Protest, Racism — January 3, 2017 at 2:42 pm

I Too, Sing America


I am a true believer in the power of poetry. After all, I have considered myself a poet since I was 7 years old. I can still recall the butterflies I felt in my stomach when my elementary school teacher had me read, and later perform Langston Hughes’s I Too, Sing America. It was a life changing experience.

I grew up with a grandfather as a pastor. When I was a very young child he would have me memorize scripture and recite it at the head of the church most Sundays. I was proud to learn the lines and all the books of the Bible. There was something fulfilling about it. I can’t recall how solid my interpretation was of what I was memorizing at that age, but I do recall that there was something about my reciting those lines that made the congregation feel good, that made me feel good. There was something that would shift in the atmosphere around me.

But, it was my experience with getting to know Langston Hughes’s poetry that took my life to another level. I found a spiritual connectedness that I had never felt before. The words drew me in, made me think and emote. I knew then that I wanted to be a poet and I wanted to learn about other poets.

Poetry helped me to escape the world around me. I could write a poem that took my sorrows and placed them into testimony. My grandpa saw that in me, so he started to let me read poems in front of his church, instead of scripture. He understood that poetry was my scripture. It was how I made sense of and articulated my struggles.

I often think back on the times I’ve endured the most trauma in my life and the poetry that came to rescue me. Poems have been a beautiful refuge from a sometimes ugly world.

As an adult I have struggled with how to keep poetry as a significant part of my life. Art, and especially poetry is often treated as an afterthought of struggle and resistance. The deeper I got into ideological study and thinking, the deeper my questions about my art became. How can I be political, yet visionary as an artist? How can I use poetry as an organizing tool for resistance? How can I bring my seemingly contradictory worlds together?

After deep meditation, I created a workshop called Poetry as Visionary Resistance. This workshop helps me to apply my political ideology and organizing to my love of poetry. It’s the way I figured out how to merge my worlds. It’s an adaptation I’ve become quite proud of.

I was recently forwarded a write-up by Wayne State University student, Julia Grace Hill about one of my workshops and it brought me to tears. The write-up did not focus on the success of my workshop, it focused on the author’s love and renewed appreciation for the power of poetry. It was more than I could have hoped for. Reading Julia’s reflections took me back to the butterflies that inspired me to live my life through poetry in the first place. They renewed my desire to continue to create for something larger than myself.

This past Sunday I was invited to share Poetry As Visionary Resistance through sermon on New Years Day at the First UU Church of Detroit. After meditation, I went into the sermon asking myself three questions:

What does it mean to resist?

What role should vision play in our resistance?

What becomes of a visionary, stuck in a deficit mindset?

When I started to speak with tears streaming down my face, the sermon took on a life of its own. It can be found here.

May we all discover a lifelong love of poetry. May our visionary resistance live on.

Visionary Resistance
What becomes of a visionary
trapped in a deficit mind?

What becomes of their art?
What becomes of their shine?

If they are buried in gloom,
when their art resonates,
will they set off a bomb
will they detonate hate?

Will they torture their souls,
taking others along?

Will they chip at our spirits,
til we just frame and bone?

What becomes of a visionary,
with no hope to spare?

Do they leave with the wind,
or dissolve in the air?

Do they drown in the waves,

or get lost in the fray?

Or will they come out
pen swinging,
til they vision a way?

My Ancestors had vision,
freedom on the inside.

Visualized their liberation,
before the freedom rides,
before the marches on Washington,
before melanin in the oval,
before elections determined,
whether our lives would be over.

They visioned freedom from whips,
while they lived inside chains,
saw freedom in their mind,
while their bodies were enslaved.

Visionaries make {r}evolution,
lead us to co-liberation,
create the world we all need,
Love waging, imagination.

(A slight variation of this blog was published in Living for Change Newsletter)