Interview with Amanda Johnston, Organizer of Black Poets Speak Out
Amanda Johnston is a poet and one of the organizers of Black Poets Speak Out (BPSO), which started as a hashtag video campaign in response to the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. I talked to Amanda recently to ask about the origins and evolution of the BPSO movement and how it has interacted with her practice as a poet who is politically engaged.
From what I understand, what became Black Poets Speak Out originated with you and then took its form as you talked and collaborated with some other poets. Could you talk a little bit more about that process — what your original impulses and ideas were, and how it evolved as you worked with others?
My original impulse was to not be alone in my pain after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson in the murder of Mike Brown. I was in a state of deep sadness and fear—fear that this could happen to anyone of us (make no mistake it can) and I didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted to do something, take action, so I reached out to Cave Canem fellows on our group Facebook page and asked, “What are we gonna do?” Several people replied with ideas including Mahogany L. Browne, Jonterri Gadson, Jericho Brown, and Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe. Those ideas led to poets around the world sharing videos under the hashtag Mahogany created, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. Each video opens with a phrase offered by Jericho that unites each contributor and keeps the focus on the specific crisis of black people being murdered by police—“I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” It was important to acknowledge our blackness in that we are members of the community being targeted. We are not speaking from a distant place of witness, we are crying out from the porch of our sisters and brothers—our black families and communities that are being attacked.
What were your expectations at the start of Phase One, which is the hashtag video campaign housed on Tumblr?
When people started posting videos, my hope was for a quick and widespread response. I thought we might have about 60 videos, primarily coming from other Cave Canem fellows who read the thread in the Facebook group. In a few days, hundreds of videos were posted from across the country by CC fellows and other black poets. The Tumblr page was created to archive all of the submissions, share resources, and offer a means to contact the remaining organizers, myself and Mahogany, to continue pushing the work forward. Allies approached us wanting to support the campaign, so we offered alternate language for their opening, “I submit this poem in solidarity with Black Poets Speak Out. I will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” With this additional language, a larger body of citizens speaking out against police violence can support the work of BPSO under the Black Lives Matter movement without diluting the message or hijacking the campaign. All lives matter when black lives matter and the allies who step forward understand that and want to work to save black lives.
What was it like, in the first few weeks, to organize a movement that, as the website says, “grew like wildfire,” while at the same time, as a person, processing the Ferguson decision?
It was cathartic and empowering. As I stated, I felt such a deep sadness and fear. I felt hopeless and helpless after a life of racially provoked societal and personal aggressions. I was heartbroken because my faith in humanity couldn’t let me be anything other than hopeful that the prosecutor would do the right thing. I was hopeful that charges would be filed when an unarmed teenage boy is murdered. When that didn’t happen, I was hopeful that I would not be alone in my desire to take action. I was hopeful that others would speak out, and when they did with such an overwhelming response, I was renewed. Processing the decision in the Mike Brown shooting (and every murder since) has been enraging, but focused through the work of Black Poets Speak Out. Having a network of poets and allies to process the grief and organize a response with has kept me sane and determined to be heard.
Phase 2 is a series of readings in all different cities or as the website puts it, “an off-line literary protest for poets and the community.” Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between online and off-line activism?
Through social media, the online response has reached thousands of people internationally with the ease of a “tweet” on Twitter or a “like” on Facebook. When people share and respond to the online work it exposes the campaign to their circles and compounds the reach of BPSO. However, a deeper connection and commitment come when people gather in real time and speak out collectively. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has spawned marches and public demonstrations, BPSO Phase 2 brings poets and allies together publicly to speak out, share recourses, and collaborate with other activist groups to call a larger audience to action. There is a deeper commitment made when you look someone in the eye and say I am here and ready to work. Your presence is powerful. Show up and get to work.
Tell me about one of those readings. What was the atmosphere like? What stands out in comparison to other readings you’d participated in or organized in the past?
I organized two BPSO readings in Austin, TX. The first one in January was during a winter weather advisory warning. The temperature had quickly fallen to freezing and the roads were slick with ice. I almost canceled the event concerned for the safety of everyone attending. By the time the reading was to start, the weather was still miserable but not as dangerous as predicted. I still wasn’t sure what to expect. The space donated by Salvage Vanguard Theatre overflowed into the lobby. Experienced poets and attendees who’d never read before signed up to share a poem in protest against police violence. An older white man came to the mic and said, “I’m not a poet, but I’m here for my two black sons. I thought I wouldn’t have to talk about this until they got older, but the police are killing boys in the park.” Then he read a poem from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin, one of the books I’d brought. Representatives from The People’s Taskforce in Austin came out and brought a petition for people to sign in support of the work they’re doing to bring justice in the case of Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man who was murdered by an Austin police officer on July 26, 2013. I had not heard of the case until they showed up and shared information. The second BPSO reading in Austin took place May 15, 2015 at Resistencia Bookstore. Again, the space was overflowing with attendees. Because The People’s Taskforce attended the previous reading, I was put in contact with LaKiza Fowler, sister of Larry Jackson and activist with TPT. She attended the reading and spoke about her brother, the case, and the work of TPT on an art and activism panel that followed along with myself for BPSO, Florinda Bryant for Creative Action, and Lilia Rosas for Resistencia and Red Salmon Arts. These were not just readings. These were live poetic protests where people organized and united to push back against police violence. The poetry was a vehicle to not only touch the hearts and minds of others; it was the catalyst for community organizing and civic engagement.
How does the spirit of protesting the conditions of racism and police brutality interact with celebrating and amplifying the voices of black poets?
The attacks against black people outnumber all other people. As black poets, the act of raising our voices in protest is an act of survival and demonstration. Our words testify that what Lucille Clifton wrote remains true: “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” As a people, they are coming for us, they have murdered our people, but we continue and remain despite a system that would kill us all. We will not cower behind closed doors. We have voices and we will raise them from the page into the streets and bring them to the halls of congress. Bringing forth poetry by black poets, be it original work or the work of others shared by allies, we honor the work of our elders and ancestors who first took to verse as an act of resistance. Poems by Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Cornelius Eady, Ross Gay, Patricia Smith, and others show the arc of a collective black voice that refuses to be silenced.
Phase 3 is about connecting the videos of black poets reading their work to a letter writing campaign that urges elected officials to address police violence. What has the response to this been, both from poets and from politicians?
Beginning January 1, 2015, I committed to writing a letter a day to local, state, and federal government officials. Attaching a poem to each letter directly weaves art and activism with civic engagement. Each letter details recommendations that came out of a meeting Ferguson activists held with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Attorney General Eric Holder. The recommendations included demilitarizing the police, establishing community review boards, and investing in programs that provide alternatives to incarceration. The letter and complete list can be found here. The attached poems show a different voice evoking the power of poetry to speak to the humanity of the men and women we’ve elected to office. How can you watch Rachel Eliza Griffith’s video of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Incident” and not feel the physical and psychological pain of police violence? How can you hear the words of Audre Lorde’s poem “Power” reverberate through many voices and not recognize the old melody of a corrupt system being remixed for today?
The response to the campaign has been interesting. I’ve received a letter from each elected official I’ve contacted, except for the Attorney General (both Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch). Each letter has been carefully worded to avoid any commitment to the action called for. However, their responses are information for the greater population to take note of when we are bombarded with the 2016 campaign season. The Black Lives Matter movement and restructuring the justice system should be key election issues. Their responses, or lack of, help citizens make decisions before casting their votes. As for poets, we don’t have a system for tracking the number of letters written, but several have pledged to write one if not several letters to their elected officials. At the last BPSO reading in Austin, postcards addressed to The White House were passed out to simplify the process. Majority of attendees signed and returned their card to mail onsite. Once people see how easy it is to participate, they’ve jumped at the chance to join us. Sharing information is sharing power. Sometimes you just need to see the work in action to give yourself permission to contribute and step forward.
Have you encountered any resistance to the idea of poetry as political? How have you responded to that resistance?
Some poets I contacted directly to participate have declined stating the campaign was too political. I understand that each individual has the right to decide to participate or not and I respect that. However, my personal feeling is that if I am doing my work as a poet, my whole self is complicit in creating art. If my art is not actively working to speak truths and express the realities of the human experience, I have to question who or what is the work in service to? The poet Willie Perdomo recently posed this question at a gathering of black poets, “Is your work in service to white supremacy?” I would think it is if your work directs the reader away from the atrocity of police violence and you remain silent when called to action. There are many parts to play when it comes to countering oppression. As poets, writing the poem is the first step, but what are you going to do with that work in the world? If using my poetic resources to fight for the survival and justice of black people is political, so be it. I like to think it’s just doing what’s right. “Your silence will not protect you.” – Audre Lorde
How does working as an Organizer of BPSO grow out of and fit into the context of your work as a poet?
As a poet who is constantly examining my own human experience, the work I do for BPSO is a continuation of that process. If I have tasked myself to not look away from the ugly truth on the page, how can I physically turn away from the grotesque reality of police violence? My poetry seeks the language to reflect the many lenses focusing and obscuring the images of this reality. I thrive in community and the people who’ve come together through BPSO have strengthened my circle in word and action. Because I’m doing this work, I can write without guilt about all of the images and ideas that arise in my work. I can write without the guilt of feeling I might be distracting myself from painful work of taking risks and being vulnerable to the conditions of our time. I am doing the work of BPSO for survival so that I might live and thrive in the world as a poet. I am doing the work so that we as artists and citizens can use our collective talents to improve the system for all.
Seven months in, what has surprised you the most about your work with BPSO? What have been the most memorable moments of the campaign?
It has been amazing to see how far-reaching the campaign has been. When we received interest from groups in the UK wanting to host readings and forums, I was thrilled to see BPSO inspiring others to speak out against police violence in other countries. The range of participants has been extraordinary. Poets, allies, adults, and children from diverse ethnic groups have raised their voices to exclaim Black Lives Matter.
The solidarity and sharing of resources without financial gain or investment has also been inspiring. It has helped us create a model that steps away from the traditional trappings of a monetary system. From people writing articles and conducting interviews to organizations donating space and the work of amazing volunteers, the cost to run an international campaign like BPSO has been minimal if any expense at all. This is a testament to the will of the people being enough to overcome obstacles to be heard.
What’s next for BPSO and for you?
We continue to speak out. I continue to write poems that challenge me to not look away.
My name is Amanda Johnston.
I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people.
I have a right to be angry.
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