Reflecting on Race and Racism through Poetry, Spoken Word, and Conversation

Editor's note: Donna Miscolta here writes about an exclusive reading she helped organize. In order to attend, you must be an employee of King County. If you are, on April 7th, the program will be welcoming Troy Osaki and Hamda Yusuf for the next in the series of four. The final two: on June 15, the program will have Anis Gisele and Shin Yu Pai, and on September 13 Kiana Davis and Djenaway Se-Gahon. Email her for details if you're eligible and would like to attend.

There are probably not many sentences in which the words poetry and government appear together, but here’s one from the heading of a Washington Post article published last April: “Poetry is going extinct, government data show.”

The article reported that “In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. Twenty years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent.”

First, we might wonder why government is tracking such a thing, to which one might ask rhetorically, “What doesn’t the government track?”

Second, we might wonder, how exactly are they getting such information? It’s called the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a product of a partnership between the NEA and the United States Census Bureau. Here’s one of the survey’s findings: “According to the latest numbers, poetry is less popular than jazz. It's less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera – not exactly surprising, given the contemporary state of that art.”

Who knew that it was the role of government to offer this observation of doom: “Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear – and doesn't show signs of abating.” The article is full of dire-looking graphs that resemble the bad news spit from an EKG monitor. If poetry is going extinct, then so must be the poets, right?

Over their dead bodies, they’re likely to reply.

Poets will persist. They will survive because they are necessary. They have stories to tell. And as Sherman Alexie says. “I firmly believe in the power of stories to change the world, and I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time.”

So here’s another sentence in which the words poetry and government appear together: Local poets present their work to King County government employees in a series on race and racism.

I’ve worked in government at the local level for almost thirty years. My job is to plan, design, and oversee projects that create opportunities for residents to conserve resources for a more sustainable future. But what’s a sustainable future without poetry? I’m working on a project with three colleagues to bring poets in to county government offices to read work that reflects their experience in a racialized world. It’s part of the county’s commitment to equity and social justice that must begin with a recognition that racism exists, that it’s been institutionalized in our systems, and that we all have a responsibility to change it. One story at a time is as good a strategy as any.

On January 12, about fifty King County employees assembled in a large conference room in a downtown office building to listen to the poetry of Quenton Baker and Casandra Lopez. It was a new experience for both poets and audience. Baker, upon stepping to the podium, elicited laughter when he remarked that this was the first time he’d come to a government building to read poetry to government employees.

Baker, tall and lanky with an untamed Afro, appears shy and serious. He’s anything but shy when he delivers his poems or banters with the audience or provides context for a piece he’s about to read. He’s straightforward, earnest, and utterly himself, which means he doesn’t alter his language even when in a government conference room full of government employees. If the f word is the right word for the moment and the sentiment, then that’s what glides comfortably off his tongue, whether in his poems or in his speech. And if his poems are serious, dark, and angry, his laughter and smile are quick. Despite never having read poems in a government building, this, nevertheless, is his milieu – a room full of listeners. In this room, the audience was mostly white (and mostly female).

Baker and Lopez took turns at the podium for two rounds of intensely felt and powerfully delivered poems that allowed the audience to see racism through the personal and very vivid lens of poetry.

Baker says his poetry “begins from a place of love and is primarily interested in pushing back against stereotypes, implicit biases, and the myriad ways that various forms of supremacy act on and envelop us all.” Here’s the opening of “Diglossic in the Second America,” which Baker gave us in the cadence of his hip hop roots:

If you're kind, you say high or low. Honest: you say [default] or black.
But we don't say black. Not now. Only dog whistles: welfare queen
tough on crime. Wow! Look at her run, such a natural athlete.
What I mean is: two tongues: high and low speech; white teeth and suit or thug.
But don't I have both? Little mulatto codebreaker, identity that jump cuts like a running back.
Wait, am I even black? How black? On a scale of rapist to corner boy?

Lopez noted the similarities in themes between her work and Baker’s. But there is also similarity in the origin of their work. Most of Lopez’s work explores issues related to loss, identity, diaspora, race, grief, and healing. She says that “though her work tackles difficult subjects, she writes from a place of compassion which allows for multiple points of entry into her work.” Here’s a segment from Lopez’s piece titled “a few notes about public grief.”

don’t look too tattooed. don’t look too uneducated. don’t look too brown or black. don’t look too human, like a person who has made mistakes or has a drink at the end of a long day. don’t look like a person who laughs too loudly with a mouth of joy or someone’s whose body sobs history because that will make you look too brown or too black or too other. remember, you want the judge, officials, and jury to identify with you. don’t give them reason to see you as a thug, gangster or whore. don’t give them a chance to see you as too black or too brown, or too foreign.

When asked by an audience member how they have the courage to write what they do, both poets responded similarly – that it’s not so much a matter of courage, as a need, even an obsession to put their stories on the page. “For black people, survival is such an everyday concern,” Baker said. For both poets, writing seems to be a survival strategy, a way to process for themselves and others their reality in a racialized society.

Lopez, too, despite her poems of tragedy and gun violence, laughs readily, joking between poems. The genuine warmth of her personality suffuses the room, her quickness to laughter perhaps a mechanism to deflect the pain of her words. She gestures often as she reads, a repetitive motion, a slicing with a palm or a pretend pounding of the fist to give stress to her words, or perhaps relieve stress from speaking them.

“I didn’t expect to feel so much,” an audience member said during the discussion following the readings. Someone else, while stressing the value of the event, acknowledged her occasional discomfort.

Did the poets feel any discomfort? Baker replied that if he didn’t feel discomfort then there would be no reason for him to be there.

“What can government do to authentically address inequity?” asked another in the audience.

The artists picked up on and appreciated the word authentically, a clear signal that the questioner was committed to action. Baker said that government has to understand how deep racism is and how much work it takes to break down the power structures that keep out certain segments of the population. Lopez added, “There are people who are doing a lot of this work on their own, but they need a more supportive structure in which to operate.” That seems like an argument for more sentences that combine the words poetry and government.

Because we’re government and we must measure everything we do, we conducted a survey of the audience. Overwhelmingly, respondents indicated the event had increased their understanding about race and racism. And while one commenter worried over the multiple times the phrase “white supremacy” arose, another cheered, “Let’s keep it going – the work is not done yet!” Not by a long shot is it done.

When we asked the poets what could be improved about the program, we got this suggestion: Get more white men in the room. We have three more chances to do that with events in April, June, and September. We’re tracking attendance. Maybe it’ll be a graph in our final report.