2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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Hours after authorities announced that the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown, The Strivers Row – a performance collective in New York City — began posting poems to its Facebook page.

One was “Sing It As The Spirit Leads,” Joshua Bennett’s forceful ode to black excellence written after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of killing Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Bennett begins by echoing the last stanza of a Lucille Clifton poem: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”

Bennett performed the poem a year ago at Kent State University, where he told the audience that he writes to dig at the truth and help listeners and readers shed shame. “Poems should be archeology,” he said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”

Here is a snippet of his poem, “Sing It As the Spirit Leads“:

I exist in excess of my anguish.

I am not invisible. I am a beam of light

too brilliant for untrained vision.

I am not target practice. I am not a bullseye with rhythm.

This breath is no illegal substance.

Sing it.

A ballad for the youngest son

How he survives beat cops that 

see Caesars and seize up 

scream “Freeze! Hands up!” 

 

Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Sing It As The Spirit Leads” in full above.

 

At 38, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior correspondent for The Atlantic’s online property, has become one of the nation’s foremost writers on race and culture. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Coates (whose first name is pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) found himself on stage at the Cleveland Public Library before a large, diverse crowd that included students from the all-male Ginn Academy, a Cleveland public high school. The boys created a crimson line in the audience in their signature red blazers.

Despite the formal setting, Coates was quick to share his humble beginnings. Born in West Baltimore, he came of age in “the era where black boys died,” he said. Drugs and violence decimated entire communities, but Coates said his saving grace was his parents’ strict guidance. His father, Paul Coates, was a former Black Panther who encouraged his seven children to immerse themselves in African-American history. His father ran an independent publishing house, Black Classic Press, out of their basement, while his mother, Cheryl, worked as the breadwinner for many years.

In conversation on stage with Plain Dealer Book Editor Joanna Connors, Coates described a young Ta-Nehisi as bright but unable to focus in school or earn passing grades. But in a junior-level English class — which he was repeating his senior year — he came across a passage in Macbeth that worked as revelation: words, put in the right order, could be beautiful. He found the poetry of Shakespeare reminded him of his favorite lyricist, Rakim. Admitted to Howard University, he reveled in Zora Neale Hurston’s words. “She wrote about black people as I knew black people,” he said.

A series of writing gigs at The Village Voice and Time Magazine led him to The Atlantic. Coates rules his corner of the site like an unabashed totalitarian, seeing his role as a blogger as parallel to a dinner party host. He deletes comments he sees as adding nothing to the conversation and engages those that give him something to chew on. He is not afraid to be schooled, and readily admits he is nothing if not “insanely curious.”

At the tail end of 2012, Coates devoured all 600-plus pages of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and began 2013 with a pointed critique of American politics, concluding that “America does not really want a black middle class.”

“America says to its citizens, ‘Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete,'” Coates wrote. “The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract.”

The intersection of injustice and policy fuels many a blog post. Over the past few weeks, Coates has dedicated the majority of his space to understanding the outcome of the jury verdict given Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot into a car outside a Florida convenience store. Inside the vehicle were four unarmed teenage black boys; Dunn killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

Speaking on Davis and Trayvon Martin, Coates said, “They were robbed of the right to experience the world, to allow the world to change them. They are frozen in time in their boyhood.”

As the father of a 13-year-old son, Coates said these incidents haunt him. Still, he doesn’t believe he is as strict a parent as his own father. He explored their dynamic in his debut book, 2009’s The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, and appeared to still be coming to terms with the current state of their relationship.

“I work hard to make my son accountable for his own dreams,” Coates said. “He talks about all these goals where he wants to play soccer for a German club or go work at Google. I’m telling him, yeah, that’s great, but are you practicing? Did you do your math homework? Being smart and talented is useless without hard work.”

by Rita Dove 

On Trayvon Martin, today I find myself at a loss for words — or rather, I used up all the words in the poem itself. The entire matter is so complex and sorrowful, the implications so insidious and dire, that I could only respond in the way I know best– by taking up one angle of vision, one point of view, and writing out of that moment. To say any more would be redundant and dangerously inaccurate.

Trayvon, Redux

It is difficult/to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there./Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides.

William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”

Move along, you don’t belong here.
This is what you’re thinking.  Thinking
drives you nuts these days, all that
talk about rights and law abidance when
you can’t even walk your own neighborhood
in peace and quiet, get your black ass gone.
You’re thinking again.  Then what?
Matlock‘s on TV and here you are,
vigilant, weary, exposed to the elements
on a wet winter’s evening in Florida
when all’s not right but no one sees it.
Where are they – the law, the enforcers
blind as a bunch of lazy bats can be,
holsters dangling from coat hooks above their desks
as they jaw the news between donuts?

Hey!  It tastes good, shoving your voice
down a throat thinking only of sweetness.
Go on, choke on that.  Did you say something?
Are you thinking again?  Stop! – and
get your ass gone, your blackness,
that casual little red riding hood
Im just on my way home attitude
as if this street was his to walk on.
Do you do hear me talking to you? Boy.
How dare he smile, jiggling his goodies
in that tiny shiny bag, his black paw crinkling it,
how dare he tinkle their laughter at you.

Here’s a fine basket of riddles:
If a mouth shoots off and no one’s around
to hear it, who can say which came first –
push or shove, bang or whimper?
Which is news fit to write home about?

As the George Zimmerman trial draws to a close, the simmer of daily conversation on social media has heated to a boil.  And comments are growing sharper in anticipation of a verdict in a case that began the night of Feburary 26, 2012, when an unarmed Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by Zimmerman, who is claiming self-defense.

Now, a simple way to indicate support of Trayvon Martin’s family is spreading across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles. Instead of the typical signature photos of happy, smiling individuals, people are switching their profile pictures to a simple black square.

The “Justice For Trayvon Martin” Facebook Page turned its profile photo black Thursday evening. “We are blacking out our profile photos in a showing of love, unification and solidarity in support of Trayvon Benjamin Martin,” the page designer wrote. With more than 200,000 fans on the page, the notion spread quickly.

I asked one woman why she changed her picture. “As the mother of a black male…it is the least I can do to show my support to Trayvon’s family,” she responded. “Supporting the blackout might not change a thing, but on this day in history, it will show that I stood up in support of a mother who no longer has her son.”