The Black River Chapbook Competition Winner

Black Under

Publication Date: September 2021


Winner of the Spring 2020 Black River Chapbook Competition

The poem from which Black Under derives its title opens with a resounding declaration: “I am black and black underneath.” These words are an anthem that reverberates throughout Ashanti Anderson’s debut short collection. We feel them as we navigate her poems’ linguistic risks and shifts and trumpets, as we straddle scales that tip us toward trauma’s still-bloody knife in one turn then into cutting wit and shrewd humor in the next. We hear them amplified through Anderson’s dynamic voice, which sings of anguish and atrocities and also of discovery and beauty.

Black Under layers outward perception with internal truth to offer an almost-telescopic examination of the redundancies—and incongruences—of marginalization and hypervisibility. Anderson torques the contradictions of oppression, giving her speakers the breathing room to discover their own agency. In these pages, declarations are reclamations, and joy is not an aspiration but a birthright.

From Black Under

Acrostic for My Last Breaths

If I’m ever out of oxygen

Cut the comms. Switch the radio, play
A song by Whitney or Aretha, something
No sense can pause my throat from parting for.
’Gon throw my sorrows into this vast, black void
That don’t even have space to hold tune, or blues,

But I don’t sing to be heard. I do it to keep on.
Ring diaphragm and rattle lung like sickness, each
Eighth-note a reason to stay living. Can’t take
A rest, might hear the sensor’s whining,
That worried, heaving falsetto of siren.
How I hate the sound of dying. Rather riff
Even if everything in me stops screaming.


It is rare to see such work as Ashanti Anderson’s Black Under dive so deeply, head-first and unflinching, into history, taking it under one’s wing as if their own body and blood lived those traumatic experiences, housed those moments of joy. To prepare myself for audacious lines such as “Oh, fluted ribcage, won’t you sing,” would be impossible. Anderson is a fierce storyteller, unmaking and recreating images, shifting what language can do—will do. Oh! There is such beauty in clear lines like “This is how I pray for you when I’m not pessimistic” or, “I tried staring at the sun once because I needed a metaphor.” You, too, will wish for metaphorical moments when Anderson whips such beauty across the page. And trust, you will get one, but it will not be what you expect.

—Luther Hughes, founder of Shade Literary Arts

This book is polyvocal and kaleidoscopic; searing with slick acrostics, incisive self-portraiture, wry sixteen-line sonnets & ironic job descriptions (“Career-Changing Opportunity!”) seeking Black artists willing to “draw blood and conclusions”—to carve a living from death and intergenerational trauma. Black Under defies strict categorization, save for the fact that it is altogether excellent. Ashanti Anderson reminds me that, given the right pitch, “this bubbled mouth ain’t a sick it’s a cure.”

—Marcus Wicker, author of Silencer and Maybe the Saddest Thing

Ashanti Anderson’s refusal and rise in this collection recenter me in my communities, and in my Chicananess. Because the speakers in Black Under are fully aware of the white gaze and are absolutely unconcerned with its survival. Instead, they’re focused. Anderson writes, “I erased my smile in another poem because someone said it made no sense,” and follows with, “if you want blood I will have for you my red wet grin.” I’ve read these poems again and again, and every time I leave like—it’s we time. With lines like “throat unbuttons its sound,” and “I wish trumpets for my last breath,” we end up communing with people who remember themselves, over and over, the way they were, and the way they are and are and are.

—Sara Borjas, author of Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff

Cutting, saturated, and comprehensive, Ashanti Anderson charts necessary poetry with searing ache. There’s so much to unpack here, the painful cacophony white supremacy does to Black spirit, lineage, and innovation yet more profound, the Black dynamism that is beyond erasure. Anderson’s debut constructs a world in a concise catastrophe that makes the bones ache. These pages extract traces from graves, from forced stages, from applied pressure of wounds, from more—not to teach, no that’s trite, but to gift an anguished aptitude, a surging devastation and love. Language is a beauty in this havoc; “I bow to your darkness like I kneel / besides a child’s bed, confessing as gospel …” Let Anderson guide you there, in that discovery of grief and explanation. In Black Under, syllables are catapulted and complicated examinations rife with shape-shifted defiance. Witness Anderson’s haunting and marvelous skill.

—Kay Ulanday Barrett, cultural strategist and author of More Than Organs, a 2021 Stonewall Honor Award Book

Surprising vernacular, elements of situational discomfort, unexpected and welcome meditations of social impact and situational trauma. There is a subtle and beautiful notion of the absurd within the seemingly mundane of society in general, noted specifically in unreasonable treatment of disadvantaged characters and in the willfulness of perpetrators close and far. These perils leave the audience with a similar, though vicarious, notion and call upon us to do better by ourselves, for others, and with a need to rectify after being delivered into the wrath.

—Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, author of Look at This Blue

About the Author

Ashanti Anderson

Ashanti Anderson (they/them) is a Black Queer Disabled poet, screenwriter, and playwright. Their debut short poetry collection, Black Under, is the winner of the Spring 2020 Black River Chapbook Competition at Black Lawrence Press. Their poems have appeared in World Literature TodayPOETRY magazine, and elsewhere in print and on the web. Learn more about Ashanti’s previous & latest shenanigans at

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