Amanda Johnston: Black Poets Speak Out
by Wendy S. Walters
During the summer I conducted a Q&A with Amanda Johnston of Black Poets Speak Out, a social justice intervention and collaborative video performance project, about the project’s impact and future ambitions. When we were a little more than halfway through this inquiry, which we had been conducting through email, news of the death of Sandra Bland went mainstream. She had been driving from Texas back to her home in Chicago after securing a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M. While being held in a Waller County jail cell for a supposed traffic infraction, she was said to have committed suicide. Her family disputed this claim and has sought a formal investigation. This moment emphasized the pace at which this kind of violence recalibrates our understanding of law and justice.
Black Poets Speak Out (BPSO) was created by Amanda Johnston, Mahogany L. Browne, Jericho Brown, Jonterri Gadson and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe after the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Mike Brown in late November 2014. The project is curatorial, as poets submit short films they have self-produced. The content is poetry, more specifically work by black poets, which makes a record of protest. Instead of drawing attention through slick production values, the careful delivery of the lines asserts the eternal significance of the lyric and the act of making poems.
Before sharing a work of their choice, readers begin each video with the following statement, “My name is [insert name] I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” Claiming anger as a right situates many of these poems as testimony to the way violence both ruptures and creates community.
Collecting and curating this work has not been easy. Only two of the original founders remain, Amanda Johnston and Mahogany L. Browne. The expected duration of the project has changed, too. The founders’ initial goal was to continue the campaign until March, but once they realized there was so much more work to do, they removed the deadline and didn’t set another one.
Wendy S. Walters: What made you feel you would find or could create a community organized around poetry as opposed to some other kind of political engagement? Is there something unique about poetry communities, or how they form, that made you compelled to this particular kind of activism?
Amanda Johnston: As a person struggling in the face of this injustice, I asked myself: What is the greatest resource, tool, I have? We are poets and I knew we had voice and could use that, like so many of our elders and ancestors have done in the past. In the moment, I was looking for a direct path to the greatest source of collective power accessible to me from my kitchen table. Without doubt or hesitation, I knew that was the Cave Canem fellows. In the collective you find poets, writers, scholars, activists, lawyers, doctors, students, teachers, administrators, hustlers, sweet spirits, and brave fighters. I knew if there were a group I could come to low and vulnerable, it would be these people because that shows in the poems. Those poems go out into the world and carry those hearts and minds to make connections with other people. I believed in the undeniable power of poetry and that it could speak out for black lives in this time of crisis.
WSW: Can you talk a little bit about what the phrase “speak out” means to you, specifically with regards to Black Poets Speak Out? Does speaking out have to do with the distance the message travels, its impact, or volume? Or do you feel speaking out serves the speaker on a more personal level?
AJ: Speaking out is one of the most powerful tools we have as people. Speaking our truth and calling out injustice is the first action necessary to create change. When poets and allies share videos through BPSO they are not just putting forth the words and sentiment of the poem, they begin with an opening phrase, declaration, “I am a black poet, and ally, who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” With that statement, the reader publicly takes a stand against police violence and commits their voice to the collective outcry for justice. As Audre Lorde stated, “Your silence will not protect you,” those committing to speaking out through BPSO know that we cannot be silent and seek justice. It takes the risk of self through voice and action to amplify the urgency of the movement.
WSW: Your comment about Audre Lorde makes me think about two things with regards to her approach to poetry and politics.
Much of Lorde’s work focused on racism and sexism in the United States. She clearly saw them as linked aggressions. There has been some conversation about how the Black Lives Matter campaign might better recognize the contributions of black women as organizers and supporters and give more attention to black women killed by police or racial violence. How have Black Poets Speak Out dealt with this intersection, and are there any challenges from this that as organizers you have become more aware?
AJ: The Black Lives Matter movement was started by three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Throughout their work and organizing, the many intersections of black lives have been represented, mourned, and rallied around. So, as a movement leadership, I think they are doing the work. Now, as supporters of that work, sadly we have seen less of a collective action and outcry for the murders of black women, children, and members of the LGBTQ community. Similarly, BPSO was founded predominately by black women and the leadership remains as such. If you look at the poets, allies, and poems being shared, you’ll see a strongly diverse representation across those intersections. Both men and women shared Audre Lorde’s poem “Power,” children and elders have offered original poetry, and many of the readers and poets being read are LGBTQ. However, as organizers, it is our responsibility to not just accept that diverse representation is present in our campaign when we know as a movement there is work to be done to improve that area. An example of how we address this in word and action is showing up for and spreading sharing information about demonstrations such as the Say Her Name march on May 21st and making sure to share resources and opportunities to speak out (live and in print) across our community. The most important thing is that we stay active in our work and community building. Exclusion does not support the movement when we know all black lives are at risk and suffer the threat of police violence.
WSW: You mention that BPSO, among its many other accomplishments, has been an exercise in community building—both in print and online—virtual and in the real. Have you seen any sub-communities develop out of BPSO’s actions or events? If so, could you share some of them?
Also by what mechanisms do the contributors to BPSO move forward collectively, check in with each other? Is it a network that moves primarily in social media spaces or does the community seek to sustain connection through other kinds of events, interventions, and/or interactions?
AJ: At the BPSO events in Austin, TX, multiple organizations and activists came together to speak out. Groups like The People’s Task Force, the Austin Justice Coalition, and members of Creative Action and Red Salmon Arts have come together through BPSO events. That work continues to build through collaborative efforts for future events such as a joint demonstration at City Hall scheduled for August 8th and BPSO poets speaking out at the PTF Justice 4 Jackson rally on July 25th. By supporting each others’ work and coming together collectively, we are able to reach a larger audience and call for action in the fight to save black lives. I know the same is true in New York. Mahogany can speak more on that as she coordinated several join BPSO events including one at the Brooklyn Museum that included representatives from various activist organizations with the same goals in support of the movement. Other poetry communities are sharing similar success as these BPSO events are open to the public and, as poetic protests, call out to those who dare to speak out. The audience members include poets, activists, allies, and other supporters. Some had never attended a poetry event before but felt drawn to the reading as an accessible and direct means to combat police violence.
As for advancing the work of BPSO, active and potential participants contact us through the website to propose new events and, collectively, we share information on our Facebook open group page. This way we can share the information widely across our joint social media pages and coordinate showing up to support in person. We are online and live. We are on and off the page.
WSW: Sandra Bland died the same day that Eric Garner’s family received a 5.9 million dollar settlement from the city of New York on their wrongful death claim. How do you (and BPSO) make sense of all this? Is it a struggle to keep moving forward with so much bad news still coming in? And if so, how do you do it—what’s the goal?
AJ: The system is designed to wear you down and silence you. A monetary settlement, no matter the amount, is not justice. It’s an acknowledgment of wrong-doing and reaches for an end. Justice would be that Eric Garner was never murdered. That he was alive with his wife and children. Justice would be Sandra Bland alive and excited about her future. As BPSO poets and writers, our duty is to continue to speak the truth and say their names through our work. Sadly, we know these are two victims out of hundreds dead and thousands who’ve suffered police brutality. I think one goal is to not become complacent in the death of black lives. With the constant bombardment of images, a natural response for survival is to turn off and look away. It can drive you crazy. Through the work and words of fellow poets, elders, and ancestors, I find strength. We’re planning a vigil for Sandra Bland tomorrow night in Austin, TX. We’ll walk to the capitol, share poems and prayers, and say her name in the heart of Texas before the public official’s sworn to protect and serve us. In community, locally and linked across the country, we move forward (not beyond, not passed) but forward toward justice and freedom.
WSW: BPSO reminds me of the journalist Ida B. Wells, who encountered many obstacles as she decried slavery. With her in mind, I am thinking again about the idea of speaking out—and does it relate in any way to the kind of journalism Wells practiced in Memphis when lynching became an active means of political and economic repression? How do you see the function of the poem in relation to journalism, or perhaps more specifically what can a poet do in speaking out that is different from the work a journalist can do?
AJ: I think one of the important things that come from people speaking out is the ability to reach multiple audiences. A journalist is going to reach those who follow them and their news outlets. Poets will reach their followers, readers, and literary communities. I feel like poetry has a way of calling you out privately. Even in a crowded reading, the poem can somehow find you, whisper your name, and call you to action. Journalism can reach and inform millions of people loudly. We need everyone to raise their voice against police violence and reach as many people as possible.
WSW: There is something quite moving about hearing a poem read out loud that is different from just seeing it written. The voice imbues the poem with life—a vitality—that is indisputable. They are also generative acts. It’s interesting to think of these poems confronting death with life in a kind of metaphysical way. Perhaps I am overreaching here, and please let me know if I am, but I wonder if you have any thoughts about that?
AJ: When someone creates a BPSO video, multiple acts are happening at once: the reader is committing their name and image to resisting police violence, they are publicly affirming that black lives matter, a vast chorus of black poets’ words are being called up that span across time and place, and when someone clicks on the video, from wherever they are in the world, a connection is made between them, the reader, the word, and the movement. The viewer is confronted with the reader as a living person (often first someone they know personally) speaking out through the power of poetry to demand change. The participants show their will to live freely through art in the face of a very real attack against that freedom. It’s urgent and powerful.
WSW: Can you talk a bit about the duration of this project and how you envisioned it? Where do you see ahead for BPSO in the next few months? What is the best way for those who are interested in participating in BPSO to get involved?
AJ: BPSO as a campaign will continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of our participants are educators and are currently preparing for their fall classes. Soon, BPSO will share free lesson plans on our site that focus on creative writing and social justice activism. Our hope is that educators will use them as a resource to keep the conversation going with students. Readings and forums are still being organized at venues and college campus internationally. Our letter writing campaign will continue to demanding action from elected officials against police violence. That work will provide valuable information for our community and voters as we move into the 2016 election season. We need poets and ally volunteers. Anyone interested in supporting Black Poets Speak Out can contact us through our website www.blackpoetsspeakout.org or email us directly firstname.lastname@example.org.