The first time I thought seriously and deeply about the black experience in the Unites States was Saturday night. This is an embarrassing admission. After all, I received a classic US History education. I learned about the legality of African and African American slaves in preschool and about the ratification of the thirteenth amendment in first grade. Each year, my textbooks introduced me to details, names and court cases that played a crucial role in African American history. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a story set amid the racism of the South during the 1930s, was one of the most formative books of my childhood; I read it a second time before returning it to the library in fifth grade. While crying as the protagonist’s father, Mr. Morrison, was shot, I hated the racist Wallace brothers who shot him along with all America’s racists who had inflicted pain upon innocent human beings.
The facts of my history classes continued to became more real as I read To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Raisin in the Sun and The Color Purple. When reading these novels, through the descriptions of characters I identified with and loved, I gained a better appreciation of the difficulties African Americans in this country had faced and the pain within their community.
Yet, it was only upon taking an “Outsiders in American Literature” course during my second semester of college, that I realized I had not given enough thought to what the African American experience in this country was, and is, like. I had thought about the pain and evil the community had suffered, but never the complexity of the black American’s identity. Although the unique black experience is evident in every newspaper one picks up, it didn’t penetrate my thoughts until I read Du Bois’s description of his “two-ness” or the war between the African and the American inside him. Baldwin’s personal essay about the 1943 Harlem riot made me begin to realize that such atrocities don’t end the following morning but have seeped into the African American identity, present during the good times as well as the bad. Perhaps most impactful was Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Ellison’s brilliant writing haunted me and I spent a summer thinking about how the opportunities of advancement offered to African Americans in the South, ones I had once considered generous, were often infantilizing and looked right past what their recipients wanted. They were actions that caused conflicts within families and often forced the black American to live his life as if he was white, never asking him who he was or what he needed. The collection of personal essays, poems and novels I read that semester didn’t teach me new facts, but, like the novels I read as a child, they deeply impacted the way I understood and valued the complexity of the black experience in the US. They changed the way I reacted and related to current events concerning race. I marveled at the power of these narratives and poems and how they could transform facts into identity crises, pain, fear and emotion.
But this past Saturday night I understood that written words can only go so far. I went to the Nuyorican Poets café unsure of what to expect; perhaps I would hear some poems about love, loss or the recent election. And all these topics were covered in the poems performed that night. However, the poems were also about something more. All the performers were black and, in one way or another, every poem touched upon the black American experience. In many of the performances it wasn’t purposeful. One poem was about a man’s gay uncle who died of HIV, another man’s poem was about sex and education, while a woman read a poem about a breakup. Yet, their black American experience permeated these poems. And listening to their poetry was different than reading Ellison or Baldwin. It had an immediacy I had never experienced. Hearing about the black experience in the US, in person, without the filter of a screen or the pages of a book somehow made it more real. The words became alive and moved me in a way films and books about African American life never had.
I know everyone is different and for some, reading words may have a greater impact than hearing a live performance. Furthermore, it is impossible to hear someone speak about every experience. But in light of Trump’s executive order banning refugees and citizens of Muslim countries, the live poetry readings reminded me that newspaper articles and even YouTube videos are objects to be debated and discussed. To various degrees, they remove the urgency and realness of a situation. And while for many debated issues one can’t see a live performance, one usually can, and I believe should, deepen their understanding of such issues through a more personal medium, be it a photograph, memoir, song or film. Objective rational discussions are vital, but it is also crucial that the words we read and hear come to life.