PC: Emma Ackermman
On October 24th, Basement Poetry hosted a live poetry reading at Touchstone Theatre that Diedre Van Walters, the MC of the event, framed as a form of protest. As Van Walters put it at the start of the event, these artists and poets did not share their thoughts and experiences, their ways of making sense of the world, for fun. Rather, these poets performed their work as a gift to our community, to help us sort through the pain and violence of anti-Black racism. The poetry-reading was the culmination of Basement Poetry’s series published on Southsider, which celebrates local Black poets. The night was filled with emotional, commanding, and beautiful performances by poets whose memorable words captured the pain, the joy, and magic of being Black in America.
Diedre Van Walters, MC and President of Basement Poetry, began the evening with her own poem, emphatically asking: “Where do you come from?” She then responded with a resounding answer: “ You come from love!” Her poem questioned our motives and values, implying that “we have to return from whence we came,” which for Van Walters, is love. This opening poem called the audience to focus on the import of self-love, love for each other, and a rejection of hate. Van Walters also read an excerpt from “Identify,” which is a play written and previously performed at Touchstone Theatre by Basement Poetry. This poem excerpt continued the theme of encouraging listeners to define themselves, to challenge societal prejudice, to know their roots, and to “look in the mirror” and truly see themselves.
Kellie Donaldson read two poems, one called “Drag” and the other “Young Black Girl.” In “Young Black Girl” Donaldson addresses the ways in which society teaches young Black girls to dislike themselves or to hold themselves back. In the poem, Donaldson highlights how Black girls are told that they “can’t be too loud” and she explores self-criticism when she states, “you are all smiles, but you hate your teeth.” In other moments, Donaldson explores the ways in which Black girls have to perform happiness for white people in order to not draw undue criticism. One particularly standout image was the idea that “if you don’t smile at all your white teachers at school, they will wonder what is wrong at home.” Ultimately, Donaldson’s message is to acknowledge and critique racism and sexism while empowering young Black girls to develop a strong sense of self.
Next, young poet Nasheera Brown read her poem “Embracing My Melanin,” in which she proclaims the beauty of her skin tone even as the poem reckons with the way society has threatened her life because of it. Brown’s outstanding poem is published on Southsider here. Following Brown, Milo Wilson read their poem “The American Dream.” Wilson’s poem uses the image of waking up in the dark, day after to day, to explore the darkness and false promise that hides behind the idea of the American Dream. Wilson’s powerful poem is published on Southsider here.
Zena Goodwin shared the poem titled “BLM,” which engages with the privileged position of saying “all lives matter” and how it obscures the particular violence targeted at Black people. Goodwin highlights the hypocrisy of those who tell her “all lives matter,” yet are actively ignoring her fear and pain as they say it. To Goodwin, such a phrase, which ostensibly should open the door for her to share her fear and pain, is used as a retort to shut down her voice.
Chloe Cole-Wilson, the Artistic Director of Basement Poetry, also shared the poems “White Supremacy” and “Giving Him Advice I Never Thought He Would Need” during the poetry reading event. Her expressive hands and resonant pauses made her performance particularly stand out. The second poem, “Giving Him Advice I Never Thought He Would Need” was addressed to her brother, whom she hoped would “never stop being TOO Black.” In the poem, she names the ways she must advise her brother to act in particular ways to simply ensure survival in a world that has particular prejudice for Black men. In one particularly resonant moment, Chloe reminds her brother to “be kind to your mother before you leave,” suggesting that her brother’s survival on any given day is never guaranteed. She insists though, that despite police brutality and the racism that criminalizes her brother’s Blackness, he is valued and loved: “They see you as Black/ I see you as Brother.”
Kristina Haynes, the Vice President of Basement Poetry, also shared her poems “Black Girl” and “Black in America.” Her first poem, “Black Girl” had many stand out lines, emphasizing the pain of having to navigate the world as a Black woman. Indeed, Haynes counsels herself in the poem to hide away, to stay protected: “Don’t let them see the soft honey bee of you.” She critiques this coping mechanism of making herself small for self-protection, because this practice, imposed upon her, does not allow her to flourish: “you are so small Black girl, you can barely contain yourself.” In another moment, as the narrator of the poem fluctuates once again between criticizing this self-withdrawal and acknowledging the real need for self-withdrawal as a resource for survival, Haynes leaves us with an image that keenly reminded the crowd what was at stake: the possibility that “the last song you will hear is a bullet.”
The event had an incredible music intermission, featuring local musicians Nai and Maxamilly. Featured poet Corey Riotz then performed his powerful poem “Ebony’s Flawz,” which Southsider has published here. Riotz described this poem as a way of being accountable to his own flaws before fighting oppression and white supremacy. Riotz then turned to an even more personal matter in “Sober Heart,” his poem about struggling with his relationship with alcohol and his mother’s own struggle with alcoholism. For Riotz, this struggle with addiction is not uncommon for many people he knows, but it frequently gets ignored. Riotz had a commanding presence, and his reading of his other poem, “Corporate America,” also published on Southsider, is another example of his performative skill.
Baby the Poet performed two poems, “Unite” and “Let’s Live.” “Unite” uncovered the colorism between African American communities and Latinx communities, and urged these communities to see the ways in which their flourishing overlaps and can be bolstered through coalition. For Baby the Poet, “the reason for my existence is for my ancestors to speak.”
For Kevalis Matthews-Alvarado, “community is resistance,” and the gathering and performance of Black poetic voices was just that: resistance. Matthews-Alvarado’s poem “What Have You Lost” puts racism in the context of the pandemic, thinking through performative allyship and activism, what it means to live through a cultural trauma, and the fact that activism has always been radical, not marketable. For Matthews-Alvarado, recent police brutality “was not the first or last time Black Death has been so visible.” Matthews-Alvarado critiqued the shock expressed in the face of George Floyd’s death. From Matthews-Alvarado’s perspective, the pain of this violence was not new, but rather just another instance of anti-Black violence that history has conveniently ignored.
Finally, the evening closed with music by Darious Foster who explored themes of the stereotypes of jail time, being a new father, and critiques of the Trump administration. One particularly stand-out line brought the night full-circle, back to self-reflection: “I stepped in a black hole disguised as my reflection.”
This collection of phenomenal local poets highlights the power of words and art to describe pain and give voice to joy and empowerment. Black Words, Black Voices, Black Magic, Black Matters lives on in the ongoing partnership between Basement Poetry and Southsider, as Southsider will continue to publish poems curated by Basement Poetry. And Basement Poetry is newly a non-profit, with exciting new projects on the horizon, like an art installation which will be featured in Easton, PA. Learn more about Basement Poetry by following them on Instagram and Facebook!