Writing In and Speaking Out

Dora Malech
May 15, 2015
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Earlier this month, in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and the community unrest and outcry that followed in Baltimore, Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS), a nonprofit organization founded and directed by writer Patrice Hutton, held its second Black Words Matter Write-In. The gathering was held on Sunday, May 3rd in Space 2640 on St. Paul Street as an opportunity for young people to write and reflect, process and protest. The idea for a Write-In evolved in late 2014 in response to the death of Michael Brown and support for the protests in Ferguson; the idea was generated by the young WBS participants themselves. The first WBS Write-In for Ferguson was held at Terra Cafe and resulted in a compilation of writing generated at the event at www.blackwordsmatter.org. This time, rather than expressing solidarity with another town in another state, the Write-In gathering was in support of the young writers’ own city and home.

The media coverage of the event has been extensive and positive, including a piece by Erica L. Green in The Baltimore Sun (“City students turn to writing to process unrest“) and an accompanying video; a piece in The Baltimore Times by Andrea Blackstone (“‘Black Words Matter’ write-in gives Baltimore students needed forum“); pieces by writer and WBS instructor Khaliah Williams in both American Short Fiction (“Things American: Baltimore Authors Respond to the Death of Freddie Gray“) and on Buzzfeed (“What Baltimore’s Young People Have To Say About ‘Thug’“); and Amy McDaniel’s publication of a selection of work from the event at Real Pants (“Black Words Matter: Poems by Baltimore Students“).

As a new WBS volunteer and new resident of Baltimore, I’d rather refer you to the above coverage and commentary than summarize the event and situation again myself. As a poet and educator, what I would like to add to the conversation are some resources in the form of poems, in case others across America or beyond would like to organize similar events. At the first Write-In in December of 2014, youth reflected on Danez Smith’s poems “Not An Elegy for Mike Brown” and “Alternate Names for Black Boys,” both available online here:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/danezsmith/not-an-elegy-for-mike-brown-two-poems-for-ferguson

The young writers did not necessarily write “about” or “after” Smith’s poems, but his words hung in the air as provocation and inspiration, as “smoke above the burning bush.” At this month’s Write-In, participants read Audre Lorde’s “Power,” Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” and Morgan Parker’s “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background: An Elegy” aloud. All three poems are available online:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/240144

http://blogthisrock.blogspot.com/2015/04/poem-of-week-ross-gay.html

http://www.apogeejournal.org/i-feel-most-colored-when-i-am-thrown-against-a-sharp-white-background-an-elegy/

I don’t think it’s just chance that Parker’s poem, which is “After Glenn Ligon after Zora Neale Hurston” became a particularly potent jumping-off point for the participants; knowing that Parker’s moving words were explicitly entering an ongoing conversation (a conversation about race, power, and equity on both the individual and the systemic scale) seemed like an apt catalyst to invite new voices into that conversation. Writer Khaliah Williams, who moderated both Write-In events, made it clear that the poems of Smith, Lorde, Gay, and Parker were intended to function as prompt and as permission to share one’s own truth, not as a prescriptive assignment of any kind. This seemed important to me. Responses came in the form of poetry, prose, notes, and oral reflection. WBS dignified out-loud conversation alongside written conversation, rather than privileging one form of expression over another. This seemed important to me as well.

The individual participants created individual works of art and individual moments of self-expression, but the event itself also felt like collaborative, collective art to me, as individual striking moments of language and observation illustrated and illuminated recurring, urgent, collective, and universal themes.

This past Wednesday, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog picked up the Real Pants piece, featuring a poem by 11th grader Jaida Griffin (“Young Baltimore Poets Address Home“).

Zora Neale Hurston, from “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928): “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Glenn Ligon, “Untitled: Four Etchings” (1992):

Glenn Ligon

Morgan Parker, from “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background: An Elegy” (2014): “I am thrown black type- / face in a headline with no name. / Or, no one hears me. Or, I am thrown / a language bone: unarmed. / I feel most colored when my weapon / is I feel most colored.”

Jaida Griffin, from “I feel most colored when” (2015): “Tonight I feel most colored. // Every night, through, I feel colored, / As the beautiful blackness of the sky gets no attention, / Only the moon and stars.”

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