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Strong Words

Staceyann Chin and her daughter, Zuni, declaiming poetry.
I went to the Apollo Theater on Sunday for a panel discussion, “Where Do We Go From Here?; MLK and the Future of Inclusion.” January 15 would have been the Reverend’s actual birthday: 88- years-old. How wonderful that his birthday fell during this week of marches and civil disobedience. “Where Do We Go From Here?,” was the title of Dr. King’s last book. It’s still a good question.

The Apollo has been renovated since my last visit there, a gorgeous, welcoming space, and I was looking forward to the afternoon. Sadly, I felt stuck in my seat, sorely disappointed. Solid, incisive questions posed by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and Jami Floyd went unanswered or evaded. Instead, there were lots of stale ideas, some pontificating, a good bit of posturing. I learned nothing new, nor did I feel hopeful until Jamaican-born, bi-racial, lesbian Staceyann Chin bounced onto the stage. As I rarely frequent poetry slams, I had never heard of her. Whoa!!

Suddenly the audience was upright, all impatient sighs silenced. Even her get-up—patterned tights, a flared mid-thigh dress—declared: PAY ATTENTION.

If agit-prop/polemical poetry is good, it wakes us out of our comfort zones, juxtaposes unexpectedly, and changes the air we breathe. Chin is good. This one-word-after another prose I am writing here can only approximate her performance on the stage.

“I am holding my own sorrow,” she said. That was just one line I caught as she thrashed and flailed her lithe body into her poem stories, aphorisms and tragic truths. “A system sworn to protect us owes us something when it fails.” That one seared. So, too, another which I will have to paraphrase here as it flew by so fast. It was something about white liberal/progressives taking responsibility for white supremacists, their hate speech. Something about finding a way to answer the hate with our own liberal/progressive words.

That’s quite a challenge, something I’ll have to think about in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, I plan to read Staceyann’s memoir:

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