April 29, 2021
“If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”Zora Neale Hurston
I came to advocacy through poetry.
Not your Lord Byron/Emily Dickinson, 11th-grade-English-class poetry.
I met spoken word poetry the way flowers meet wind: all at once, predictably.
Ms. Bryant, my 9th grade creative writing teacher, opened our classroom windows to Gwendolyn Brooks, Def Poetry Jam–even Maya Angelou in conversation with Dave Chapelle. She even opened our classroom door for a loud Dominican man named Ray who reminded me that this, in fact, wasn’t my “mama’s poetry.”
His voice boomed over us, mixing Spanish, Haitian Creole, and English with a solid political identity, reverence for corner stores, South Florida heat, references we were too young to catch, and an innately familiar rhythm that kept us captivated. Ms. Bryant, no stranger to spoken word, the four elements of hip hop, or the arts writ large, undoubtedly knew something of the seeds she planted with that unit on poetry.
Brave New Voices 2008, an international youth poetry festival, was hosted by YouthSpeaks in partnership with Washington, DC. This partnership required the city and its partners to accept and accommodate 500+ poets aged 13-19 and their coaches a week in July, packing each day with connection, competition, and consciousness-raising. Cities across Maryland should consider emulating partnerships which focus on arts and cultural entertainment, youth development, education, and civic engagement. Baltimore City, home to nationally ranked youth and adult poets, is once such example.
At Brave New Voices 2008, I was shaken and awakened by two poems raising awareness about the same event: the murder of Sean Bell by the NYPD the morning before his wedding to Nicole Paultre. One team explored the internal narratives of Sean, his fiance, and law enforcement; the other mirrored America’s devaluation of Black people’s lives against its devaluation of nature. For the first time, I had proof in language that the way Black people were being handled in my country was more than “sad”; it was wrong, far-reaching, and showed up in our collective lives. At 16, I was building an understanding of the systemic nature of racism while encountering the language to discuss it with others. That kind of learning was empowering, not just informative.
Over several years, I worked with other young people to write about issues that impacted us directly and present them to ever broadening audiences. We wrote, refined, and performed poems on anti-immigrant sentiment, the complexities of Black manhood, childhood traumas, climate injustice, the commodification of women and girls, houselessness, sexuality, and bullying. Some practice sessions included breakdowns and breakthroughs. Sometimes we meditated together. Once our coach inspired discipline in our focus by taking us to a nearby beach to “write” a group poem which required we memorized it as we spoke each line. There is no way to quantify the growth I gained–interpersonally, intrapersonally, in skill, in mental health, in compassion or perspective–which does not negate that the growth did occur.
I doubt I would have cultivated my audacity to speak plainly about injustice if I only encountered public speaking opportunities in a classroom environment. Would I have retained words like “philistine” better from a test prep book than I did from mid-practice goof-offs? Would I have developed an understanding of the double sidedness of colorism by 17 if I hadn’t encountered Saul Williams’ work? Would I, a quiet kind of kid, otherwise have cultivated a voice that could hold an audience and, years later, a classroom of 7th graders?
As poetry became my go-to medium for expressing my perspective on social issues, clear themes–fairness, morality, and justice–and my own sense of identity crystalized. Clear skills–communication, constructive listening, and confidence–also emerged. No one ever attempted to measure those things as I engaged with my art, however. That is relevant.
I can articulate my commitment to educational equity as an imperative for survival rather than a simple plea for morality or economic efficiency because the art of spoken word poetry didn’t distinguish between “youth voice” and “voice”. My agency and all the advocacy that stems from it came from art; this form and others. Even now, it remains a way forward, a nook to aid in breaking out of boxes–helpful in a field as occasionally as repetitive as public education policy. It’s time to do differently.