Guest Column: Wake-Up America! Part I, by Dr. Kim McMillon, Professor & Author

Wake Up America: The Poets

Brief Biographies

 Michelle Allison is a grandmother of five children, and great-grandmother of one child. Michelle Allison is a long-time Merced resident.  As a singer/songwriter, she released a full CD in 2005 and a single, “Still”, in 2007.  One of her goals for 2020 is to release a CD of Jazz Standards.

Karla Brundage is a Bay Area based poet, activist, and educator with a passion for social justice. Karla is a board member of the Before Columbus Foundation, which provides recognition and a wider audience for the wealth of cultural and ethnic diversity that constitutes American writing. Her poetry book, Swallowing Watermelons, was published by Ishmael Reed Publishing Company in 2006. Her poetry, short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and can be found in Hip Mama, Literary Kitchen, Lotus Press, Bamboo Ridge Press, Vibe and Konch Literary Magazine. She holds an MA in Education from San Francisco State University and an MFA from Mills College.

Lucinda J. Clark is the Founder of P.R.A. Publishing and the Poetry Matters Project Ltd. She has written and published a four-part poetry series titled View From the Middle of the Road with various emerging writers from many areas of the arts. She is currently a contributor to the Accentuated Reading Project. Her mission is to build community connections through collaborations based on literary arts.

Paul Corman-Roberts full length collection of poems “Bone Moon Palace” is forthcoming from Nomadic Press in the Fall of 2020. He is an original co-founder of Oakland’s Beast Crawl Literary Festival which is slated to make its return in 2020.

Pushcart-nominated poet Rich Ferguson has shared the stage with Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, Moby, and other esteemed poets and musicians. He is a featured performer in the film, What About Me? featuring Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, k.d. lang, and others. His poetry and award-winning spoken-word music videos have been widely anthologized, and he was a winner in Opium Magazine’s Literary Death Match, LA. His poetry collection, 8th & Agony, is out on Punk Hostage Press, and his debut novel, New Jersey Me, has been released by Rare Bird Books. His newest poetry collection, Everything is Radiant Between the Hates, will be published in the Fall of 2020 by Moon Tide Press.

Rafael Jesús González taught Creative Writing & Literature, Laney College, Oakland where he founded the Mexican & Latin American Studies Dept., was Poet in residence at Oakland Museum of California and Oakland Public Library 1996. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English for his writing in 2003; in 2013 by Berkeley with a Lifetime Achievement; in 2017 named Berkeley’s first Poet Laureate. http://rjgonzalez.blogspot.com/

Sonia Gutiérrez is a poet professor. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Huizache, AlternaCtive PublicaCtions, and La Jornada Semanal, among other publications. She is the author of Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña (Olmeca Press, 2013) and co-editor of The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016). Her unpublished manuscripts Legacy / Herencia, a bilingual poetry collection, and Dreaming with Mariposas, a novel, are seeking publication. Presently, she is working on her poetry collection, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, and moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding.

Teresa Jade LeYung, American naturalized citizen of Chinese ancestry, is a manuscript-theme consultant; author of LOVE MADE OF HEART (archived at the San Francisco History Center), BUILD YOUR WRITER’S PLATFORM & FANBASE IN 22 DAYS, and TALKING TO MY DEAD MOM monologues; advocate for public libraries and public schools. http://lovemadeofheart.com/blog/

Zigi Lowenberg is a performance poet and co-leader of the jazzpoetry ensemble UpSurge! which has produced two CDs, All Hands on Deck, and Chromatology. Her acting and performance credits include The Lysistrata Project, Stein-Toklas Project, John Brown’s Truth, Italian Women’s Stories: From the Resistance, VEIL: Two Sisters, and Matryoshka…a short play in 10 nesting dolls. A member of the National Writers Union and Radical Poets Collective her poetry is published in rabbit and rose, Writers Resist, Snapdragon, Dissident Voice, and Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology. Her essay, “Support the Edge!” appears in the book Creative Lives.

devorah major, the 3rd Poet Laureate of San Francisco, is a California-born “granddaughter of immigrants, documented and undocumented who works as a writer, editor, writing coach, spoken word performer, recording artist, and poetry professor.” The Poet-in-Residence of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, major has toured internationally in places such as Northern and Southern Italy, Bosnia, Jamaica, Venezuela, Belgium, England and Wales, and throughout the United States both performing her poetry and serving on panels speaking on African-American poetry, Beat Poetry, and poetry of resistance. In 2015, major premiered her play, Classic Black: Voices of 19th Century African-Americans in San Francisco at the S.F. International Arts Festival.

Called an Activist for Holism by Jungian Ph. D Professor, later called a, D’jeli Musa aka Woman of Truths by South African professor at Cal State Long Beach, has also been called a Word Magician by Tanzanian writer, professor, thespian, Ngugi wa Thiango. Tureeda Mikell brings Storytelling Magic alive via the art of Story Medicine.’

Peggy Morrison is a California writer who grew up in Long Beach, then raised her daughter, Keema, in Watsonville while working as a bilingual teacher. She now lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her poetry has been published in Cloud Woman Quarterly, riverbabble, Poecology, Let the World Wonder, Naked Bulb Anthology, Day Without Art,  DoorKnobs & BodyPaint. She is author of one book of poetry: Mom Says (2020)  Along with writing, Peggy loves reading, teaching, gardening, music, and backpacking.

Safi wa Nairobi has been sharing the visual voice as a means of creative expression over two decades. Safi’s photographs and film represent documentary storytelling and have been exhibited in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. Safi wa Nairobi earned the B.S. in Political Economy of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, and an M.A. in Media Studies (video) at New College of California. Safi has 20 plus years’ experience in the visual arts and more than 10 years producing radio.

Ayodele Nzinga is the creative driving force of The Lower Bottom Playaz, Oakland’s premiere North American African Theater Company.  She was the founding director of The Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater, which was built to facilitate Nzinga’s desire to use theater as a form of engagement for the community of West Oakland. Multifaceted Nzinga, acts, directs, writes, lectures, conducts workshops, teaches acting and writing privately, and performs as a featured spoken word artist in Northern CA.

Kim Shuck, the current Poet Laureate of San Francisco, is widely published in journals, anthologies and a couple of solo books. She enjoys volunteering in SFUSD elementary school classrooms to share her loves of origami, poetry and basket making… in other words, math of various kinds. In 2019 Shuck was awarded an inaugural National Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, and a PEN Oakland Censorship Award.

NYC poet Raymond Nat Turner is Artistic Director of the stalwart JazzPoetry Ensemble UpSurge! He has appeared at numerous festivals and venues including the Monterey Jazz Festival and Panafest in Ghana West Africa. He currently is Poet-in-Residence at Black Agenda Report. Turner has opened for such luminaries as James Baldwin, People’s Advocate Cynthia McKinney, radical sportswriter Dave Zirin and CA Congresswoman Barbara Lee following her lone vote against going to war. http://www.upsurgejazz.com for more on Turner.

Genny Lim is a native San Francisco SF Jazz Poet Laureate emeritus, playwright and performer. She is co-author of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, winner of the American Book Award and five poetry collections. Her award-winning play, Paper Angels, was the first Asian American play to be featured on PBS’s American Playhouse in 1985. She has collaborated in poetry and music collaborations with past jazz masters, such as Max Roach and Herbie Lewis, and local artists that include, Jon Jang, Francis Wong and Anthony Brown.
José Héctor Cadena is a poet, scholar, and collage artist, who grew up alonthe San Ysidro/Tijuana borderlands. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at The University of Kansas. His work has appeared in Raices y Mas: An Anthology of Young Border Voices, Cipactli, Transfer Magazine, Pacific Review, La Bloga, Red Light Lit, and San Diego Poetry Annual.

 

THE CONVERSATION

Poets often use words to translate what so many are feeling.  The heart is open to allow space for healing, and a space for speaking truth to power, for voicing the hurt, pain, joy, and love felt by the masses.  Some may see it as a form of communication with the divine so that we may heal.

I was interviewed by a French radio show recently where the murder of George Floyd was discussed.  I was asked whether I believe the United States is on the brink of civil war due to so many in our country finally speaking out against racism and the frustration and violence we have seen on the streets.  The violence perpetrated upon Black bodies by our law enforcement system can no longer stand. I was so shocked by the question that I cannot say if I stated that I do not believe we are on the brink of civil war. However, we are on the brink of healing our past, our 400-year wound, if we allow ourselves to have essential dialogues on race and injustice.  Racism has no place in any society, particularly one that states in its Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and yet, he owned slaves and stated in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia that “…blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” If I owned slaves, I, too, would find every way possible to justify such a crime against humanity. No man can own another and be free. 

The truth is, “all men are created equal.” The citizens of the world are waking up to the fact that we can no longer exist on a planet where the misuse and abuse of Black bodies, particularly Black men, can continue. All racism is a stain against humanity, and the justification of it in any manner is a stain upon the very soul of man. As poets, we have gathered in a type of roundtable discussion to speak our truths about racism, healing, and our next steps as citizens of the world.  

We hope that this Sunday, June 21, from 2 pm – 4:30 pm (PST) via Zoom and Facebook Live, you will join us to listen to poetry meant to uplift and open the door to healing a racist world through the power of words.  Wake-Up America!  Wake-Up World!

Dr. Kim McMillon (Host), Wake-Up America!

The Poets: 

  1. Why do you believe the issue of racism is important?

Peggy Morrison: Racism imprisons us and poisons our lives. Structural racism deprives people of color of equitable freedom, health and prosperity they justly merit. We must continually try to transform our society to a place in which we, all of us, would have the joy of experiencing authentic communication and sharing and respectful nurturing of the life and growth of all of our diverse human family.

Michelle Allison:  The issue of racism is what separates us and prevents America from ever being great for all. Racism at its core is not about unity or justice but annihilation, separation, and deprivation of people of color. If left unaddressed it will lead to the ultimate destruction of a society.

Rafael Jesús GonzálezAny issue that causes suffering and is inherently unjust is of the utmost importance.

Karla Brundage: Racism is the fundamental ism the cause of most wars and human strife, a divisive tool to divide the dispossessed and to take unfair advantage and to facilitate greed. For the white race to hold on to its illusion of supremacy, racist systems work towards economic control.  Toni Morrison speaks of racism as a “construct that serves a social function, which benefits and provides serviceability” to those who hold power, white people. Racism is the use of the imagination for evil by those who have the most privilege. We imagine that the mineral richest continent is the poorest, the indigenous peoples cannot steward their own land. We imagine that the concept of money is supreme and that stocks are more significant than gold, water and air. This magical thinking is based in the desire for power and control and racism is the ultimate colonial and imperialist weapon.  Without racism, white people are at risk of losing their culture and identity; their unadulterated notion of race purity is at risk. As Black people we have internalized the belief of superior and inferior, and become passive to the violence perpetrated on our bodies and spirits. In order to restore balance and to reclaim our humanity as Black people this issue of racism and the racist structures that uphold this belief, must be dismantled.

Paul Corman Roberts:  It’s the worst aspect of tribalism. Unsustainable for a world in which we have pretense to be a civilization. Call me crazy, I’d like to live in a civilization where my daughter can be understood, respected and can have and provide trust in a diversity of communities.

Ayodele Nzinga:  The lie of race robs us collectively of our birthright as human beings. We are a species not a collection of races. The advent of capitalism as a socio-political-economic system and the invention of race to justify the commodification of people to the benefit of another people creates and perpetrates a  chasm in the house human dividing it against itself. What humans allow to happen to Black people makes it possible for this thing to happen to anyone. White hubris and the systems it fuels are a threat to humanity and Black folk are the canaries in the coal mine, literally. Racism is fueled by white hubris, ensures/facilitates white supremacy, and is complicit in maintaining a cancerous system that creates the illusion of scarcity, fueling further division amongst those affected by the ill effects. 

Zigi Lowenberg: Racism, racist oppression is rooted deep in the infrastructure, the history and present, all the working and failing systems, the culture of what we know as our country. Racism is the particulate matter in the air we breathe—and in the glaringly fluorescent air when one can’t breathe …“None of us is free, until we all are free,” and anything else is a delusion. 

Rich Ferguson:  Racism is as old as America’s colonial era. It has set up dividing lines regarding matters of privilege, including voting rights, education, where one can and can’t sit on a bus. Racism is that vile and ugly suit America adopted in its early days but has never seemed to grow out of. Sure, the way our country wears this suit of racism has changed over time—sometimes it’s quite overt in its hateful fashion statement; other times, it’s a bit more understated. Thankfully, technology has allowed citizens to capture moments of racism and brutality as they occur in real-time, as with the Rodney King beating and most currently the murder of George Floyd, to name a couple. I would like to believe that, one day, this suit of racism will be thrown in the trash heap or refashioned into a more loving and peaceful garment, but I don’t believe that will happen in my lifetime. This makes the issue of racism all the more important; it is a work in progress, a suit that can hopefully one day be pulled apart, one ugly thread at a time.

Sonia Gutiérrez:  To be a Black man in America is equal to being an open target. This country time and time again continues to commit violent acts against Black bodies, and it is unbearable to witness the unjust treatment of Black men, walking on boobytraps and having to think about how they are perceived by white people who see Black bodies as dangerous and a threat to the white supremacy of white “nice” people. We have witnessed through social media, the Guardians of White Supremacy—white women—abusing their white privilege and harassing Black men. The most overtly racist white woman performing her white power/privilege is Amy Cooper at Central Park.

Kim Shuck:  I have emotional feelings about this, but my first objection is that technically my parents’ marriage was illegal in some states when I was born, and I have memories from before it eventually was made legal. So many reasons from minor to major. It’s going to sound trivial, but it offends me. I am offended that we lie about it as a country. This is not what I was taught in school, but it was what I saw. And it puts an offensive barrier between me and people I love. And all of the reasons, it kills people, it prevents people from doing the work that they are here to do, it robs everyone.

devorah major:  In the end we all rise or fall together. If the slaver is chained to the enslaved, both are chained.  It is about humanity. Because if one cannot see our common humanity one cannot be truly human. Because we have many problems to solve on our planet and we need all of us to do it. If we can end racism, we have a bigger work force and more energy to see to the planet’s health, the end of militarization, the evolution beyond capitalism and work that is simply another form of slavery. We have more brilliant souls who are free to rise and help create a better planet for all.

Genny Lim: Race is the most important issue of our time. Why do I say that? Because nothing that happens on this planet today isn’t related in some shape or degree to race. Race determines who gets to the head of line and who stays behind. Race determines who makes the rules and who follows them. Race determines which nations get invaded and which do not, which counties get clean water and air and which do not. Race determines who votes and whose votes are suppressed, which citizens are victimized by the police and justice system and which are not and so on down the line. Being that all resources on this planet are growing scarcer due to Climate Change and environment devastation, the competition for those shrinking resources are driving a race for monopolization of those precious resources as well as the supply chains controlling them. Last but not least, race determines which ethnic group gets the outrageous distinction of having a virus named after it– namely, the Chinese Virus, which has seen a surge of hate crimes against Asians Americans, during the course of the pandemic.

The revolution, and indeed it is a revolution, that we are experiencing today, ignited by George Floyd’s unjudicial murder by US police, is the Fire Down Below that Baldwin spoke about. It is the pent-up Black and Brown rage of suppressed anger and frustration that cannot continue without the outlet of release. 

The pandemic has turned our attention to our own individual fear and suffering and the failure of leadership to effectively unify the country as one people to address its uncontrolled spread. The fear is only compounded by the anguish and desperation already festering on the streets. The two diseases, COVID-19 and Racism, has peeled our eyes to the reality that the virus is attacking the Black and Brown communities at alarmingly much higher rates than for all other racial groups. It has exposed the hidden truth that race ultimately determines who lives and who dies. And, the most sinister reality underlying this truth, who gets to play God?

  1. Do you believe the individual can make a difference in a racist society?

Michelle Allison:  Yes, I believe an individual can make a difference in a racist society. Right now we have people, White people, who have been “Woke,” and they will be the ones to make the difference as their eyes now see what their ears have been hearing about race and racism. 

Kim Shuck: I have to believe that we can. Even if it’s small. Look, my work is assembling words and a word isn’t that big, but you put them together and start to get something and then there are other people out there wording. We get somewhere.

Raymond Nat Turner:  Yes, individuals have always made a difference.  My Mom, Caffie Greene, was a legendary L.A.  activist, organizer and community builder. She was one of the founders of the Charles Drew Postgraduate Medical School and MLK, Jr General Hospital. As well, she spearheaded a struggle to bring public transportation to South Los Angeles in addition to opening the first integrated beauty shop in L.A. And those are just a few highlights from a lifetime of organizing and activism. She also worked day to day responding to individuals’ needs

and problems…

 Lucinda J. Clark:  Individuals are making a difference every day. There are many people of color who are doing things in society. It just is not given the attention that the negative things are.

Sonia Gutiérrez:  One can make a difference, by being an upstander and drawing attention to racist and colorist behavior. This means calling a radio station if the host says something racist; this means speaking up when we witness someone being micro aggressed publicly. We make a difference when we look out for Black men in public spaces. I make a difference in the classroom when I select literature that shares the lived experience of Black people, by challenging the racist master narrative that has infected the American psyche.

Zigi Lowenberg:  I am grateful to have grown up in a family with some level of awareness, a few activists as elders, for civil rights, for left causes, and still I am uncovering my blind spots every day. It is the most rigorous and worthy work we can be doing. If not for the wider world, then for my two grandsons, I will keep trying. I’ve had white friends who are asking me questions or checking in about this more now than ever before, and I have been in close proximity to my beloved African-American family and extended community for over 30 years. The question on the table is can white people sustain this inquiry, dig in and find work and study and actions to do on the daily? Our task is to interrupt racism in every sphere of our lives.

Rafael Jesus Gonzalez: Society is composed of individuals and an individual’s thoughts manifested in actions have an effect on his or her society racist or not.

Peggy Morrison:  Yes, I believe that an individual can make a difference in many ways. Inside of each individual heart burns the light of love. Each of us every minute of every day can endeavor to perceive and interact with respect towards others. Each of us can dedicate our work life, our energy, knowledge and talents to creating equity and justice. Each of us can endeavor to open our hearts and minds to the sacredness of our shared humanity. Each of us can endeavor to join in collective movements for social justice.

Whole Cloth

All humanity shares a planet being devastated by greed

As in the dystopian novels, small numbers of us

mostly white

are protected from suffering the consequences of our actions

while those who are black and brown carry painful burdens

But no one is safe from the ravages of racism

Knowledge is poisoned

twisted because it is not whole

only by diving deep into the bottomless well of human courage

into the sacred human heart of ancestral wisdoms

can we look into each other’s faces and find the

puzzle pieces to make the warp

whose weft we’ll draw with threads of diverse imagination

to weave the whole cloth

of a more equitable and generous society

devorah major:  One drop of rain does not create a flood, but millions of drops of rain reshape the land. Yes, individuals make a difference, we need lots of individuals.

Karla Brundage:  I believe that all individuals make a difference. The death of George Floyd proves this.  I also believe that on a smaller scale all individual acts create a ripple effect which can make circles of difference. As Huey Newton said, “I expected to die. At no time before the trial did I expect to escape with my life. Yet being executed in the gas chamber did not necessarily mean defeat. It could be one more step to bring the community to a higher level of consciousness.” While it appeared that killing after killing did not seem to matter, there became a tipping point, a point in which human conscience has no choice but to elevate or to sink down into the muck. This is how all the deaths lead up to this tragic murder of George Floyd.  We also have individuals that make a difference for evil, such as Derek Chauvin, and they must be stopped.

Rich Ferguson:  I genuinely believe individuals can make a difference in a racist society. This has been witnessed countless times with such brave souls such as Gandhi, MLK, Malala, and Rosa Parks. It is saddening to realize that extreme bodily injury (as with Malala), and death (as with Gandhi and MLK) are often associated with individuals striving to make a difference in a racist society. It is heartbreaking that it takes the death of folks like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin to send protesters into the streets, proclaiming enough is enough. Ultimately, we individuals of peaceful spirit can make a difference in a racist society—but it takes the courage to protest, to speak up when you witness injustice, and to stand firmly in the face of evil, a warrior for love and justice.

Paul Corman Roberts:  If that one individual is able to help even just a few others become aware and compassionate, then yes. 

Safi wa Nairobi:  To disagree would be conceding that one voice is unimpactful. Unimportant. Self-defeatist. On a larger scale, though, there is power in numbers, so making a difference in a racist society involves the unification of individuals working collectively to resist—and eradicate ongoing racism.

José Héctor Cadena: I believe we can make more than a difference if we collaborate against racism and systemic racism in this world. Although showing up to protests and donating funds to organizations dedicated to propell the movement forward is crucial, we must remember to be constantly open to learning. Individually, people can begin by practicing self-reflexivity. Individually, people can also stop thinking of themselves individually and be more open to learning with others. Indeed to create solidarity in a movement, we must be able to understand the broader patterns and connections that link us all to this very moment. We can make significant strides against white supremacy and anti-blackness by seeking the history ourselves in collectives. Perhaps reading a history book can be intimidating by yourself, but it is less intimidating if you have others along for the ride. Whether you start a social-distancing book club meet-up before the protest, or a community book-conversation in cyberspace, we can make more than a difference if we commit to learn what has been hidden (history), unlearn the toxic logics of oppression, and work together to imagine a world free of the very systems that oppress BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. I offer these texts that have helped me become more open to learning, unlearning, and working with others. 

1)      Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison. 

2)      Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis. 

3)      An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz.

4)      Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge.

5)      Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique by Roderick Ferguson.

6)      Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

7)      The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten.

8)      Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work  by Edwidge Danticat

  1. Have you ever been confronted with racism and how did you handle it?

Tureeda Mikell: Yes. Blatant awakening to racism began from the time my daughter entered elementary school. Did not end until she finished high school. Many questions were asked of teachers, counselors, principals, and at school board meetings. I received no answers. We were affected by this cruel indifference, spiritually and viscerally. So traumatized, she can’t remember. In pre-med classes of bacteriology and chemistry, I developed PTSD until I wrote details of occurrences and was blind-sided with an interview question regarding my most blatant experience with racism. I cried and began shaking; didn’t know I had held pain that long, since the 70s! It would be the second incident of racism I held unknowingly until questioned.

Michelle Allison:  Racial oppression is hard to understand if you are White, and never around a person of color to see it upfront.   

Safi wa Nairobi:  Virtually every day we are confronted with racism: via film and television; print media and radio; economically (including wages, salaries, food prices); and, unfortunately, the police and judicial system. As a person with a disability, I was heading from San Francisco to UC Berkeley via BART, on my way to a mid-term review session. I was using a government issued transit ID, qualifying me to use discounted (red) BART tickets. While exiting the Berkeley BART station, a BART police officer yelled to me that he needed to see my ID. Continuing to walk toward the escalator, I held up my ID. The officer said he could not see it, so I held up the ID again, stepping onto the escalator. Seemingly in a rage, the officer (by then on the escalator with me and a host of others), grabbed and began twisting my arm.  Officers must have a certain visual acuity, so I knew that this man, less than one foot away from me, could see my ID. He snatched it from my hand, telling me there had been problems with people replacing the photograph on the ID’s with their own. I asked him if my card appeared to have been tampered with. He said no. At the top of the escalator, near the brink wall, I requested the return of my ID. The officer said, “this card is being confiscated”. I yelled for a witness and asked the officer why he was keeping my ID; he told me it was because I had made him come up the escalator and that he needed to make a report. He added that I could get a receipt if I returned downstairs with him to his office. The woman who had responded to my appeal for a witness was still standing nearby. I asked her if she minded. I was not going back downstairs with him alone, see. So, the three of us proceeded back into the Berkeley BART station. The officer approached a corridor at the end of the station and asked us to wait while he went into his “office” to make the report. Well, perhaps five minutes or so later, he returned from the “office” and handed me a business card. On the front of the card was the BART information, including telephone number. On the back was my name (Safi wa Nairobi); D.O.B. (with my birthday); and BFM. I asked what that meant, to which he replied: “Black Female”. Not only was this officer racist, he had control and power issues. Needless to say, I missed the midterm review session, but still did well on the exam and in the course. Of the large number of students exiting that BART station, only one woman—an African American woman—heeded my call for a witness. To her, I am forever grateful. Also, from that day hence, anytime I witnessed BART police questioning Black and Brown men/women, or San Francisco/Oakland police detaining someone, I stopped and stood—watching. Yes, one person can make a difference in a racist society, including when officers know they are being watched (in many instances).

Karla Brundage:  Too many times to list. Asking a Black person to list all the “1000 tiny cuts,” is like asking me to count all the hairs on my head.  I am a fighter.  As a woman of many heritages, African, colonial white, indigenous, I have mostly fought racism in my own family. My own father holds racist beliefs against my mother.  As a light skinned woman, I have not held the same space as some of my darker skinned sisters.   While this is not a place to bring up colorism, I feel this should not be ignored. How do I walk in this world? I walk with anger. I fight racism in my poetry and hope to find equality not only in skin tone but in this way we respect and love each other as humans. Even without love, there is a fundamental respect that is necessary for harmony.  Trevor Noah put it well in a recent post when he spoke of how judges should see the same humanity in Black people as they do in white people and yet they do not. This is how our country has mass incarceration. This is how police killings continue to happen. Each time I was denied my humanity due to my skin color, I encountered racism.  Each day I wake up and go back into this world and try to have compassion. This is how I fight.

Rafael Jesus Gonzalez:  The only time that I recall being confronted with overt racism was by the mother of one of my classmates in grade school. I was supported by her daughter and my friends and was able to shrug it off without giving it much importance.

Teresa Jade LeYung:  I am a sixty-something-year-old female American naturalized citizen, of Chinese ancestry, who has been sleeping a lot since March 16, 2020 (hours before our county was to adhere to COVID-19 ‘Shelter-In-Place’ order) when I experienced racial harassment at the local supermarket.  What happened? A fifty-something-year-old Caucasian man pushed his shopping cart into the right side of my body, and then walked away with his head held high.  When I told friends, they gave support through resources… including www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/stop-aapi-hate/  to report the incident, and, www.ihollaback.org  to sign-up for Bystander Intervention Training to STOP anti-Asian/American and Xenophobic Harassment.  I kept sleeping. Until I followed through with both resources. Gaining knowledge and skills woke up my brain.  “I didn’t know that I had to stay awake. While heroes from all walks of life were helping communities cope with daily needs during this pandemic, others continued to commit racial injustices. Details of the murders of three Americans – Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – woke up people from all parts of the world.

Raymond Nat Turner:  I experience racism almost daily…

Paul Corman Roberts: I have had to confront it in myself. As a person born into and nurtured by privilege, I could not have had a better education than the one I received living in Oakland for over twenty years. The Town will always have my heart and compassion. To answer the question in short, I had to learn to own my own bullshit and conditioning, and to learn that doing so and holding space, learn about compassion and community leadership when it is within my sphere of influence. I try to communicate with others sincerely and honestly- sharing my perspective and experience and trying to respect, understand and empathize with theirs.

Peggy Morrison:  I am confronted with racism every day because I live in a racist society. As an individual white woman, I try to unlearn racism. I try to learn and keep learning how to step back from privileges- from the center of attention- and learn from diverse people; I try to learn to listen rather than doing all the talking and to lift up diverse voices and leadership when it is within my sphere of influence. I try to communicate with others sincerely and honestly- sharing my perspective and experience and trying to respect, understand and empathize with theirs.

As the mother of a brown-skinned mixed-race child, I’ve tried to raise my child in appreciation of her unique beauty. I feel the pain of seeing the person I love most, my daughter, suffer ugly racist attacks and humiliation and try to raise her to be strong and believe in herself and her capacity to build a beautiful life in difficult socio-historical spaces.

I’ve tried to counteract racist structures by teaching in public schools and working every day to nurture the full development of beautiful children so they will have the strength, security, self-knowledge, and knowledge of the world to create a better world.

I continually try to grow in my understanding of our collective, communal human nature and how to struggle united for equity and a more humane society through intimate, local and global interactions and communications. Marching in the streets to feel our collective strength. Voting. Conversing. Problem-solving.

Rich Ferguson: I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, until I was about ten. There, I witnessed all forms of racism—everything from the overt verbal and physical denigration of African Americans to the cruel and castigating glances cast at my family and me when we invited my best friend at the time, Calvin Green, to my birthday party. Before the party, my parents warned me that, because of Calvin’s skin color, some people in my very white, suburban neighborhood might not accept Calvin’s presence, and wanted to brace me for the potential fallout. I’m forever grateful for that moment, how my parents wholeheartedly supported Calvin’s presence at my party and how they welcomed him with open arms. And despite the cruel glances of a couple of our neighbors, my family and I confronted the haters with love, acceptance, and a party I’ll always remember.

Kim ShuckI have to believe that we can. Even if it’s small. Look, my work is assembling words and a word isn’t that big, but you put them together and start to get something and then there are other people out there wording. We get somewhere.

  1. What do you tell your children about racism in the United States today?

Raymond Nat Turner: 

Papa’s proud of you, handsome 

Grandsons, for hand-lettered

signs, for taking to the streets

during your generation’s 10

days that shook the world!

I’m proud of your militant mugs,

masked, concealing righteous 

anger and dangerous emotional

Literacy your Mom gifted you…

You’re the fourth generation—

batting cleanup, B. So, let’s see

what you two can do…

Papa was on a picket line at nine— 

went door-to-door with a ream as a

Teen. So, if you ask me, I’ll tell you:

It’s not a sprint, Cam. It’s a 

Marathon with ten thousand twists,

turns, exponential ebbs and flows;

And there’s no victory line…

Tureeda Mikell:  I’ve learned through racial injustice, what you tell children varies according to each generation. Hard for many children to hear especially when it’s covert racism. Children can’t believe the public-school system or institutions would do such things, particularly if parents work in said system as teacher and or principal. So insidious is this behavior, they grow up not remembering abuse. Many friends with children in same age group, witness similar outcomes. I’ve experienced my students articulate racism in poetry as a poet teacher since, 1990. Unfortunately, I still hear the longing in their voices.

Peggy Morrison:  I tell my child that her brown skin and brown eyes and dark hair are beautiful. I tell her that she has intelligence and creativity and strength and power within her. I tell her that our societies are not fair. Shelter, food, health care and education are basic human rights that are more important than profit or competition and we need to change our society to make it more just and inclusive and gentle. I tell her that collective effort and community are essential and live within and around us; we have to find ways to connect and work together for equity and justice.  

Karla Brundage:  My daughter is 26. We have had an ongoing discussion starting from the day she noticed her skin was not the same tone as mine.  Two black women with two skin tones investigating each other, as my mother investigated her mother and she hers before her. Racism connects to misogyny and to how we as Black women walk in the world and hold each other. We have to be aware of these external forces to hold each other up and press forward. This is what I talk about with my daughter. When examined in this light, racism becomes a question of mortality. It is a moral issue.

Safi wa Nairobi:   The truth.

Rich Ferguson:  I’m the proud father of a three-year-old daughter that my ex and I adopted at birth. While she is still a bit young to understand racism in clear-cut terms, I feel a need to discuss it with her, especially since she is African American. One of my favorite rituals with her is to read Walter Dean Myers’ Harlem. There’s one passage towards the beginning of the book that reads: “Harlem was a promise / of a better life / of a place where a man / didn’t have to know his place / simply because / he was Black.” And every time after I read that last word, I tell my daughter, “Black is beautiful.” Then she repeats it back to me, “Black is beautiful.”

  1. Do you believe it is possible to understand racial oppression if you are not a person of color?

Peggy Morrison:  A white person like myself cannot feel the same experience of racial oppression that a person of color feels. I believe that white people can to a limited extent, from a different perspective, understand the feelings of racial oppression through empathy. I believe that a white person can understand the injustice of racial oppression because it is inherent in human beings to have the capacity to understand justice. And to strive towards the light of justice.

Tureeda Mikell:  Sure, to some degree; there was after all, John Brown. LOL

Rich Ferguson:  In terms of how it has played out through history, I can understand racial oppression. In terms of how it has been expressed through the voices of poets such as James Baldwin, Wanda Coleman, and Terrance Hayes, I can understand racial oppression. But because I was born into a white body, I do not believe I can genuinely understand racial oppression the way it is experienced by those of color. Yes, I can empathize with people of color, I can fight for the rights of people of color, but unless I walk in their shoes, I don’t believe it’s possible to truly understand their experience. 

Paul Corman Roberts: I guess that depends on what you mean by “understand.” As a person not of color I can’t pretend I would ever know what it feels like to see, to hear, to taste and smell and love with systemic marginalization imposed upon me. 

Rafael Jesus Gonzalez:  I believe that it is possible to understand racial oppression by a person not of “color.” I say this because of the many friends and colleagues not “of color” throughout my life who not only have profound understanding of racial oppression in our history and in our actuality but are actively involved in combatting it.

Kim Shuck:  Yes, in some cases it’s presented to you, in others you have to work at it, but yes.

Raymond Nat Turner:  I do indeed. And John Brown, Marilyn Buck and many, many others prove it for me.

Safi wa Nairobi:  To some degree, a person not of color may study racism as a construct, and even dialogue and intellectualize accordingly. However, to fully grasp an understanding of racial oppression, the racially oppressed (persons of color) are the ones with first-hand knowledge and experience who truly understand racial oppression. Sadly, even some of these victims of racial oppression who are people of color do not, themselves, understand racial oppression.

  1. The title of the Poetathon is “Wake-Up America.”  What do you see America needing to Wake-Up from?

Kim Shuck:   The freight of history and present hypocrisy.

Karla Brundage:  Selfishness. Self-absorption.  Greed and Entitlement. We are not children, we are humans, just like everyone else.

Paul Corman Roberts:  From its entitlement, from its superiority complex, from its way of doing business, from its death trip.

Rich Ferguson:  America needs to wake up from its still-lingering colonial views of racism, sexism, and authoritarian tendencies. American needs to wake up from its sleepwalk through the halls of capitalism, elitism, xenophobic, and homophobic tendencies. America needs to wake up from the nightmare that it can be great again when it was never particularly enjoyable in the first place. Yes, many wonderful opportunities abound, but they aren’t created equally for everyone.

Raymond Nat Turner:  We need to wake up from the nightmare that has us locked into believing that barbaric capitalism is as good as it gets—we can’t do any better…

devorah major: America needs to wake up from the myth of exceptionalism. It needs to realize that if one has no boots, if one’s hands are tied, there is no way to pull one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps.  It needs to be honest with a history that gave some immigrants and Americans land, farming equipment and work animals, while others were given nothing but the whip, chain and shackles and made to work on other’s people’s land from sun up to sundown. It needs to realize that Blacks have been legislated against, worked against and have had that foot on our necks for centuries and it has diminished not just Blacks but all who turn from reality, or see it and just don’t care. It needs to acknowledge that this is not the land of freedom, for too many of us are not free. It needs to see that it is going the wrong direction. It needs to wake up from the idea that “we the people” is just a slogan and realize that we the people can create lasting, positive change if we all work together. It needs to see that its core is rotting and has been from the beginning and only by waking up can we cut out the rot, bandage the wound and start to heal.

Safi wa Nairobi:  An intoxicating slumber of the false sense of comfort, democracy, freedom and safety.

Michelle Allison:  Wake Up America, is broad as there are so many things to wake up from such as: racism; feminism; sexism; poverty; inequality; police brutality; access to adequate housing and healthcare.

Tureeda Mikell:  I wish they’d wake up from entitlement, Racial Narcissism, with freedom and justice for some. (yes, these are from poems)

Rafael Jesus Gonzalez:  U. S. America has to “Wake-Up” from its ignorance of and indifference to how the “American Dream” excludes our “colored” brothers and sisters and is actually an “American Nightmare” to many of us. It has to awake to the disjuncture between our vaunted democratic ideals of “justice and liberty for all” and the grim reality of how those ideals have been betrayed throughout our history and in our present.