made these poems, these manuscripts meant to stand the test of time? What are our readers supposed to make of it and how do we hope they use it once it’s in their hands? Spoiler alert, we do not wish to save you, or assuage your guilt. That is not what we are here for. The work of the poet-archivist is never finished. Our work is layered and nuanced and each reader must decide for themselves “how will I make room for others to be heard?”

In the end, I can only speak for myself when I say that I work as a docupoet because I hope to alter and shift the focus of the dominant narrative in order to create space for different truths in the collective memory of all the communities I am a part of. Our stories have always taken a back seat to the dominant patriarchal narrative that has shaped the collective memory of our societies for centuries and we are tired. Tired of the violences against our bodies, our language and our memory. Tired of never seeing ourselves in the records of history and humanity that would not exist or thrive without us. Through these documentary poems and this crucial work, we are reclaiming our time and demanding to be heard. And this very important work is, and will continue to be, necessary if we hope to see the liberation and empowerment of disenfranchised and oppressed communities everywhere.

Jasminne Mendez is a Dominican-American poet, playwright, educator and award-winning author whose latest book, City Without Altar, is out now from Noemi Press. Mendez has had poetry and essays published by The Acentos Review, The New England Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and others. She is an alumni of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University and the author of two poetry/prose collections Island of Dreams(Floricanto Press, 2013) and Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poetry(Arte Publico Press, 2018), and one children’s picture book Josefina’s Habichuelas (Arte Publico Press, 2021) She lives and works in Houston, TX with her partner in poetry and in life Lupe Mendez and their daughter Luz Maria.


Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books, 1997.

Metres, Philip. “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy:the poet as journalist, historian, agitator”. Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 5 Nov. 2007, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/68969/from-reznikoff-to-public-enemy.

———. “(More) News from Poems: Investigative / Documentary / Social

            Poetics on the Tenth Anniversary of the Publication of ‘From

            Reznikoff to Public Enemy’.” The Kenyon Review, The Kenyon Review, Mar./Apr. 2018,