Writing for the invisible

Sienna Coleman


     “I have a particular take on and sensitivity to, an understanding of, a perspective on black Americans’ positions, because that was the world that was surrounding me when I was a child…I’m driven to talk about those things that I understand have their own particularity,” Dr. M. Nzadi Keita explained how her experiences influence her writing.

     This year, Keita, an associate professor of English at Ursinus, has been named one of 12 Pew Fellows by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The Pew Center works to foster a vibrant cultural community by supporting artists in and around Philadelphia.  Keita was awarded by the Pew Center for her works of poetry, including a book of poetry, “Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the Life of Anna Murray Douglass”, that is based on Douglass’s life. Her works have also been published in the Poet Lore Journal, Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, among others.

     Keita became interested in Anna Murray Douglass, the first wife of Frederick Douglass, while she was teaching at West Chester University. Re-reading “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” she realized that there were only two sentences about his wife.            

     Although Douglass was a prominent 19th century figure, few knew his wife’s name or who she was. Keita’s intellectual curiosity compelled her to write a book of poems on Mrs. Douglass.  Keita felt obligated to tell the story of this black, working class woman who was not formally educated. According to Keita, she felt she was “subject to being lied about and obscured … unjustly pushed to the background, hidden behind a sort of false idea of history.”

     Keita said that as she grew up, she moved through a lot of different worlds and she speaks to this through her writing.

     She explained, “I was raised in a working class, middle class, black community. Then I went out and went to college and discovered that a lot of people that I was around, they don’t even know that world exists… much less understand it.”

     Today, she continues to “move in this intersection of multiple economic classes, [and] multiracial spaces.”

     As a child, her parents moved her family to a better neighborhood in Philadelphia called Mount Airy, where the neighborhood had been integrated. Keita said, “people [in the neighborhood] were being hostile and we didn’t know why. Not everybody, not all the time, but…people were reading me in certain ways that didn’t have to do with who I was, they had to do with their perception of me.”

     Keita finds that she writes to explain the way that she sees the world, because “otherwise there is a piece missing.” Her audience is “anybody who feels themselves dismissed within the larger culture, or feels themselves invisible within the larger culture.”

     The Civil Rights Movement was on fire when Keita was in elementary school. She said, “At that time in American culture, black people didn’t see themselves in the media, but all of a sudden, there they were…and this was like a nightmare unfolding constantly.”

     Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated when she was in fifth grade. It was the first time she saw her mother cry. The devastating event felt close to home and she was angry. Then she found her outlet in the Black Arts Movement: “all of a sudden on the black radio station, they’re playing poetry… these poets were saying things that I only heard around the dinner table, things that I didn’t hear said aloud. It was exciting and liberating to know that, ‘Wait a minute, we can talk about that now?”

     Keita explained that she was coming of age when the poetry of the Black Arts Movement was exploding on TV. Keita now teaches a class at Ursinus on the Black Arts Movement, a politically motivated movement of black artists during the 1960s and early 1970s. She also emphasized how radio was really a powerful force in the Black Arts Movement.

      As Keita said, “Black people didn’t see themselves in the media,” but suddenly, on the black radio station, “they pause the music and you hear these voices, it was riveting…I am where I am, I am a professor and a poet because of the Black Arts Movement.”

     After applying for the Pew Fellowship several times, Dr. Keita is still stunned that she won; she is “deliriously happy.” She hopes to use the grant to go on a writer’s retreat in Cuba and be inspired by the people and stories she finds there. Keita will be reading selections from her poetry in Musser Auditorium at 4:30 PM on Tuesday, September 12, where students and faculty will have the opportunity to hear some of her work.