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.
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 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 Boat, Small Batch, New Literati, Pluckand 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Mwende Katwiwa
Mwende Katwiwa is a poet based in New Orleans.