Stage & Theatre

Local #BlackPoetsSpeakOut on #BlackLivesMatter

Black Poets Speak Out in Indianapolis

In my last post of 2014, I lamented about not taking in any poetry jams or readings throughout the year? Well, someone must have nudged Calliope to spare me the fate of missing out on Indy's burgeoning wordsmith scene for a full year. Because lo and behold, what did I discover not a full 48 hours before the ball dropped in Times Square?

A wonderful event calling all artistic purveyors of spoken word: #BlackPoetsSpeakOut.

I only learned of the event 5 hours before it began, but I was happy to let my spontaneous side take over and venture out to local speakeasy and Broad Ripple community hotspot, Sabbatical. Hosted by a supporter of the local arts community, the poetry reading was a part of an ongoing national and international movement.

For those who stick to the sunny side of the street, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut encourages artists of all races and ethnicities to use the power of art as a tool for political and social change. We all know art can help us cope, heal and transform on an individual level, but how about on a community, regional or national level?

With the recent protests in the U.S. (and around the globe) against police brutality and corruption of the justice system that protects police brutality, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut has asked local poets across all communities to come together and lend their artistic voice to the movement. And let me say, it was a welcome experience to hear Indianapolis voices join the chorus.

The first poet to take the mic was no stranger to the spotlight: Angela James Brown. Angela is an accomplished novelist, speaker and poet, so it was no surprise that she rose to the occasion to deliver the first volley of poetic disobedience.

Angela's work invoked the familiar technique of repetition and conjured images of life struggling to continue days after the non-indictment of police officers in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. Resonating pleas for reason in a less than reasonable world marked Angela’s delivery and was a fitting start to the night’s theme.

Next up, a local favorite JO Kato shared a piece that presented a more local focus on how the recent rash of deaths by the hands of police authorities should give every Naptown resident pause. In Indianapolis’ own Dr. Martin Luther King Park (aka MLK Park), lies a sculpture called Landmark for Peace. In the work, you see the hands of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King outstretched to shake hands, but never quite touching.

Kato's poem made note of the walking path that flows between RFK and MLK's hands. As he so eloquently puts, it's the "space of a shrug," perhaps referencing the apathy that has followed the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s. In an area of the city that is likely to be plagued by incidents leading to deaths similar to Michael Brown or Tamir Rice, one can't help but consider Kato's observation with an open mind.

As more artists took the stage, I was happy to see the somewhat small audience double in size and grow in enthusiasm and participation. Poets like Jodie Rust, Curtis Kristler, George Fish and Shayla Lawson added their heartfelt reflections on the recent tragedies from a view of anyone learning of the Eric Garner non-indictment decision and trying to make sense of it.

Lauren Alleyne reads her poem "The Hoodie Stands Witness"

If there was anyone at the magnanimous event who captured my emotional perspective of the deaths that precipitated the protests, it was the wonderful poem by Allyson Horton titled “Hashtag.” I can only hope you get a chance to read -- or better yet, hear -- Allyson's piece. If you were a resident of Indianapolis during the late 1980s when young teen Michael Taylor's death in the backseat of a police car was a subject of controversy, you'll understand how Allyson's choice to tie it to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and John Crawford's murders was not only poignant, but haunting.

One of the elements I liked most about the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut event here in Indy was that at no point did it appear as if those who were not of African descent were unwelcome. On Tuesday, I saw artists who identified as white, Asian-American and Hispanic lend their voice to a movement intended to assert the value of black lives to our society and our collective conscience. Some may have had only a few lines to share, but they wanted to add their voice to this crazy notion that justice should exist for all, not just for some.

The next poet to give me pause did so with a piece so moving that it forced me to appreciate her preamble, where she noted that's it's difficult for her to finish her poems at readings sometimes because she often starts to cry before the end. Sadly, I didn't catch this young lady's full name, so I'll simply call her Ashley.

Ashley's work was titled "Washed Out for Pierre" and delved into the parental upheaval caused by these violent tragedies. Ashley expertly intermixed song with prose as she weaved a tale about receiving a call at 2pm in the afternoon about a loved one who had been killed by an overzealous finger on the trigger. As Ashley's dirge beautifully captured, parents brace themselves for terrible news at 2am, but never at 2pm.

Artists supporting artists at BLM's #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

I found myself moved to tears as Ashley's voice strained and articulated the psychological terror that comes with being a mother of a child of color in this nation of profound "exceptionalism." It was the only poem that evening to speak to the constant fear that dogs the mothers of the Black community. It seems trite to say, but I'm glad I had the chance to share in that moment.

Our host quickly shared a piece, and ushered any newcomers who wanted to present to come to the front and take their place in the spotlight. Several not only shared, but also sang their unique versions of an irreverent protest song. Others, like Lauren Alleyne, struck a more serious tone, with a poem titled "The Hoodie Stands Witness," which she wrote in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict. An event that is, sadly, still timely.

If there was anyone more at home at a poetry reading that day, it was the owner of our lovely venue, Cory. Cory has made his mark on the Indianapolis arts scene in more ways than I can count. So I was delighted when he stepped to the mic and waxed lyrical with "18 Things To Expect About Black Boys." There's not a lot that can be said about his poem than to remark how well a masterful delivery can take an already inspiring work and make it stay with you for days on end. That's the power of spoken word.

To close out the evening, Ebony Chappel, multimedia journalist for the Indianapolis Recorder read a poem by the late Maya Angelou titled "Alone." Like many poems at the event, Angelou's words shared a sadness of the day, but managed to beckon us to lean on each other for strength and survival.

Cory reads his poem "18 Things to Expect"

Our host and organizer announced that another poetry reading celebrating the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut movement will take place on January 15th, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But for those who don't want to wait that long or fear the spotlight, you can contribute your reading via the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut Tumblr stream online. Just record your reading in the comfort of your sanctuary and express yourself about the state of the world in the wake of such powerful social upheaval. I repeat: You do not have to identify as black to participate; however, the #BlackLivesMatter protest is the predominant theme.

As for the rest of us who may not feel our poetic muscles are ready for any display, you are always welcome to come and support the artists who let their spoken word lead the charge for change.

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