by Casey Jaywork
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“No great poet has ever been afraid of being himself,” Langston Hughes wrote nearly a century ago, imploring African American artists to embrace racial identity in their work.
The African American Writer’s Alliance has taken this admonition to heart, judging from their 23rd annual reading at The Elliott Bay Bookstore on February 22, titled, “Our History Told Our Way.” The event featured seven poets reflecting on the historical and contemporary African American experience. On display in the bookstore’s basement theater, beneath the clomping steps of patrons above, was pride, sorrow, nostalgia, rage, joy, forgiveness, sexuality, and the wry sarcasm that only life’s weathered veterans are capable of. I got in touch with two of these poets to ask them about the intersection of art and identity in their lives; Lola Peters co-produces the performance group Poetry + Motion, and Dr. Georgia McDade co-founded the AAWA.
“Poetry, for me, is the distillation of emotion,” Peters said. She said that she uses poetry to understand and articulate her own emotions and experiences, calling her work “the attempt to give language to that which has no language.” McDade similarly referred to poetry’s expressive function, adding that it enables her to record a history of her own thoughts and rouse the apathetic into action.
“I’m still fascinated when someone tells me [to] eliminate a poem because it does not make sense, and someone else says of the same poem, ‘I know exactly what you mean,’” McDade said.
Emotion was well articulated at the Elliott Bay reading, where Peters was among the poets who mesmerized the audience with palpable, biting prose. “Love is wasted on the young,” she recited, “an orchid in the hands of butchers.”
Another poet, Alliniece Andino, awed her listeners when describing the reappearance of a former beloved: “He stands in that portion of life where I am past-tense… He approaches with my past on his shoulder.”
But love wasn’t the only heavy subject that night. Many of the poems dealt with themes of racial oppression. Andino recalled her father calmly and deliberately cleaning his gun on the front porch after the Ku Klux Klan killed the family dog, and several poets dwelled on the tension of living as a person of color in a country that uses whiteness as a norm.
Peters, whose complexion is lighter than some of her peers’, reflected on the difficulty of fitting into a society that has reified racial categories. “They all want me to be biracial,” she recited. “Not white, because I do have an attitude; not black, because I’m intellectually controlled by gears they think I can’t drive.”
McDade was quick to point out that racial oppression is not just a historical subject. “In 2014… [how] many Americans have to worry about their right to vote?” she said. “I do not wish to think about voting, murders, and schools, yet these subjects haunt me. Writing sometimes relieves the pressure.”
Peters said that, for her part, she has no choice but to artistically respond to racism. “Because the culture is not created to give me advantage,” she said, “I have some advantages in how I can see it. I see it in a more objective way, I think.” One thing she’s able to see, she says, is the exclusion of Seattle artists of color based on provincial standards of taste. “Who developed the standard against which [we are] being judged?” she asked. “Those [standards] often act as filters that exclude.”
Despite these struggles, both poets expressed optimism about the future. “Seattle’s African American community is in the midst of a huge artistic renaissance, and has a lot to give this city,” Peters said. “We’re part of the 12th man.”
“Our resilience is unmatched,” McDade said, referring to African Americans. “I like to think my poetry is one way – true, a small way – a record of what happened, and how some of us responded.”
If the Elliott Bay reading illustrated one thing, it was that the messy, multifaceted nature of contemporary African American experience, which – like all human experience – can’t be shoehorned into a concise description. Hence, the role of poetry, “giving language to that which has no language.”
As McDade put it in one of her poems, “There’s nothing wrong with being a puzzle, as long as none of the pieces are missing.”
While their Elliott Bay reading only occurs once per year, the AAWA meets from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the first Saturday and 2 to 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month at the Columbia City Library. Dr. McDade, Ms. Peters, and other AAWA writers’ work is available at The Elliott Bay Bookstore and at AAWA-Seattle.com.