By Rashida James-Saadiya
What function do my scars have, when the world is madly in love with them.
– Tariq Touré
Storytellers are carriers of history, cultural memory, resilience and hope. Tariq Touré is a storyteller, who uses poetry to shed light on social injustice, anti-Blackness and the complexities of the Black Muslim identity in America. His sophomore collection 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breathe is a vulnerable exploration on fatherhood, identity and the arduous task of finding your own voice. This new work offers a 118-free verse poems, including a series of paintings illustrating themes around self-worth and healing. Born and raised in West Baltimore, Touré garnered national attention in 2017 for his critically acclaimed poem, “For the Love of The Game,” which highlighted the controversy surrounding athletes engaged in protest against police brutality. We spoke with Touré about his new book and how he came to use poetry as a medium to create discourse on self-care, culture and Black Muslim narratives.
Sapelo: How did you discover that poetry was the way you wanted to communicate?
TT: I’ve written since I was about 7 years old intentionally. From poetry, to raps, to prose I’ve been really intrigued with language. My mother is an English major and a retired third grade teacher. My father is a retired Imam and currently teaches classical Arabic. Language and its power has always magnetized me. I didn’t believe my words had significant power until I started to share my writing in college. It was during a Black History month event [in February] and I was asked to give a speech. I just wrote a poem because I wasn’t that comfortable yet speaking publicly. Alhamdlillah, when I was done, there was a charged silence, and then an eruption of emotional applause. Since then, I’ve accepted I might have something that connects with folks. I’m humbled by it.
Realizing that words could create change sparked something in me.
Sapelo: Growing up, what literary influences inspired you?
TT: Yo, my mother wasn’t the type to shove books down my throat, but she did make sure that literature was falling out of every corner of my house, centering Black authors (laughs). I remember reading Maya Angelou early on — just passing through her poems and being touched by her force and grace. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and even the writings of Marcus Garvey introduced me to a spectrum of voices. I also read the clever quirky stuff like Shel Silverstein, which was also cool to me. A shift for me happened when I read [George Jackson’s] Soledad Brother. George Jackson captured the political energy of his time. His words, just his words and ideas, pushed his brother to attempt to free him at all costs. Realizing that words could create change sparked something in me.
Photo Credit: Devin Allen
I’m particularly intentional about how much space I allow racism and white supremacy to take up in my mind. There’s a material reality to it. I accept that, but my mind is my last safehouse
Sapelo: The world affects what and how we create. How has this particular social political landscape influenced your newest work?
TT: I’m particularly intentional about how much space I allow racism and white supremacy to take up in my mind. There’s a material reality to it. I accept that, but my mind is my last safehouse. 2 Parts Oxygen was a way for me to decentralize reactions to white supremacy. I think about Toni Morrison’s reflection on racism a lot when she says its function is to eat away at our minds at the most basic levels. With this political landscape attempting to choke the light out of so many marginalized people, I made a point to write about the light in my life, the things that helped me breathe through all [of] this chaos. The world in general was weighing heavily on me. I had to do something critical to become lighter. Maybe reading it will help others do the same, or at least add perspective.
Qiyamah: On the day all the Quran I memorized and forgot molds into a lion and gnaws my legs down to the bone. I will dress in my father’s kufi and Khamees, and scrub my hands until paragraphs begin to show. I am unsure of what verses testify against me. I am certain darkness, whenever I made time for it has blackened chambers in my heart. And despite our posture in prayer, or the position of the sun when we bow for asr, our bill is to be collected. If not for the marching army of supplications exhaled by our mothers, we spend eternity slaying beasts of no nation, cursing our hands for what they’ve touched .
Sapelo: The title of your book 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breath is a collection of prose exploring family, fatherhood and a deep desire for mental and spiritual wellness. The title alludes to the process of learning to heal. How does the idea of healing or self-care play into this collection of free-verse poems?
TT: One of the things that was most important to me in developing this collection of poems was to let the art speak for what I was experiencing and digesting from the world around me. That being said, I realized that for a long time I was knowingly and willingly a participant in habits that were aiding in my own self-destruction. What I fear in this world that has put commodification above humanity is that the arduous process of walking through the fire of your own soul and mind has been reduced to conspicuous consumption. Basically, if you want to feel better society says, “Buy this. Take that. Look this way. And everything will be fine.” I believe language matters for marginalized and oppressed people, with this collection, I’m reminding myself to breathe. I am not whole or healed yet simply working to develop a better sense of self.
Sapelo: One of central themes in your sophomore book is family and the complexities and joy of being a Black father. What lessons have your children taught you?
TT: Having a family has given me a helicopter view of life. When I was young and slightly less stupid than I am now, I had no longitudinal perspective of life. Family sort of makes you [become] responsible for attempting to curate a future as best as possible. Being married to a phenomenal woman is a human reminder that our potential is nowhere near operating at its maximum level. My wife is one of the most ambitious people I’ve ever met. There’s a grounding element to it all. I guess the biggest impact my children have had on me is that I now have the patience to accept that no two days will be alike (laugh). Kids kind of push you to live in the now and cherish every moment. There’s two threads that I believe will stick out among many in this collection: one is time and the other is relationships. I hope people see the urgency of now and the urgency of pouring into the people you love.
I think about how our connection to Islam was interrupted by chattel slavery and how Allah decreed we’d find it again.
Sapelo: Cultural and spiritual imagery seems to be a recurring theme in this collection — in your poem “I found God in a bean pie,” we find the lines: “ We have never had a home here. But lord knows we can turn a bando into paradise. Lord knows we can turn lemons into La Ilaha illallah.” Can you talk about this poems’ relationship to spirituality and the legacy of Black Muslims communities in the United States?
TT: For many Black Muslims, Islam was/is a liberating force in their lives. As my mother and father would say Islam found so many Black people while they were searching. Many were searching for a way out from under oppression and the residue of subjugation. It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness and be a part of this legacy. The bean pie is something you can literally taste that represents that triumph. I recently watched a video where my nephew who has an incredibly beautiful voice call the adhan during jumu’ah; afterwards, my father delivered the khutbah. It made me tear up.
I think about how our connection to Islam was interrupted by chattel slavery and how Allah decreed we’d find it again. Every part of that story is beyond fascinating and affirming for me. It’s built a resolve in myself and so many Black Muslims. There’s a pride you see in the eyes of pioneering Muslim women and men, their walk is different, their talk is different. They’ve spent a lifetime reunited with a lost love and it shows in every aspect of their lives. Our legacy is one of rebellion in the pursuit of Allah’s light. We should celebrate every inch of our history.
 Toure, Tariq. 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Leared to Breathe. 2018, p. 33
Regarded by Hip Hop artist Black Thought as the “Amiri Baraka of our time” Tariq Touré is the soul stirring Baltimore born, Muslim griot, whose poetry carries ages wisdom in each letter. Touré’s debut collection of poems, Black Seeds, blitzed through the core of inequality, and proxy war on Black communities in America, winning Best Poetry book of Baltimore in 2016. His poems graced the pages of NAACP image award nominated book A Beautiful Ghetto by heralded photojournalist Devin Allen. In 2017, Touré summoned one of the most powerful oral depictions of the contradictions and conflicts surrounding NFL players and their right to free speech with his Al Jazeera produced poem, For the Love of The Game. The viral poem garnered the praise of civil rights icons such as Omar Suleiman.