On Being Useful: Bearing Witness in a Time of Protest


By Candice Iloh

For the past few days, I have been studying lead poisoning. Like many others out there in the interweb world, my knowledge on a lot of things only stretches as far as my social media feeds, the books I have chosen to read, and what I hear through friends who have experienced or witnessed a thing. So when I learned of the protests and riots that broke out following the unlawful arrest and murder of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, my memory and thoughts surrounding all of this chaos only went back to my life as a resident of Washington, DC. I lived 45 minutes away from Baltimore. I had spent a little time in the city but all I really knew back then was rooted in brief encounters and hearsay. I didn’t know much else. Nor was there any pressure for me to dig deeper.

So when the news of street fires, broken windows, and all-out riot in a city that I knew only by one degree of separation began to flood my timeline, unlike other instances, I decided to do my research. I researched the life of Freddie Gray. I researched his brutal and deadly arrest. I researched the magnitude of the riots. I researched the protests that began before the riots. I researched Baltimore city. In particular, I researched The Avenue. In this short period of time and with my limited research skills, I came across information on lead poisoning and learned that in 1978 paint containing lead was ruled hazardous to those who live in homes where it is found. I learned also that lead poisoning can lead to brain damage. I learned that brain damage easily affects one’s ability to focus, to remember, to hold on to information – to remain alive. And then I found a connection.

For four years of his childhood Freddie Gray lived in one of those homes that was deemed a hazard due to its walls being covered in what? Lead paint. These old houses built before 1978 were housing the poor and black for quite some time after it was determined that these spaces were unsafe to live. To avoid investing the money to make these homes safer for those who lived there, the landlords would switch titles of ownership over the properties so that when they were questioned about it they could technically deny all responsibility for the offenses. So the children who lived there were poisoned simply by living and breathing in their own homes.

Fast forward to now. The children who previously lived amid the toxic fumes of lead-based paint in their childhood homes are now sick adults who have suffered insurmountable brain damage preventing them from being able to perform the simple functions that are required to do things like focus in school, retain memory, process information and ultimately, hold on to jobs. Naturally if you are a human being unable to obtain your basic necessities through one route, you are going to create other routes to take care of yourself. Some people may call these activities illegal but, for you, it is survival.

Say you then get caught and arrested. You are now entered into the system as a criminal. A record that now, under our current laws, legalizes several types of discrimination against you. And even further, under a law that has heightened its penalty on the very things you base your livelihood. You will never be regarded by society without this label again and you will continuously be pushed into the arms of what both feeds you and also what feeds your desperation. This becomes a cycle. And only a piece of a larger cycle of injustice in Baltimore and worldwide in other communities that have undergone the same kind of environmental and systemic injustice with no media coverage or defense.

Freddie Gray is a product of this and so much more and although I am fully aware of systemic oppression, I am just learning specifically of his story and life-long struggle as a resident of Baltimore. The riots. The anger. The confusion. The pain. All justified.  Because how many others are there like his that we have never heard of? The thought is heartbreaking.

So then, in seeing this naturally I want/need to do something. But suddenly, my skill, my calling, my purpose – to write – seems miniscule. I am an artist whose work is centered on words. But in this moment that begins to seem less important if my body is not being used directly. This became guilt as I felt like I was just as inactive as any other onlooker – watching and commenting but doing nothing to help. For a few days I sat with this. What can I do? How can I support the protestors? How can I be instrumental in the progress of this movement? How can I be useful?

And I came back to this: my job as a writer does not become less important in times where the body becomes the forefront image of resistance. There, too, is still the job of bearing witness. Of documenting. Of storytelling. Of making sure what is occurring does not die down to mere images and memory but that it continues on in new form by way of sharing information to spark dialogue, creating new works that inform those who are not listening of why they should, and accurately writing ourselves into history in place of biased and white supremacy-serving media outlets who could never do it like we could. This is still my job as a voice. Yes, I will support the work being done strategically on the ground. Because, frankly, being good is not the answer. Yes, I will find ways to support and invest in my community. Because part of burning a thing down is simultaneously working to build. But yes, my main role is to write. Because it is ultimately our duty to use what we already have to do any and everything that we can to break down, build, and bear witness.



Candice Iloh is a creative writer and educator residing in Brooklyn, NY whose writing has appeared in Fjords Review, The Grio, For Harriet, and elsewhere. A VONA fellowship recipient and the Managing Editor of Quiet Lunch Magazine, Candice also contributes to the Lambda Literary and The Black Youth Project.  She is a new MFA candidate in Writing for Young People and Poetry at Lesley University and is currently working on her first full-length project in verse.  She can be found wandering the sidewalks of New York and at www.becomher.com.

Photo: Baltimore police/Dominique Hazzard

Nina Simone Documentary Drops Next Month

Nina Simone

The trailer for “What Happened, Miss Simone” is finally here. The film explores the triumphs and tribulations of Nina Simone’s life. The documentary by Liz Garbus is not to be confused with the controversial biopic starring Zoe Saldana. The film will be released on June 26th.

Photo: Nina Simone/Netflix

Listen: Alabama Shakes’ ‘Sound & Color’

By Sam Fleming

Alabama Shakes

Sound and Color opens with the lyrics,  “A new world hangs outside the window, beautiful and strange.” This lyric describes how this album differs from anything Alabama Shakes has released before. In their previous albums, Alabama Shakes have always had the potential to separate themselves from every other Southern rock band; they have always had the potential to create beautiful and strange music and with Sound and Color they finally do it. Alabama Shakes is a rock band formed in Athens, Alabama, led by singer and guitarist Brittany Howard. Howard’s strong, deep voice gives their southern rock an element of soul. Alabama Shakes released their last album, Boys and Girls, to huge critical acclaim. They became immediately prevalent not only in the southern rock world, but also the mainstream. They had found the crossover appeal that many other southern rock bands cannot hold on to. Although Boys and Girls was a solid album, there was nothing that separated it musically from any other good southern rock record. Most of the songs on it had a very similar template, with few songs being particularly innovative. With their newest album, Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes take a completely different approach than on their last. Boys and Girls at times felt flat, whereas Sound and Color feels well rounded, bolder and fuller. The album’s title and first track opens with a vibraphone chord followed by a simple drum rhythm until Howard’s powerful vocals break through. The harmonies on this track, along with the violin melodies in the background, establish the feel of an album that proves to be an intense yet joyful experience. On songs like “Gimme All Your Love” Howard alternates between barely whispering over a drum rhythm and a few guitar chords, and belting the phrase “give me all you love” over crushing keyboards, and booming drums. Howard really takes advantage of the power in her voice and combines it with the sparse yet powerful instrumentation of her band to create an intense feel to the album, that manages to carry through even in its softest moments. This album is best when Howard fully takes advantage of her vocal abilities like on the songs “Sound and Color” and “Don’t wanna Fight”. The instrumentation behind Howard definitely takes the spotlight on many songs including “Future People” and “Miss You”. The band uses a mix of melodic percussion instruments along with strong clean guitar and bass rhythms to make the album feel open and personal. This album comes together beautifully, with Howard’s vocals mixing perfectly with the instrumentation. The occasional instrumental interludes only add to the silky texture of the album. While Alabama Shakes stay true to their roots with Sound and Color, they also explore their music’s full potential. This album shows a different side of Alabama Shakes and demonstrates their ability and motivation to evolve their sound. With Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes show their extraordinary power, and put out their best effort yet.

Photo: Alabama Shakes/Facebook

Talking to Black Teens about Baltimore

freddie gray

By Eve Ewing

It’s 11:20 at night. I have a lot of work to finish and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet, but like so many of my friends, my head is in Baltimore, and I’m caught in the same cycle: TV news, Twitter, Facebook, texting, repeat. Trying to piece together stories as I can, and seeking solace in my friends scattered across the country. And then a new text flashes across the screen—from a former student of mine, a 16-year-old whom I’ll call Tamara. “It’s scary.”

Right away, I went into automatic teacher mode, responding to her fear with reassurance. “I know,” I text back. “It is scary. But you are safe right now. You will be okay.” They’re variations on the words my mother would share with me when I heard of gang violence in our neighborhood or saw frightening things on television.

Tamara’s reply came back just as quickly. “I’m safe but what about the other kids who are stuck and cornered by police?” And here, I froze. Because how do you tell a kid she’s safe when you live every day tolerating the sickening fear that she might not be? That she, and your other black students, and your black family members and black friends in Baltimore, in New York, in Baltimore, might not be safe? When you yourself don’t feel safe in the face of police violence? How do you respond with honesty and candor, respecting her intelligence, while protecting her from trauma?

I’ve known Tamara for a long time, and she has always been mature, confident, smart and capable. She is ambitious and works hard, holds down a job, and has a spreadsheet where she keeps track of her college applications. It’s easy to think of her as a young adult. And of course, that’s the tricky part with adolescents. They are capable of thoughtful, careful analysis and nuanced ideas, which can make it easy to forget that in many ways they are still children. They are learning and growing, and they need nurturing, care, and reassurance in times of crisis. They need adults who care about them to help them process their feelings without condescending to them, and to provide context for complicated world events without traumatizing them or foreclosing their space to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions.

This time, before responding to Tamara, I took a second to refer to tips from my colleague and mentor Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among his advice about how parents and educators should help children understand potentially frightening or traumatic events in the news, I found two ideas helpful:

  1. Listen first to hear how they are processing the event. “What you’re scared about, as an adult, may not be what they’re scared about.”
  2. Model the response you want to see—young people will imitate your resilience.

Listen first. That may seem obvious enough. However, I have noticed that in conversations with teens about violence, it’s easy for adults—especially adults who are experienced political organizers and activists, passionate about social justice and knowledgeable about history—to launch into explanations of systemic violence and inequality without first stopping to ask young people what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. While it’s important to educate young people about our history and offer important alternatives to the dominant narratives they receive from a racist society, it’s a mistake to do so at the expense of their right to share and process their own feelings, or worse, at the expense of their well-being.

So, even though part of me wanted to read Tamara some James Baldwin essays, I opted to affirm her statement about young people getting cornered by police, and follow up with a question. “That is really scary to think about. How do you feel about it/what are you thinking?”  What I got in response was a long, expressive, uninterrupted series of poignant texts. “I go home and watch the news again, seeing all the damage done as ABC squashes it between tornado warnings and something irrelevant…. State of emergency, national guard. Makes me nervous that the riots could be the fuel that causes more police violence and targeting of black people….  How many times does it have to happen? How many protests?… History is repeating itself! Will I see 2015 Riots in my grandbabies’ history books?

She kept talking, and I kept listening, and I’m so glad I did. The conversation ended up being so much more helpful for her processing—and my own—than if I had launched into a lecture or tried to dismiss her very real fears.

And after you’ve listened, then what? Encouraging youth to reflect on their fears and opinions through art can be a good next step. Mariame Kaba, the director of Project NIA and a well-known activist and prison abolitionist, has edited and compiled this curriculum guide for talking to youth about police violence. It includes teaching and learning resources as well as a collection of poems that can serve as useful prompts for creating written or visual artistic responses .

Here are some other things to consider if you’re talking to teens about Baltimore, Ferguson, or police violence in general. In addition to the trauma that all young people can experience in the face of frightening world events, there are some particular factors to think about when it comes to black youth.

Black teens might internalize the negative discourse about black people on television and feel bad about themselves or ashamed of black people in general.

The constant talk about “thugs,” “criminals,” and “outside agitators” can be overwhelming and defeating. Talk to youth about the systems that leave people frustrated and ultimately can lead to violence; you might even kick off the conversation with the now-familiar quotation from Dr. King: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Consider doing some research together: what are the unemployment rates and income levels in Baltimore communities where riots are occurring? You might also have a conversation about coded language, perhaps using Richard Sherman’s comments on the use of the word “thug.”

Black teens might feel hopeless, powerless, or like nothing is going to change.

This is where Weissbourd’s point about modeling resilience is crucial. If a young person expresses feeling hopeless, it’s first important to honor, recognize, and validate that feeling. You may say something like, “I feel hopeless sometimes, too. All across the country, many black people are feeling hopeless. But even when we feel hopeless, people are also fighting for change, and it’s important to hold each other up and support each other.” Help them become familiar with everyday heroes, people who are dedicating themselves to fighting injustice. Tell them about how grassroots organizing has led to reparations for victims of police violence in Chicago, how activists are using social media to change the face of protest, and other examples of how average people can work together to fight racist societal structures. Invite them to share their thoughts on what a more just world might look like, and even brainstorm ideas on ways they can contribute—a teach-in at school, a donation to victims’ families or to legal aid funds for protesters who have been arrested.

Black teens might feel afraid that they or someone they love could be a victim of police violence.

Again, it’s important to begin by recognizing this fear. As tempting as it is to brush it off by saying it could never happen, adolescents are old enough to recognize this kind of easy dismissal as disingenuous. After all, how are they supposed to reconcile that promise with the reality they see on television and in their own communities? However, you can move forward from this fear by reminding young people of places where they can feel safe, and reminding them that this is why struggles for justice are so important. Further, remind them that as black people in America, we come from a long, crucial history of struggle and resistance—that although fear is part of our inheritance in this country, so too is the strength to deal with that fear. My friend Jasson Perez, a BYP100 organizer and father of a 12-year-old, shared with me the language he uses when his daughter expresses fear of violence. “I tell her that we should expect to be safe with those who love us, and when she comes home or goes to Grandma’s house she should expect to be safe. If she is with police or security guards, she may not have that expectation, but that we have to struggle against that reality to make something better. And we have to maintain compassion and togetherness when we know that harm is always present. This is what our ancestors teach us.”

Jasson’s comment about teachings from our elders and ancestors reminds me of something my mother used to say when I was afraid of gun violence: “you’re Great Grandma Rosie’s baby!” This invocation of my great-grandmother, who passed before I was born, was meant to remind me that I come from a legacy of strength and courage. Unsurprisingly, this invocation of family can really make a difference: research shows that stories of family resilience can help young people cope in the face of challenges. Talk to young people about struggles in your family and how they have been overcome, or remind them that they, too, can survive under threat. As we work and struggle together for a world without police violence, we also have to work to help black youth understand that world, and to care for them as that world threatens them with trauma and physical violence in equal measure.

Photo: 4everginuwine


Eve Ewing is a Chicago-born educator, writer, artist, and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her on Twitter.

ICYMI: Baltimore Orioles Vice President Takes Important Stance on Twitter


Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos had a lot to say about the Baltimore uprising. On Saturday, he tweeted his thoughts in response to tweets regarding the uprisings and concern over property damage.

Read a transcript of his tweets below:

“Brett, speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela, and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, an ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.”


Photo Credit: Dominique Hazzard

The Right to Be Angry: An Interview with the Founders of Black Poets Speak Out


By Mwende Katwiwa

“I am a Black poet who will not stay silent while this nation murders Black people. I have a right to be angry”

Poet and political activist Amiri Baraka once said, “the Black artist’s role is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it”. In a recent piece penned for The Nation “No Place for Self Pity, No Room for Fear”, legendary Black author Toni Morrison opened up about a phone conversation she had with a friend in 2004 following the re-election of President Bush. In this intimate call, she confessed to finding herself depressed and unable to write because of the results of the election. Her friend, a fellow artist, quickly interrupted her with a firm reminder that, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”.

Historically, this relationship between art, society, and speaking out in times of dread is undeniably one that has been particular (but not exclusive) to the Black community in the United States. Poet Sonia Sanchez is often quoted as describing the Black artist as ‘dangerous’ and indeed historically, Black artists have threatened the status quo by provided counternarratives to mainstream depictions of Blackness and have used the platforms their art has allowed them to access to raise up the voices of their communities. Over the years, the relationship between Black art(ists) and social justice has exposed itself to be less a fleeting fling, and more of a marriage between the personal and the political.

Before my mother took me to a spoken word performance by the youth art and social justice collective Project 2050 in middle school, poetry had only been introduced to me in school as the writings of dead white men, depressed white women. Through spoken word, I realized there was a whole other world of art that centered around issues of importance to myself and my community and that poetry could be more than beautiful descriptions of horses in the woods on snowy evenings. I eventually joined Project 2050 which taught me the histories of different forms of Black art and their relationship to resistance and society. This experience solidified for me the notion that art could, and should be used as a tool for transformative personal and social change.

In these current times of dread, it should not be surprising that Black artists across the country have been working hard at their jobs. Campaigns such as Poets for Ferguson (a national poetry based fundraiser to raise funds to cover the legal fees of protestors in Ferguson spearheaded by the dynamic Black womyn poet Sasha Banks) have popped up, though until recently with an initiative known as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, there wasn’t a call to action for Black poets to unite under an ongoing initiative to support the movement. #BlackPoetsSpeakOut (BPSO) is an art and civic action based initiative aimed at giving voice to and combating the ongoing state violence that plagues Black communities across the United States. Spearheaded by poets and Cave Canem alums Mahogany L. Browne, Amanda Johnston and Jonterri Gadson, the idea for BPSO originally formed in a Cave Canem discussion group on Facebook after Darren Wilson failed to be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown. After Johnston called on members of the group to respond to and organize around Wilson’s non-indictment and the continued injustice the Black community regularly faces in relationship to the state, Johnston, Browne, and Gadson, as well as Sherina Rodrigues and Jericho Brown, came up with the foundations of what would become the BPSO campaign. As a result of these initial conversations, hundreds of poets across the country have joined the call the three step call to action that BPSO has laid out.

I contacted the founders of BPSO for a special National Poetry Month Interview where we talked through the intersection of art and activism in the Black Community and the role they see BPSO playing in this current movement moment:


Interviewer (Mwende Katwiwa): Tell us a bit more about the origins of BPSO, how did it grow teeth after that initial Facebook discussion?

Amanda Johnston:  [Myself], Mahogany Browne, Jonterri Gadson, Jericho Brown, and Sherina Rodriguez came up with the strategy to post videos of ourselves reading poems (our own and those of other black poets) along with the opening statement “I am a black poet. I will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” From that simple, but powerful act, poets and allies began posting their own videos with the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. From there, Mahogany, Jonterri, and I continued organizing as it grew with the addition of scheduled community readings [and dialogues] and the letter writing campaign [to local and federal public officials with the goal of] to connecting the power of poetry directly to civic engagement to demand elected officials create real change and protect the people from police violence.

Katwiwa: What is the relationship between arts and activism in the Black community? What history are yall building on with the BPSO campaign?

 Johnston: We, poets and artists, have a long history of social justice activism. Look at the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. We’ve always used art as a way to communicate, uplift, and call others to action. There is a language through art that touches one’s humanity. That voice and spirit is undeniable so it’s no surprise that we see it working again in this moment. If the winners are said to be the writers of history, the poets are the writers of truth.

Gadson: There’s a long history of black people in America using mastery of art to assert our humanity, but that’s just one way activism and art have connected in various Black communities. For some of us (like me), art makes activism accessible and possible. On the flipside, activism can make art accessible and possible. I’ve always used poetry to express myself, usually about very personal things or things my mind becomes obsessed with. So when I find injustice troubling and I can’t wrap my mind around how injustices can continually occur, I can turn to a poem where someone has been able to grasp some aspect of these experiences and I can feel less alone in my emotional state or even in my inability to understand. Art lets us do and/or feel. When our power is called to question, art activates us.

Browne: [It’s important to remember that outside of art] there has always been activism in the Black community. There has always been the woman keeping children for those mother’s working double shifts for little pay. There has always been the Uncle making sure someone had a job when they returned from war, or jail. There was the preacher and the school teacher. These roles of activism still exists. Though the community’s have been fractured by gentrification and economic depression.

Katwiwa: Do you consider yourselves activists? How do you think activism is typically defined?

Browne: I’m a poet. I’m a mother. I’m a mentor and educator. I curate poetry. I have put my name and efforts behind art…both my own and others. I have used my art to speak about police brutality, the prison industrial complex, women empowerment, youth leadership and self love. So yes. Activism has always been a part of my world. But it took a discussion with my daughter recently for me to see my role. She asked me if she could go to a rally which took place at the same time I was conducting a town meeting in Brooklyn. I was worried for her to be without me. And she said very honestly “Mom, you are an activist. I thought you would understand why I need to go.” Typically [when I think of activism]. I think a lot of speeches. I think a lot of protests. I think boycott. I think black bodies and white fear. I think MLK & Malcolm X. I think Angela Davis & Sista Soldja. I think Chuck D & Fannie Lou Hamer. Today, I would define activism in a variety of roles. There isn’t just one lane. There isn’t just one way. But there are folks jumping in front of the camera for fame when folks is dying.  I think celebrity-ism is a drug and folks are on Instagram for fun. While there are others who know they would not be able to sleep if they weren’t in the same trenches. So I am aware of the distinction. However, I know we need the masses present. We need the media aware. We need policies changed. We need black people to not be feared or be in fear for their lives every single day. So an activist looks like both Beyonce & Kevin Powell. Activism looks like the sisters that founded #BlackLivesMatter & the NY #MillionsMarch. Activism can exist on a vast scale and a very regionally scale. Both effective. Both necessary. That is why #BlackPoetsSpeakOut is alive. It is rooted in a language that we been speaking. It is a truth that we been spreading. With the help of the internet — the message can be viral, the information gained, and the legacy shared in attempt to restore our humanity.

Gadson: I’m not comfortable saying I’m an activist. But I am comfortable saying that I am an advocate for my son’s spirit. I’m an advocate for increasing the value he places on his own life. I’m an advocate for the destruction of any force that says his life is worth less, that shows him he’s worth less, that tries to convince him he’s worth less when I’m working so hard to prove otherwise to him. I’ve always been driven to crush anything that threatens him physically or emotionally and now I’ve woken up to the fact that there are not only people, but entire systems in place that threaten him. Since there’s no way of knowing who will be the next unarmed person of color shot and killed without his/her murderer being brought to justice, my body believes he could be next. This type of injustice registers inside of me like there’s a threat to my son’s life specifically. I’m a mother who’s been ignited.

I consider myself to be someone who is learning to be an activist while participating in activist movements. I’m getting out of my unhealthy relationship with silence.

Katwiwa: What does success for the BPSO campaign look like?

Browne: It looks like children knowing poems by our elders. It looks like a poem by Amiri Baraka being recited at a youth town hall discussion on police violence. It looks like a poem by Audre Lorde being recited during a young women’s empowerment conference. It looks like poetry and music has always been the voice box for social justice movement.

Johnston: The community response to BPSO has been a huge success. Hundreds of people across the country and internationally have submitted videos and come together for community readings and discussion. I expect the momentum to continue as people join us in the letter writing campaign. As different communities contributing to the movement (such as Black Lives Matter and Millennial Activists United) call for action, congress will be pressured to address the issue. We’ve seen that with the introduction of new bills such as the Grand Jury Reform Act and the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.

Katwiwa: How does someone get involved with BPSO?

Johnston: Phase I – Submit a video. Phase II – Host or attend a community reading. Phase III – send a letter to your elected officials with a video poem attached. Every bit helps. Do not remain silent while this nation murders black people. Speak out at www.blackpoetsspeakout.tumblr.com

Check out the BPSO video archive here and click the links above for more information on how to take part in each Phase of BPSO in your area.

BPSO Founder Bios:

Jonterri Gadson is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing/English at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Her poetry collection, Blues Triumphant, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2016. Her poetry has been published in the chapbooks, Interruptions (MIEL, 2014) and Pepper Girl (YesYes Books, 2012) as well as in a number of literary journals. She’s received scholarships and fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, Bread Loaf, University of Dayton and University of Virginia’s Creative Writing MFA program. She can be found online atwww.twitter.com/jaytothetee.

Mahogany Browne:

The Cave Canem and Poets House alumane an author of several books & has released five LPs including the live album Sheroshima. Mahogany bridges the gap between lyrical poets and literary emcee touring Germany, Amsterdam, England, Canada and recently Australia. Her work has been published in magazines Uptown, KING, XXL, The Source, Canada’s The Word and UK’s MOBO; as well as journals Pluck, Manhattanville Review, Muzzle, Union Station Mag, Literary Bohemian & Apogee. She is an Urban Word NYC mentor, as seen on HBO’s Brave New Voices and facilitates performance poetry and writing workshops throughout the country. She is the publisher of Penmanship Books, the Nuyorican Poets Café Poetry Program Director and curator of their famous Friday Night Slam. She is currently an MFA Candidate for Writing & Activism at Pratt Institute.

Amanda Johnston:

Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, The Drunken BoatSmall BatchNew LiteratiPluckand the anthologies, di-ver-city and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She has served on the board of directors for the National Women’s Alliance, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, and is the founder and executive director of Torch Literary Arts. Currently, she serves as the retreat coordinator for Cave Canem Foundation and is a Badgerdog teaching artist.

#BlackPoetsSpeakOut: In light of the continuous murders of black people across the nation, Black poets across the country are sharing video responses in solidarity with those who refuse to accept these atrocities as a normal condition of black life. We are using the force of our art to transform policy. We can no longer settle for incremental adjustments. We are calling for an absolute transformation. We will not be done until we see justice for the murder of black people. For more interview requests, poetic submissions and collaboration inquiries please email: blackpoetsspeakout@gmail.com

Photo: Mwende Katwiwa


Mwende Katwiwa is a poet based in New Orleans.

What I Witnessed in Baltimore

By Dominique Hazzard


This is me trying to process, trying to share what I witnessed yesterday in Baltimore, trying to amplify voices. Mostly what I saw were young black people overflowing with pain, exasperated at their core, keenly aware of the structural violence they have been subjected to for their entire lives, and willing to do whatever they need to do to end it because everything else they have tried has failed. One young man said he is willing to die for liberation.

I met a young man who in one breath grieved ‪#‎FreddieGray‬, said Freddie used to buy his son candy, and in the next breath lambasted tax policies that subsidize second home ownership for the rich “Who owns these houses? People who don’t live here, and buy them for cheap to get a tax break, then let them sit here boarded up.” He talked about the problem of so many Baltimore police officers commuting into his neighborhood from the far suburbs. He stayed out at Monday night’s uprisings as long as he could, until he had to go pick up his son. He said he’s marched and that didn’t work, he’s boycotted and that didn’t work, he’s voted and that didn’t work, and asked “So just what the hell am I supposed to do? But the police tryna tell us we can’t have human emotion.”

Another talked about looting, about its roots in economic despair. “I saw my people out here gettin’ toilet paper. Toilet paper. Because they need toilet paper to wipe their ass, to wipe their kid’s ass. You gon’ send em to jail over toilet paper? I want a job. People want to take care of their families.”

I saw a small business owner and her daughter, Asian Americans, sitting in the busted doorstep of their store. They said everything had been taken. It was sad. Even sadder, to me, and I promise you this is not hyperbole, is that the state of that store looked indistinguishable from some of the homes that the students we were delivering lunches too LIVE IN. I could not tell the difference between blocks that had been hit by riots, and blocks that had not; that is the level of economic violence people are living under. I am now even more flabbergasted by the questions of “Why are people destroying their own community?” Folks straight up told me “We don’t own anything here,” and it was crystal clear to me that communities had already been destroyed by poverty, by exploitation, by structural racism long before any riots connected to the murder of Freddie Gray. As Jamilah Lemieux said in Ebony yesterday, “Baltimore Been Burning.

There are war tanks roaming the streets in groups in the middle of the day, passing kids playing tag like it’s normal, like any of this makes sense. There are SWAT teams taking over random residential streets just because they can, and elderly women with grocery carts stressing out trying to figure out how to get around them to get home. There are police harassing clean up crews of volunteers and city citizens; police would allow them onto the street and then 5 minutes later start advancing upon them, asking them “Why are you on my street?!”, forcing them to move. There are helicopters flying over neighborhoods constantly, and the woman I spent the day with told me that it isn’t because of the uprising, it’s like that every day, every regular ass day there are helicopters hovering over these citizens, surveilling them.

And in response: there are Baltimore heroes. There were churches opening their doors, and teachers knocking on their students doors to see if they had lunch.

There was Baltimore determination. I met a young woman who was shot by rubber police bullets on Monday night while standing in the crowd. She caught one in the back and one in the foot, and lost feeling in her toe. Still, she returned.

There was Baltimore bravado, self-affirmation. I heard a young man proclaiming loudly “They think we aint human cause I sell drugs? They think we aint human because we don’t speak the King’s English? We rejected that shit! And we are smart, smarter than ever. I know I’m smart.” He pointed to the broken-windowed apartments across the street. “I grew up in those apartments. My momma was a crackhead. I been out here since I was 11 years old. Surviving.” Another young man said, “Black brothers and sisters… we together out here against these police. I’m a liberator, I’m a revolutionary… I know my worth, I know my books because I study… What Malcolm X said?”

There was Baltimore resilience (resilience being, the things we do to bring ourselves joy during trauma) — two blocks down from one of the tank barricades someone had brought out a boom box. “They Don’t Really Care About Us” was blasting, a neighborhood man known as “Michael Jackson” was performing, and at least 40 people had gathered and were dancing with him.

I really encourage folks to get as much of your news about Baltimore as you can from social media. Try to read updates from organizers on the ground, listen to the stories of those most affected. Because the whole frame of so much of the Baltimore coverage is just trash.

Photo Credit: Dominique Hazzard

For Those Who Would Rather Mourn Property Damage Over People Lost by Police Brutality


By Victoria Massie

How could you forget? Has it been that long? I, too, was once a convenience you purchased at the corner. Was I not on your grocery list yesterday? “Slave F 26” written right below the milk and corn? The auction block still rests next to the market downtown. Was I not the gift you bought there for your cousin that one time? I think it was for his 18th birthday. How many times did you lease me out for Christmas? Each year, you promised, a new overseer. Never once was it me.

What about the times you still thought I misplaced myself? Remember those? How you lit the match? When I, too, was reduced to ash over the cackle of burnt wood and fried flesh?

Was I not once yours? Am I not still? Am I not property, just with a different price tag? Rent paid with a few bullets, severed necks and lasts breaths, instead of a few bucks, for my body?


Photo: Charlene Carruthers


Victoria Massie is a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley currently doing fieldwork in Cameroon.