Poems About Breaking Up with the Church and Patriarchy
Kendra Allen, author of the "Collection Plate," on fighting internalized misogyny and the danger of white women tears
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Aptly named after the ritual in the Black church of passing a basket down each aisle so that worshippers can give monetary donations, The Collection Plate asks us to give ourselves completely over to it as well. It also demands that we take up the warm and, at times chilling, musings that Kendra Allen leaves each reader to grapple with. Through Allen’s watchful eyes, we explore privilege, misogyny, generational trauma, Black girlhood, systemic violence inequality, as well as a speaker unafraid to tell us the truth no matter how terrified we might be to hear it.
In her poetry collection, Allen bravely explores the depths of Black femininity and its proximity to toxic masculinity. The speaker grapples with what it means to be a Black daughter tasked with carrying the weight of generational trauma in this world. At times, it feels almost too hard to bear—let alone bear witness to. Yet, Allen manages to show us the power in her pain. “Wound,” she writes, “makes you / prophetic.” The Collection Plate asks us to see beyond seeing—and approaches Black pain and suffering in a way that is tender and raw. It interrogates our complicity within it and demands not only our attention but our action as well.
In early June, I sat down with Allen to discuss these themes and other pressing concerns introduced to us in her stunning new book, The Collection Plate.
Skye Jackson: Your book is called The Collection Plate, which like many of the poems included in the book, brings to mind the pageantry and symbolism that evoke the Black church. What did it mean for you to explore and delve into the nuances and at times hypocritical nature of the Black church? Why was it crucial for you to portray it with such care and honesty here?
Kendra Allen: I grew up in the Southern Black church. I’m from Dallas. I grew up in my great-great uncle’s Baptist church, which is very different. Everybody knows who you are.
SJ: You can’t get away with anything!
KA: Yeah! And the church is not even that big, but it looked like a house. And so I grew up in this church and was there four days a week for 16 years of my life straight. Like you said, you can’t get away with a lot… but the pastor was getting away with a lot! He could get away with everything. I grew up with this moral compass that nobody was really following around me, but I had to follow, and it didn’t make sense.
I’ve always been very obsessed with masculinity and men, with what they’re allowed to say and get away with. My uncle would walk into church and I would have to stand up on his arrival like he’s God. Or all of the rules… you can’t wear this, you can’t say this, or you can’t say that.
[Men are] just terrorizing the church, when you really think about it. I’m like why is God a “He” all of the time? Why do we listen to men first? It’s internalized misogyny. We would agree with a man first before we listen to this woman. In the church, women pastors rarely get treated the same. They rarely get to preach. Sometimes I’d rather listen to them! The male pastors can be so long-winded! So, I used those poems to take that longwindedness of the male pastors and compact them into very short poems. Because who has time for all of that?
SJ: I do actually have a question about the Father figures in the poems. The specter of the “Father” figure looms large in the book. We see the speaker desirous of a relationship with him but also repelled by him as well. The use of the capitalized “F” in Father throughout the text almost imbues him with a God-like essence. Why did you make the creative choice to portray the “Father” figure in this way? Alternatively, what are these poems saying about Black girlhood and adolescence in the examination of paternal relationships?
KA: The initial thing that made me think of “Our Father” as a recurring character in this collection is because one of the first things I learned was The Lord’s Prayer. Every single night my mom would make me get on my knees and pray. The prayer starts with “Our Father, which art in heaven…” And then every time I would hear my mom pray, she would say, “Father this…” and “Father that…” Your father, our father, whatever. I would just hear this on repeat all the time.
I would also think about this notion that Black kids, in general, don’t have fathers. Black women, in general, either don’t really have a super great relationship with their fathers or it’s just nonexistent. There’s no balance. I think I lived my life like that a lot. There was no balance at all. It was always very extreme. Something would either be the greatest or the worst.
I knew I wanted to talk about God in a religious sense, but also a God I created in my head and in my heart, and also a God that I’ve made out of my actual father to have so much influence over my mind. I don’t like that feeling.
At what point do I break the ties from worshipping these patriarchal figures? And how do I go from worshiping them to honoring and setting boundaries for myself?
It’s weird. You grow up and you see all these women who took the path you could have so easily taken, but they didn’t have a choice. It’s hard to say, “Y’all can set boundaries” and “I would never have to deal with this.” It’s very hard to say that because we weren’t living in like those times and those states of being. I don’t have children. I don’t have a husband. I don’t have anything tying me down. I can just get up and go. But maybe they wanted to do that too and they couldn’t. I just really wanted to explore the reasons why.
SJ: It’s interesting that you say that because we do tend to look at older generations and judge them for the things that they did or didn’t do. But we also have to consider the fact that people back then did not have the language to talk about certain things. As a result, we live in this Black culture in which things were left unsaid and unaddressed for years.
KA: I love what you just said about not having the language for it. Our ancestors were just focused on survival and I had to learn that as well.
To that note, this book helped me come to terms with the fact that as much as I would like to save my mother, I cannot do it. I think this book helped me see all facets of that.
SJ: Water plays a huge role in the text. We see the speaker using it, almost as a conduit, to examine her own life and the lives of others around her. Water becomes a character here. Can you speak to the presence of water in the text? Why does it simultaneously anchor and alternatively frighten the speaker?
KA: A lot of these poems started as water poems about the desegregation of swimming pools. We see water used as a theme a lot or used as metaphors. I think I wanted it to be a metaphor because the book opens up with me getting baptized at the age of eight. What am I doing getting baptized at age eight? I don’t know what I want!
SJ: Yes! I literally wrote a note in my book on that line saying, “What were you getting saved from at eight years old?” You’re a child! You haven’t done anything wrong. But this system is so ingrained in us.
KA: Exactly! I’ve done nothing. Except for what y’all have made me do! So it’s your sins!
SJ: Putting your sins on the next generation of people.
KA: Yes! I think water for me, it allowed me to talk about tears, it allowed me to talk about wetness in general.
I was very tied to talking about the desegregation of swimming pools. But then I thought, what about the desegregation of church and state? Or the desegregation of all these big things in my life that maybe I didn’t understand as a kid. What about me was so eager to get baptized in this dirty water with dead water bugs in it?
I’m also thinking about birth, how I was birthed into being sad. I never knew I was sad my whole life until it just hit me. My parents, of course, deal with mental health issues. I feel like I was birthed into that and I just didn’t know.
Then, of course, literal birth with all the fluid and all the liquid. I wondered how we can build the body back up. I was thinking about that when I was writing the poem where my father gives me his issues. I get in the water, I swim and then he fills me back up with spit and lets me spill all over town. Spit is like water.
SJ: The speaker uses water to examine the reality of privilege versus poverty in the United States. For me, each of these poems immediately brought to mind the ongoing and horrifying unaddressed water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Why was it important for you to use water to discuss those pressing issues?
KA: I saw Little Miss Flint and I remember thinking, “Why is she so old now?” She was a little girl and now she’s a full-fledged teenager. She’s still fighting.
SJ: Nothing has changed.
KA: Yes, and I started thinking about the show, Naked and Afraid, as well. I used to watch it with my daddy when I was at his house. It would always be on. It would be funny when they didn’t have any water because they told you to get water at the beginning. But instead, you chose to get a machete and now you’re thirsty! You should have gotten a pot to clean your water.
I just wanted those poems to say the same thing, but put them in a different scene and a different setting. The same thing is happening in real life but y’all care more about a scripted reality show. The people that fall out from dehydration are immediately helicoptered off the show and suddenly everything is over. These people are going to be saved and everything is going to be fine for them. So why is it that this majority Black town is going without water? Why is Jaden Smith having to bring them water? Why is it that something that is a human right is being denied to these people? I know it’s because they’re Black. Why is it taking so long? When you really think about it, it’s wild. This country is trash. Why has this little girl been on Beyoncé’s internet for all of her childhood fighting for this cause? If you don’t care about children, then you don’t care about any of us. It’s very eye-opening and sad.
I think about shrinking bodies and also how society tells us that being small, skinny, and thin makes you better. We see all of these people’s bodies slimming down due to literal health crisis and it’s not an issue. But we see these bodies slimming down on Naked & Afraid and they leave saying, “Oh, I lost 27 pounds!” And for some reason that’s good! This goes into conversations about desirability, fatphobia… all that stuff that just allows Black people to be overlooked and die.
SJ: That brings to mind a line from one of your poems in the book. It’s stuck in my mind. You said, “hydrated hierarchies.” I wrote that down and thought that’s exactly how it is.
We also have to talk about the poem, “I’m tired of yo ass always crying.” I can’t stop thinking about it. In it, you explore the dangerous and ubiquitous nature of white tears. Towards the end of the poem, you wrote the haunting line:
“if you care for me—and when you hear the sound, believe me we must run.”
Can you speak to that theme of white tears and why it was so important for the speaker to issue that warning to us as readers? When you wrote “Free the Nipple,” I knew exactly who you were talking about!
KA: Of course you do! First of all, we absolve white women of white supremacy a lot. They just get a pass to do a whole lot of damage. From the beginning of time, we’ve seen white people set up everybody else and use the vehicle of white men to do it. I feel like we don’t talk about it until we hear white women talk about the bad behaviors of white men. And I’m like, “Hold up!” I wasn’t really around white people until I went to college in Chicago and I had three white girls in my dorm room. I felt like I was in the Matrix. I was like… are y’all serious? This wasn’t just from my roommates but others as well. I just had to learn quickly… white woman-ness, in general, is very dangerous. It’s very dangerous because it hides its hands all the time. There’s always someone there to protect them.
In grad school, a lot of white women talk about problems that aren’t really problems. When they start talking about the issues in their lives and just the struggles… I just wonder what we are talking about. I just had to see how quickly they switch up on you. It’s like a Jekyll and Hyde situation.
That poem for me was just how we see white women when they get caught with Black men, when they get caught killing somebody, when they get caught judging somebody. When they get caught doing anything, how quickly those tears come. I could literally never. I would be called weak. I would be called so much to the point that I would never cry in public. I fear crying now in front of people. It’s so hard for me to let a tear out unless I’m angry.
I had a student write an essay. We were reading Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How To Slowly Kill Yourself.” I will never forget this. I knew that they know that they do this on purpose, but her saying it made it so real. She wrote that all of her life, she had been taught that if something goes wrong, she should just cry to get out of it. If you get stopped by the police, cry, you won’t get a ticket. If you hurt somebody, just cry and they’ll forgive you. She was just saying what we know especially as Black women. We know it’s something that they must have been taught their whole lives. There’s no other way they would know to just do that without somebody teaching you.
When she said that, I thought, “Wow, this is their generational ticket.” This is what they learn through generations. You will live an okay life as long as you know how to turn on the tears. I’m also envious of that. I want to be the damsel in distress.
SJ: But we don’t have that luxury.
KA: Yeah! You don’t get that luxury. You just hear people say that so openly, it’s like peak privilege to get out of accountability for everything. For me, that poem, I was angry, but I saw similarities with Black men and white women. But that’s a whole other essay that maybe I’ll write later. There are similarities in the way they get absolved for very harmful and abusive behavior. It’s always so crazy to me. So that’s why I had to write that, because I’m tired of yo’ ass always crying. Like what are you crying for? What’s going on? Nothing happened. I feel unsafe.
I wanted to use that poem to say that they use tears to say that they are scared or they’re sorry. But their tears make me feel unsafe. I feel like when you cry. someone is going to come get me. Or my body doesn’t feel safe. Until you’re able to acknowledge that, I don’t really care about your issues as a white woman. They don’t seem very real to me.
SJ: You know, historically, white tears lead to terror. I think of Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant. It just evokes terror, death and injustice.
KA: I’m just thinking about historically, we know that white women get Black men killed. We know that, but we don’t say anything about the harm that it causes Black women. Then Black women are expected to riot the streets when white women get Black men killed. It’s so many factors and layers to it. It will take a lifetime to dismantle this. We probably won’t see it in our lifetimes but hopefully, the kids after us will. There’s just so much anger and hurt. I don’t trust white women. It’s very hard.
Even when I’m thinking about this book. My team is all white women and I’m in their hands. Of course, they try to be aware, but is that enough? I just don’t know.
SJ: I love your willingness, not only to interrogate whiteness, but also inequalities in Black relationships as well. For instance, in the poem “most calvaries have dead people,” you begin the poem with an epigraph from Nannie Helen Burroughs that reads:
“White men offer more protection to their prostitutes than Black men offer to their best women.”
Can you speak a bit about why that quote resonated so deeply with you? Why do you think society and, as the quote states, Black men refuse to protect Black women?
KA: I come off as very masculine and all of those stereotypical qualities of what makes a man. I feel like everything men tell me that makes them men, I see the women in my family with those qualities… not them. That has always confused me.
I genuinely want to talk about it because I feel like Black men in today’s time don’t think that Black women are deserving of anything… or of any love that isn’t tied to suffering. We have to prove that we deserve it. We have to go through the trenches and I’m not finna do that. I’m gonna treat you how you treat me. So come correct or your feelings are finna get hurt. I think I’ve adopted those qualities from the women in my family. The women in my family always told me certain things like don’t date jealous men, don’t let them talk to you a certain way, and to make them respect you. But on the flip end, I would see them get into relationships where all of that goes out of the window!
What is it that makes us submit? When they say that is something that Black women don’t do. What makes us submit to this mediocre, empty love? Just to say we’re being loved! Even though you know that this man doesn’t even see you as a person. I learned that through my relationship with my own father. My opinions are not respected because it’s coming from me.
I used that quote because I quickly realized… and I mean, quickly by age ten. I’ve been dealing with this back and forth pulling for power. I really just wanted power over men because I can’t let my guard down. I need that power. So I think I used that quote to show how easily I try to give in. It’s a fight at first, then I give in and I go into the water, open myself up, and then I’m dragging myself back out. Then I’m spilling all over town. I have to fix myself back up again, but then you want me to go back and start the cycle all over again because you feel like it.
It’s so much to perform for men. It’s exhausting. We see women like Megan Thee Stallion, she’s desirable to a lot of men. She’s so pretty. We see what happened with her. You don’t find her desirable in a sense of petiteness or smallness. You see her as being able to take care of herself. I know that I’m seen that way. I’m not that tall. I’m not that thick. I wish I was! The male interactions I’ve had, they see me as just able to handle stuff because I don’t let them handle stuff for me.
We see that on a bigger scale, like Megan getting shot. Everybody is suddenly like… well what did she do? What did she say? Or not believing her. There are so many caveats that Black women need to be able to hop over just to be believed. To be believed, you have to come up with video evidence…which she had, but it still was not enough. What is it that will be enough for you to not even treat me like a woman but as a person?
“Most calvaries” is that poem where I’m able to understand that I can save myself. I can’t be waiting on love. I can’t be waiting on respect because I have those things for myself. I’m building those things for myself. However you decide to treat me or not treat me, it will just roll off my back. I can’t wait around for it. I’m to that point where it’s just not interesting anymore. Like when I’m on the internet and I see Black women crying for Black men to love them, begging them to treat them better. I’m to that point where I’m just not gonna do it. If you like Black women, great. If you’re performing that you like Black women, we’ll find out eventually!
It all came out through the water poems. You know, they say water is cleansing.
SJ: I’m always interested in Black people’s relationship to water in this country because it’s so fraught. There’s so much there, but I feel like people aren’t really talking about it. I find it so fascinating, so I’m glad that you are exploring this.