Joy Harjo is a Native American poet whose writings express the desire, struggles, hopes, dreams and anguish of her people. But many of her poems find common cause with universal themes, connecting to other peoples and other races, finding in their suffering a common cause with the plight of Native Americans. The poems in her book In Mad Love and War have special fondness for connecting to African Americans and South Americans, peoples with similar histories of suffering at the hands of whites. It is not that her poetry is militaristically anti-white; rather, Harjo’s poems speak out of an oppressed and beaten culture.
From the first, reading Harjo’s poems provides an acute awareness of her Native American identity. Paul Seesequasis writes: “Harjo, like other Native American women, was aware her Native Americanism made her different, and at the same time part of, the general protest movement [of the 1960s]. She was other. […] Being an Indian is, in itself, a political act the old saying goes. Being an Indian woman, then, must be a doubly political act” (Seesequasis). In “We Must Call a Meeting,” Harjo describes herself:
I am fragile, a piece of pottery smoked from the fire
made of dung
the design drawn from nightmares. I am an arrow, painted
Thus we come to a poem like “Strange Fruit,” the title taken from an old Billie Holiday song about lynching. The poem is dedicated to a woman lynched in California in 1986, yet Harjo furthers the poem’s impact by writing in the first person: “I was out early in the evening…”. She mentions “this poem I was writing,” and so one might originally suspect that the work is more personal. “Last night there were crosses burning in my dreams” could have two meanings. One gets the impression that it is Harjo who is finding common cause with Jacqueline Peters. The second is the impression that Ms. Peters must have suspected that her actions were creating enemies.
Since both poet and subject are women, one can feel that Harjo is putting herself in this woman’s place; imagining the racism that is constantly encountered by both minority women: “Dogs have been nipping at my heels since I learned to walk.” Even more tragic are the thoughts that speak of future hopes, hopes that will be crushed out in hatred. “I want to squeeze my baby’s legs, see her turn into a woman just like me.” We know that this will never happen not just for Jacqueline Peters, but many other African American and Native American women, women whose lives will be cut short by hatred, violence or simply the abject poverty of their lives.