Poets are political. Poet Sonia Sanchez said as much at the “Remembering Gwendolyn Brooks” event in Philadelphia last October. Like Sanchez, Brooks was a poet from the Black Arts Movement that lasted roughly from 1965-1975. The content of this event—though affectionate in paying dues to the great American writer—could not be separated from the current political unrest. Brooks’s work cannot be studied without acknowledging her political messages. The work of both Brooks and Sanchez show how students can also use their art as a form of political protest.
Last October, Moonstone Press called for poetry submissions inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks in honor of what would have been her 100th birthday. Historically a publisher that has supported and printed the work of black writers, Moonstone Press naturally attracted over forty local black writers to submit, and in some cases, read their work aloud at the event. The poetry readings were followed by a talk-back style discussion led by a panel.
The discussion panelists included scholar Margo Crawford, scholar Herman Beavers, poet Lamont Steptoe, and Sanchez, who all took the time to reflect on both Brooks’ life and work and the continuation of her legacy of social commentary. Since the election, it seems impossible to ignore the topic of politics in a room of minorities.
Sanchez discussed issues of racism in our modern society that necessitate her continued activism. She recounted the recent FBI report that classifies “Black Identity Extremists” as “Terrorists” and “likely motivated to target law enforcement officers” (FBI Intelligence Assessment, 8/3/17).
This report, not only insulting in failing to acknowledge police brutality, represents a very real, very scary, change in policy. Not only will hate crimes against black people be ignored by higher institutions, but black people will also be considered the new “terror” threat to justify racism. When observing the recent trend in the U.S. of classifying all Middle Eastern or Muslim people as “likely terrorists,” it becomes clear that the government uses this politically-charged language to spread its umbrella of legal discrimination against people of color.
Sanchez noted how it is easy to laugh at the Trump administration’s contradictions and incompetency, but also stated that “we need to get in a quick laugh and then get to work.”
As evidenced by her fiery, controversial work, Sanchez does not separate her poetry and professorship from her political activism. She recounted a story in which she phoned and petitioned the editors of the Norton Poetry Anthology every year until they started including the work of black poets. Tales like this one prove that one person can make a difference; as students, I believe we have the obligation to fight for black rights.
While many remain dangerously unaware of specific policy changes, the recent political climate has undoubtedly impacted our campus. At the close of last semester, the underlying political tension culminated in a racist—or “bias”—incident in which a student wrote a racial slur in the snow. While some may argue that this was an isolated case, it is only one of others I’ve observed representing a mere trickle of the racial hatred that flows below the surface. We need to counter these kinds of racist acts with proactivity.
On a campus level, students and staff can educate themselves on racial issues. Attending events in the Rev. Charles Rice Guest Speaker Series may serve as a good starting point to learn about black history and modern racial issues. Ursinus also offers many enlightening humanities courses—such as Dr. M. Nzadi Keita’s African-American Literature course—that help foster a deeper understanding of what it means to be black in America.
Students can also use their art as a form of protest. In writing for their school newspaper or sharing creative works that acknowledge and address racial oppression, students can direct their art towards inspiring change—just as the artists of the Black Arts Movement did. This includes opening up discussions about how to better our own small community and avoid more racist incidents.
As the FBI report ominously foreshadows even more police brutality, Sanchez urges us to act. In spreading word of these atrocities through poetry and activist spaces, in petitioning our local governments to fight racist bills, and in fostering change on our own campus, we too can chip away at the injustice ingrained in our system. As Sanchez said, “In the voice of Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘They are killing us, because we are letting them.’”