Last night, Barnard Student Life hosted SisterSpit, an event that honored Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by bringing together renowned slam poets and Barnard and Columbia student poets to celebrate the power of spoken word. We sent Bwogger Betsy Ladyzhets to cover the event, and she managed to pull herself out of a state of complete awe for long enough to write about it.
Last week, a variety of events took place in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and his contribution to the civil rights movement. Schools had the day off, towns put together local celebrations, and some cities saw demonstrations from groups such as Black Lives Matter. At Barnard, Student Life organized SisterSpit.
SisterSpit was described as a “night of storytelling and poetry.” The event, which took place last night in the James Room, consisted of a series of performances by female poets of color, two of whom were featured performers and the other seven of whom were Barnard and Columbia students. The James Room fits two hundred, and every seat in the room was full–and I don’t think the audience was there just for the free coffee and pastries, either.
The two students who organized (and MC’d) the event, Deja Bryant and Ficara McDoom (both BC ’18), eschewed the deliverance of an extended introduction detailing the history of MLK Day. Instead, they simply let the poets speak for themselves. And speak, those poets did.
The featured performers, each of whom took the stage for fifteen minutes, were both incredibly memorable. Crystal Valentine, an NYU undergrad and the 2015 NYC Youth Poet Laureate, was the first poet of the night. She started her set with the words, “Some of my friends say I write too many black poems.” Her poems, with titles such as “Questions for Fox News Regarding the Race Card” and “Crystal Gets Taken In for Interrogation after Assassinating Donald Trump” posed different questions in different ways, and were all uniquely powerful in their own rights. In the final poem of her set, Crystal described an extended analogy about female power and beauty that had the audience shouting in amazement, with lines such as: “I am an ocean, he is a desert … God created oceans on the third day and man on the sixth. I was worthy before God even made you.”
The second featured poet was Ashley August, an author, actress, spoken word artist, and the 2013 NYC Youth Poet Laureate. Like Crystal, she made a compelling water-related analogy in one of her poems: “My pussy be hurricane season.” Her poems spoke to the challenges black women face, from the disparity in reactions to the disappearance of a black versus a white woman, to the racist comments she faced as the sole black girl on a school sports team. In between poems, Ashley was vibrant and charming, talking about making friends and joking that she isn’t really sure if her mother “is proud or not.” When she performed, however, her entire personality changed and the audience listened in awe–even when she stepped away from the microphone and projected using only her voice.
Although the featured poets were unbelievable (and many an audience member crowded them after the performance to buy their books), the real stars of the night were the students who spoke after them. These students had the bravery to stand up in front of a huge crowd of their peers and read poems that were often about very uncomfortable and personal subjects. And yet the experiences they spoke about only seemed to lend them beautiful words and the strength to speak them in a way that forced people to sit up and listen.
I wish I could write extensive paragraphs about each of the student poets, but unfortunately, a. this post is getting pretty long already and b. I was so awestruck by the poets that I only managed to jot down a couple of lines during each performance. So, instead, I’m simply going to list their names and transcribe their words. (I apologize in advance to the poets themselves if I misquote anything.)
- Gabrielle Smith, BC ’16 read three short poems that connected religion, personal experience, and activism. She called out the culture of police brutality with lines such as, “You said you’d be back in a flash and came back in your own casket, now ain’t that black magic.”
- Hebah Khan, BC ’17 read two poems connected to religion, family, and personal strength, with lines such as, “White cannot be taken from me just because it is not in my skin,” and “It is in my blood to be malleable, like gold.”
- Chloe “Kidd” Matthews, CC ’18 read two poems, the first about Ancestry.com and the second about cigarettes (but both really about–well, I’m sure you can guess.) Notable lines included: “Make sure the world knows we were whole before an ocean parted us,” and “God don’t send angels like these, all organized and nicotine-filled.”
- Amani Garvin, CC ’19 read two short poems with messages speaking to identity and community, with notable lines like, “We are meant to forget our own names,” and “Sister, hold your hand up to mine–we are the gradient of the sunset even if they just see dark.”
- Natachi Mez, CC ’19 read poems with rhythm. She engaged the audience in call-and-response to give one of her poems a repeating chorus, and later accompanied herself on the drum. Notable lines included: “Our futures, our fuses are short but they’re resilient,” and “Welcome home, my brothers and sisters, because home is where your soul’s at.”
- Ficara McDoom, BC ’18 read two poems that reminded black women of their power and beauty. She spoke with poise and certainty lines such as, “You are black and woman and whole and your beauty can be heard from every pore…The world did not save seats for black women because we deserve thrones.”
- Joya Ahmad, GS ’17 read poetry that spoke to her audience so much, she had to break in the middle several times to let us finish applauding. Her two poems, called “On Loving a White Man” and “An Open Letter to Young Girls with Scars,” were full of powerful truths, and were spoken so confidently, she barely needed a microphone. I think it will be impossible to forget the way she said, “Somebody told me to go back to where I came from and I said, You first.”
Although most of the poets performed what could be considered “black poems,” or “women of color poems” or “female poems,” no two poets (or poems) were alike. After all, what do those labels really mean, anyway? They all had different ways of approaching the social pressures that affected them, from angrily asking questions to looking to religion for answers. They used different words, different analogies, and different experiences. A strong undercurrent ran through all the poems I heard last night: an undercurrent of women reminding each other that no matter what happens, no matter what hardships they must endure, they have the strength to keep going.
And this didn’t just come from the performers, either. The audience at last night’s event cheered wildly for every poet, supported every sentence that was spoken on stage. They made this event a space where women of color could ask dangerous, real questions, and speak their minds without having to fear for their safety afterwards. All of the women in attendance helped each other hold their hold their heads up higher and speak a little louder.
The last line of Joya’s second poem was, “Little brown girl, little miracle, you are my favorite revolution.” I think Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud that this event, this celebration of the power of spoken word, was held in his honor–because it reminded every person there that words and women have the power to start revolutions.
Photo via official event Facebook page