Marcus Wicker—MLK Day Celebration Keynote | Champlain College

>>Hello, everyone, my name
is Reese Kelly and I serve as the assistant Vice President of diversity, community and
inclusion. We want to start the event today by acknowledging that we gather on the traditional
land of the Abenaki peoples, past and present, and honor with gratitude the land itself and
the people who have stewarded it throughout the generations.
I think it’s important to acknowledge the land because growing up in predominantly white
communities, I never heard the traditional names of the territories. Indigenous people
and the struggle us they faced were talked about in past tense. It is easier to deny
the indigenous rights if we historicize their struggles and pretend they don’t exist. The
statement of land recognition calls us to commit to continue to learn about indigenous
rights and how to be better stewards of the land.
It is my pleasure to welcome those of you here today as well as those of you joining
us live stream. A special greeting to students, faculty and staff watching and listening from
different parts of the country as well as our Champlain campuses in Dublin and Montreal.
We celebrated MLK over the years. Before the office was formed if 2007, a full day was
established under the leadership of Nancy Cathcart, the director of the civic engagement.
2007, under the founding director, Dr. Angela Batista, the celebration took on a formal
form, and the tradition of providing a day of celebration for both Champlain and the
local community was born. This first formal annual MLK celebration was a collaboration
between the office of diversity and inclusion and the center for civic engagement, supported
by many other campus partners. Over the last few years, the college has continued
to honor the legacy of MLK in many ways. And the 2019 celebration continues the legacy
of social justice, equity and inclusion. I would like to acknowledge the let us teach
committee who planned a full day of films and presentations given by members of our
community including faculty, students and staff. I would also like to acknowledge the
MLK student planning committee and the diversity community and inclusion team who created a
week‑long series of events and programs and discussions for students to explore MLK’s
legacy in Greater depth. And last, thank you to President Don Laackman
and Vice President Batista and many others for sharing in this event. And now I are present
President Don Laackman to share.>>It is great to see so many of you here
today on this horribly cold day. [ Laughter ]
I want to thank everybody who worked to make today possible. I am particularly grateful
to the MLK student planning and Let Us Teach committee who is planned many opportunity
the for learning that include presentations by faculty, staff and students. As I reflect
on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am struck by the fact that Dr. King
called upon us to do hard things. He called upon us to stand up to oppression.
He called for equal rights for all, regardless of race or creed. He called for social justice.
And one of the hardest things, in my judgment, he called upon us to do, was to love.
I personally find his loves about loving your enemy challenging. Today I wanted to share
Dr. King’s words on love. He gave a sermon in 1957, loving your enemies, at Dexter Avenue
Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. And while I cannot come close to conveying the
poetry and passion of Dr. King, his words have tremendous meaning and I wanted to share
them with you today. So, I want to read at length with a heavily
edited version of his sermon this afternoon. And encourage you to read the full version
which you can find online. And Dr. King said: So, I want you to turn your attention to this
subject. Loving your enemies. In the fifth chapter of the gospel is recorded by St. Matthew,
we read, yes have heard that it has been said, thou shall love the neighbor and hate the
enemy. But bless them who course you and pray for them that spitefully use you that ye may
be the children of your father which is in heaven.
Now let me hasten to add, Dr. King depose on, that Jesus was serious when he gave this
command. He wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized
it’s difficult to love those persons that seek to defeat you. Those persons who say
evil things about you. He realized it was hard, but Jesus wasn’t playing. When the enemy
presents for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time you must not do it. When you
rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems.
Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love. But you defeat the
system. Now, let us move from the practical how to
the theoretical why. It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies,
but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. Love has it within
a redemptive power. And there’s a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Because
if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But
if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power
of redemption. Dr. King goes on: And I think one of the
best examples of ‑‑ I think of one of the best examples of this. We all remember
the great President of these United States, Abraham Lincoln. You remember when Abraham
Lincoln was running for President of the United States. There was a man who ran all around
the country talking about Lincoln. He said a lot of bad things about Lincoln. A lot of
unkind things. And sometimes he would get to the point that he would even talk about
his looks, saying, you don’t want a tall, lanky, ignorant man like this as President
of the United States. Finally, one day Abraham Lincoln was elected
President of the United States. Then came the time for him to choose a Secretary of
War. He looked across the nation and decided to choose a man by the name of Mr. Stanton.
And when Abraham Lincoln stood around his advisers and mentioned this fact, they said
to him, Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Do you know that Mr. Edwin M. Stanton ‑‑ what
Edwin M. Stanton has been saying about you? Do you know what he has done? Tried to do
to you? Do you know that he has tried to defeat you at every hand? Do you know that, Mr. Lincoln?
Did you read all the derogatory statements he made about you? Abraham Lincoln stood around
his advisers and said, oh, yes, I know all about it. I read about it. I read him myself.
But after looking over the country, I find that he is the best man for the job.
Mr. Stanton did become Secretary of War, and a few months later, Abraham Lincoln was
assassinated. And if you go to Washington, you will discover one of the greatest words
or statements ever made by, about Abraham Lincoln was made by this man, Stanton. And
as Abraham Lincoln came to the end of his life, Stanton stood up and said, now he belongs
to the ages. And he made a beautiful statement concerning the character and stature of this
man. If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton, if Abraham
Lincoln had answered everything Stanton said, Abraham Lincoln would not have transformed
and redeemed Stanton. Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would
have gone to his grave hating Stanton. But through the power of love, Abraham Lincoln
was able to redeem Stanton. That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not
discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Gandhi
of India discovered it a few years ago. But most men and women never discover it. For
they believe in hitting for hitting. They believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for
a tooth. They believe in hating for hating. But Jesus comes to us and says, this isn’t
the way. And, o, this morning, as I think about the
fact that our world is in transition now. Our world is facing a revolution. Our nation
is facing a revolution. Our nation. History, unfortunately, leaves some people oppressed
and some people oppressors. And there are three ways that individuals who are oppressed
can deal with their oppression. One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with
physical violence and corroding hatred. The danger and weakness of the method is utility.
And resign and give yourself to the oppression. Some do that, but that too isn’t the way because
non‑cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as its cooperation with good.
There is another way. And that to organize mass nonviolent resistance based on the principle
of love. And it seems to me as if this is the only way as our eyes look to the future.
As we look across the years and across generations, let us develop and move right here. We must
discover the power of love. The power ‑‑ the power, the redemptive power of love. And
when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will
be able to make men better. Love is the only way.
That’s the end of the sermon. So, on this day honoring Dr. King’s legacy, I reflect
on these words and how difficult it is to live up to them. Dr. King calls upon us to
do hard things. I reflect on how contemporary are his words. How his call to love in a great
time of turmoil are as relevant in 2019 as in 1957. Today in the midst of a country where
people with posing views are unable to talk to the other side, let alone love the other
side, Dr. King’s words challenge us to love our enemy. And by loving them, redeem them.
I welcome today’s keynote speaker, Marcus Wicker, for braving this weather and coming
to Champlain College. Thank you for sharing your perspective with us here today. And now,
I would like to bring to the stage Anthony, one of our students to make a few remarks
and to introduce Marcus Wicker. [ Applause ]
>>Hello, everyone. On this cold, snowy afternoon we are gathered to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin
Luther King. A revolutionary and pioneer of the civil rights movement. When you hear the
name Dr. Martin Luther King, many iconic moments come to mind. The Montgomery busboy
cot in 1955, the I have a dream speech, his I have been to the mountain top in 1968 and
so many others. Those moments took place so long ago in our history. But that does not
at all mean it should be forgotten in our history. If anything, as each year passes
by, it is more and more vital to remember the messages of Dr. King’s legacy. I’ll explain
why. May I ask everyone here today to pull out
their cellular devices? We are dead smack in the middle of the digital age. Facebook,
Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms make it easier than ever to
stay connected. That means we have the power to encourage, to inspire and to love right
at our fingertips. But we also have the power to discourage, to vilify and to hate right
at our fingertips. Every day we are exposed to things ‑‑
maybe even do things ‑‑ that are ignorant of Dr. King’s work to promote peace, equality
and fellowship. No person in this room or this world is perfect, including myself. The
reality of living in this world is racism and bigotry and hatred exist everywhere, no
matter how safe a specific location is thought to be. Yes, that include right here in Burlington,
Vermont. Burlington, Vermont is thought by many to be a progressive environment. However,
progressive is not perfect. Even small, know jitteriness Burlington is flawed like everywhere
else. It’s a forward or on ward movement. That means we are moving forward, but we have
not yet reached our destination. Simply put, there is still work for all of us to do.
Dr. King worked every day to make the next day better. Not just for people of color within
this country, but for the country as a whole. He worked against injustice and intolerance
and made progress. No matter how wide his word spread, and no matter change he influenced,
he worked towards more change. He was never satisfied, and we shouldn’t be either. We
must use our words and actions, digitally as well as in‑person as vehicles for progress.
We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to past generations who have laid the foundations
for where we are today, and most importantly, we owe it to generations after. This is a
world that not only should but must be a place where ethnicity is not a flaw or a death sentence.
Martin Luther King Day is on the third Monday of January every year. That’s one day to celebrate
his legacy with dialogues and discussions such as the ones occurring today.
With that said, furthering his legacy is a responsibility for all of us to uphold 24
hours a day seven days a and 365 days a year. There’s still progress to be made. Why not
make it together? Thank you. [ Applause ]
I am honored to have the opportunity to introduce the keynote speaker, Marcus Wicker. Wicker
is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize,
the Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize as well as fellowships from the Cave Canem
and the Fine Arts Work Center. His first collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, was a finalist for
the NAACP Image Award. Wicker’s poems have appeared in The Nation, Poetry, American Poetry
Review, Oxford American and Boston Review. His second book, Silencer, also an Image Award
finalist, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017 and won the Society of Midland
Authors Award as well as the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for new Voices. He teach teaches
in the MFA program at the University of Memphis and is a poetry editor of the Southern Indiana
Review. Please join me in welcoming Marcus Wicker to the stage.
[ Applause ]>>Thank you for that. Appreciate you. Good
afternoon. Y’all can do better. I came all the way from Memphis, man. All the way from
Memphis. Good afternoon.>>Good afternoon!
>>Thank you. I want to say a couple of thank yous. Thank you to Dr. Batista and Dr. Kelly
for bringing me here. Thank you, Anthony, for both your words and that introduction.
And thank you all for braving the snowpocalypse, right? To celebrate the life and legacy of
Dr. Martin Luther King, an everlasting symbol of the civil rights movement, of non‑violent
activism and faith in the face of blind hatred. Now, admittedly, I’m neither a King scholar
nor historian, but rather a writer who is continually inspired by the sacrifices that
he made in the name of equality and to the literary craftsmanship of his oratory. And
so, because I have been so inspired by his work and messaging, I would like to briefly
begin by tracing one of King’s quiet influences in the poetry of Langston Hughes. The way
they inspired one another. I’m going to read some remarks and then share some poems. Is
that all right? Cool. All right. A scant trove of archived letters and photographs
tell us that Dr. King and Hughes, essential figure during the flourishing age of black
arts, the Harlem Renaissance maintained a long and dear friendship. Mother’s Day,
1965, Hughes recited mother to son from the pulpit of Dexter avenue church in honor of
Coretta Scott King. And then the coordination of the Montgomery bus protest. When Rosa Parks
refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus. It’s brotherly love by Hughes. I’m
going to read it in its entirety. For in line of what my folks say in Montgomery. In line
of what they’re teaching about love. When I reach out my hand, will you take it? I cut
it off and leave a nub above. If I found it in my heart to love you, and
if I thought I really could. If I said, brother, I forgive you. I wonder, would it do you any
good? So long ‑‑ so long a time you have been calling me all kinds of names, pushing
me down. I have been swimming with my head deep under water. And you wish I’d stay under
and drown. But I didn’t. I’m still swimming. And I get mad because I won’t ride in the
back end of your bus. When I answer, anyhow, I’m gonna love you still. And yet, you want
to make a fuss. Now, listen, white folks. In line with reverend
King down in Montgomery, also because the Bible says I must. I’m gonna love you, yes,
I will. Or bust. So, the love that Langston Hughes refers to
in the final stanza is reminiscent of King’s loving your enemies which the President mentioned.
In the same year, he says that, quote, love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for
all men opinion you love the men who does the evil deed, hating the deed. And it’s a
cancer that gnaws away at the vital center of your life and your existence. It is like
eroding acid that eats away the best and objective center of your life. So, that when Hughes
writes, I’m gonna love you or burst, we get the same vitriolic self‑implosion that King’s
love could actually heal. Now, at the time, to receive such a shoutout from Langston Hughes
was a big deal. He was 27 years older than King and at the time significantly more famous.
But despite this fact, King never publicly commented on the poem. And following a trip
to Nigeria the two took together in 1960, he was forced to keep his distance. By the
early ’50s, Hughes’ lyric critiques of capitalism and call for a blue-collar uprising earned
him the badge of a communist sympathizer. And in 1957, President Hoover was so suspicious
of communist plants influencing unions and labor rights organizations that he ordered
the FBI to tap King’s phones. In an article about the two men’s influential friendship,
Dr. Jason Miller writes, quote, as a leading figure in the civil rights movement, King
had to toe a line. He needed popular support as well as be able to work with the Kennedy
and Johnson administrations. There could be no question about where he stood on the issue
of communism. Nevertheless, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard
Hughes’ influence on King’s oratory. Here’s a Langston Hughes poem, I dream a world. I
dream a world where man. No other man will scorn. Where love will bless the Earth and
is peace is pass adorn. I dream a world where all will know sweet freedom’s way. Where greed
no longer saps the soul. Nor avarice blights our way. A world I dream where black or white,
whatever race you be, will share the bounties of the Earth and every man is free. Where
wretchedness will hang its head in joy like a pearl, attends the needs of all mankind.
A such a world, I dream. And so, here’s the final lines of King’s 1956
piece, the birth of a new age. Scholars consider this the precursor to King’s famous I Have
a Dream speech. This is the final stanza. A world I dream where black or white, whatever
race you be, will share the bounties of the Earth, and every man is free.
So, the parallels between Langston Hughes I dream a world and the most frequently quoted
lines from King’s Dream speech are apparent. Reading any King sermon, you’ll see his philosophical
constitution was formed by thee owe logical scholarship, Plato. It makes perfect sense
to me that King was inspired by poetry. A synonym for the word poetry is verse. Coming
from the Latin meaning, turning, implying change. The act of moving toward the bottom
of a page, condensing large ideas. Simultaneously leaping from one idea to another. Literally
provides me momentum and hope. It reminds me, then, even when I’m stuck,
weighed down by fear of injustice or xenophobia, walled in by an administration hellbent on
keeping people of color down and out, there’s a way forward. One of poetry’s greatest tools
is patterning. Repetition and anaphora in free at last, free at last, thank God almighty,
I’m free at last. Another is the use of meter. Like the unstressed stress, I am the pentameter
when he writes a world I dream where black or white. These create order where there was
no order. In my own life, poetry is both a form of therapy
and a version of math. It’s the way they solve for X. When I know there’s something on my
heart I can’t demystify, but badly need to name. And that’s the way that I wrote this
book, Silencer. I was living in Southern Indiana at the time teaching and trying to write this
book about God and suburbia. And I was having a hard time. Both because Southern Indiana
was a hard place to live, at least for me, and poetry was hard. I spent a while not writing.
And Trayvon Martin was gunned down and a levee in my heart broke. Suddenly the consequences
of sin and a hermetically‑sealed lawn didn’t mean much anymore.
I had these friends. We would go out to lunch every other month. And we would have conversations
about everything under the sun. But whenever I brought up gun violence, particularly gun
violence perpetrated against the black body, they would get incredibly quiet, right? And
these are my friends. And some of them were people of color. And in those moments, I felt
like I was being silenced. And so, as my own form of civil disobedience, I decided to write
these poems that I called Silencer. Poems that deal with I guess the stories that you
see about police brutality in the news. But instead of naming those gory details and
bringing up those facts like in journalism, they take the oblique approach. Sort of talking
about a thing without talking about a thing. And it’s my hope that what I don’t say will
be productively uncomfortable, maybe. So, I’m going to read you the first one that I
wrote that led me to the book. Y’all all right? Okay. Silencer to the heart
while jogging through a park. I shouldn’t have to go here with you. A bandit ties the
farmer’s dog to a century oak by the untouched creek. You see human interest piece. Sunny
and rounding out the evening news. Where I see eclipse casket. Where I say released,
he will roam the same radius. Surely, I don’t have to tell you there’s a gun. Semiautomatic
and lodged in the black cherry thicket. But I do have to tell you about the semiautomatic
jail cell clanging open. Not for me. Because that’s just sound world making. I say it like
this. I don’t jog in the park with my blindside shaded anymore.
Look. Here. Through the spangled screen door there was once a kid, ordinary and every American
leisure except one. I won’t name him. You’ll look away. Again. There was too much shepherd’s
pie, a slice of apple and one sturdy carving knife. And damp hair hung glimpse of siren
moon, few sirens, sleepy porn lamps blinking on and an ache for antacids that jogged a
man to the corner store like puttering wind. Then back over the towns, little blacktop
hills, near the park’s edge where there was a shot street light and lots of wheezing over
a bench. And there were three shadows. A pit bull tied
to the bench and a bulge in his gut that was a bulge in his gut which must have looked
to one shadow like a box cutter and not a roll of Tums. And then there are, frankly,
too many black cherry thickets streaked with blood. Sometimes I can barely walk out into
daylight wearing a cotton sweatshirt without trembling. And surely, I don’t have to tell
you who gets put down. Which one walks away. [ Applause ]
I’m going to read you one more silencer and then they get loud per there’s an epigraph
here from the ghetto boys if you’re keeping score. My mind is playing tricks on me is
the quote from the song. It’s called Silencer with Blues and Birds on a Wire. Well, you
miss the lone stiff Mr. Bluebird, ghosting it through a two‑light town in which you
raise your chicks or cocks in dens, rooster thickets. Cross stitched and hung above the
door. Or maybe you’re me like, treading light. An ave where birds are called, black, blue.
Few. But enough for me to notice each absence. This deafening black swan song I hear in wind,
wrestling dark pansies against headstones, dixie fifes. It shivers my spine and sirens
nigh. As whence, whiplash automatic, yes. Bathe and swish of red and white lights. Street
lamps crocked like Georgia pines. Is there anybody in here who studied French?
Or like you know a little French? By a show of hands. Oh, that’s a lot. Okay. So, for
you, like, 20 people, who said that, I’m going to need you to cover your ears for a part
in this poem. I’m going to say the word mise‑en‑scene, which was probably something like that, but
I took Spanish in high school. And also, it made the rhyme work, so, when you hear it,
don’t trip. All right? Okay. It’s called Film Noir at Park on the edge.
In suburbia, one of the towns, count them, two mega high schools. The sometimes tended
to nature preserve where green and green slide crisp between brisk handshakes where a middle-aged
Jimmie John’s drives suddenly halts his ’99 Corolla goes silent. The sun isn’t exactly
booming, but it’s Sunday morning and I’m in my feelings. So, clop off a few places. Hello,
lovable maintenance man, I nod. He fusses with his mustache, flicks it out in a full‑tilt
wave. In the way of mis‑en‑scene, I feel compelled to say it’s 2014. I’m a black American
poet, nearly 30 and middle class for the Midwest. So far, it’s the summer of two brothers unarmed
erased. Posterized. Two more, and I live my best days outside like this. Under threat
of rain. Me, my bad form, and no one looking on with
the evil anvil of a hoisted eyebrow. The deceptive flip of an aline bob hand‑readied to protect
the old moneymaker. Accordingly, smoke. A slinky Asian teen makes his body into a nickel,
winds the way up between me and the trail’s opposite edge. Our shades, night‑slick,
reflect one another. Different frames from about the same shelf. I catch myself for an
instant in his left lens and wonder, was it The Rocky look I’m rocking? Or was it the
bare bones, bone‑white hooded Egyptian track suit drawn around my held like a swim cap.
It’s summer here. Or the ox calves teetering at chest somewhere between barrel and breasted
fending on the wind, the Taylor Swift of my office nemesis, or the moon cycle, maybe anything.
Thin. And the director’s cut. I’m the country being
fatally femme. I pretend to check my face in the rearview mirror, pull a plume from
a pinner and squeeze the trigger on a can of lavender Febreze. I chase myself out the
window. Smarting every time someone flinches at the sight of me.
Metaphorically, I could only be the pitch-dark asphalt simmering in this parking lot, the
fog lifting off a black tar river. Already gone. Though, obviously, given the opportunity,
nay, the luck, I play delivery dude. Even maintenance guy. Anything but walking dead
man. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t just jog all this way to tell you that. Shucks.
[ Applause ] So, I’m going to take a dance break for a
minute and I’m gonna read you a couple of poems from my first book, it may be the saddest
thing that I think overlap in terms of some of the themes that we talked about today.
One of the things I was interested in writing this book, what use is writing a poem anyway,
right? In observing the world for my art, have I forgotten how to live in that world?
Here’s an example. If a woman gets on to a bus and she doesn’t have enough money to get
herself and her two kids on to the bus. And instead of offering the dollar that I have
in my pocket, I take detailed notes from my next poem. What’s that poem worth, right?
And so, that idea legislates the book and then this poem too.
It’s called, I’m a sad, sad man. So sad. I can’t remember how to ride a bus right. Just
the other day I forgot who I was and couldn’t help ‑‑ couldn’t budge to help a human
in need because the pin in my pocket was poking my thigh saying, use me. Use them. Write their
stories. As if I am not them. That woman and her two little girls, mounting some 10‑ton
thing daily. Fare or no fare. Rust bucket, but not broken down. Traveling at a pace beyond
my control. And how sad it is because I’m really not them.
Most days I keep at least a buck in my pocket to pay the driver. And if not, a briefcase
which says I’m good for it. That was somehow miserable to admit. I’m only telling you this
because you’re hearing a poem. Probably spend perfectly good bar nights feeling the world
deeply with a ballpoint pen in your pocket. And though a tab, abnormal to discuss, all
humans want to understand everything and for everyone to understand us.
What I can’t understand is what makes me see differently any three people on a bus. Maybe
the saddest thing in the world is not knowing how to feel cold plastic bus seats without
thinking of narrative arc. The 10,000 panes shifting uncomfortably from cheek to raw red
cheek. And in any given moment, this. [ Applause ]
Thank you. This is from my good friend, Raleigh Lee I met in grad school in Indiana. It’s
from some revisions. My friend jokes, you must know every black guy in Bloomington,
Indiana. Because I break my neck to nod when one crosses our path. As if to say, it’s good
to see myself for the first time again. As if to say, it’s good to see you. Let me start
other. Riding the campus bus with Raleigh one day, I many left lifted from its ledge
and landed at the feet of a mannequin who peered straight through me. And that’s just
what I thought too, he’s a mannequin black man, sitting there all stiff in his cowboy
boots and straight‑leg Levis. He’s a mannequin black man. Too stilted to acknowledge himself
when he sees me. And by that, I meant, too stilted to acknowledge me.
One more time. So, I’m in transit when I see this brother across the aisle with his near‑brown,
green‑eyed son. And just as he looks at me, no, just as he turns away, a twang or
drawl betrays his lips. He’s not speaking to me. He’s talking, smiling at an old white
moth of a woman. Wasp if you consider her dilated pupils. And all of a sudden, I pretend
his affliction is not my own. This isn’t working, is it?
Raleigh, brother. When you asked, is it difficult to write about race? I meant to say, hell,
yes. Yes. Especially if you’re stilted like me. I find it much safer to sit at home and
feign an understanding. But to write race is to stare firm. I suppose you knew that.
You meant push me to write about race to re‑see, and I didn’t know enough then to advise you.
Well, I may have learned something one key stroke ago. Race is a Triangular maze of lush
green hedges that stretch beyond the eye’s reach. Black as I am. Korean as you are. As
neither as this town is. It is taken a poem, a bus, tearing through that maze, full speed
in my direction for me to look at you and nod, yes. I meant to say write it. And, please,
don’t stop. [ Applause ] I appreciate you allowing me
that diversion. All right. When I was a kid, I went to Catholic school.
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My father’s from Detroit, so is my mom, the area. And
he said to me, like, right now you fit in and everyone loves you. But there’s gonna
come a point in your life where you get some size and you’re going to be looked at as a
threat as opposed to a cute addition to the squad. And I didn’t believe that. I was like,
I’m just like these people. They’re just like me. And there was the moment of realization,
that eventually you do grow up and people’s mentalities often change. It’s called Close
Encounters. I was a real cute kid. Ask anybody. My father
likes to tell a story about a modeling scout who spotted us out midday shopping at the
Briarwood Mall. Imagine 5‑year‑old me. All sailor stripes and junior Afro, doing
a full pullup on the magazine kiosk, got any? No doubt something I had heard watching Jeopardy
with granny. But it mattered not to the tickled pink lady, you’re so sweet. What a cutie sweet,
she decreed, handing dad for flowery card. Is wouldn’t stop there. 10th birthday, whole
neighborhood invited, I strutted down the stairs in a white sports coat. Look, folks,
in case you’re wondering, I’m the host. My mother told Mrs. Holbrook, he was born
full grown with a briefcase. As I’m sure you will be, little sown seed undone. Future me.
Dear son, the defacing starts much later. After desegregation sparks the awkward clutch
of coach clutches on campus buss. But before the riots in Baltimore. It started a few days
before I turned 30, invisibility. Home from teaching the sons and daughters of Indiana
farm hands, it’s okay to write poems. Same briefcase slung tired across wrinkled linen.
You would have thought I would have accosted her, Maria, when I stooped down to pluck my
mother a pair of magenta tulips from her own garden and she shrieked, why are you staring
at my lawn? The Maria who used to have me occupy her daughter
in the playpen before grabbing a bottle of Bordeaux before the real nanny arrived. She
must have seen straight through me, into the distant past, when your grandparent’s neighboring
residence would have been a servant’s. And I, in that moment for the first time, unsaw
her. A primer. A kind of manila card stock I’d failed to imprint. Son, sometimes this
happens. It happens in gated spaces when you look like
a lock pick. See the 44 President. Scratch that. It happens in gated spaces as the lone
locksmith. And if I’m being honest, the happy way things are going between me and E, you
may well resemble him. Don’t count yourself precious. Truth is, too soon you will bend
down to rob a few bright blossoms from your own land and look away from the Earth to make
certain you haven’t been ogled. This phantom guilt applied to a nape through the eyes of
every blind Maria. Here’s the key. Try not to let it die.
Now run to the closest mirror. Quickly. Remember how sweet the fleeting love.
[ Applause ] Thank you. You all are a good audience. I
never read that out loud. That was sweet of you to clap there. Appreciate you. Now.
So, I’ve realized in my mid‑30s, I’ve got this problem. I like to shop. And I’m just
admitting that about myself. You know? Like we I don’t have a problem. I don’t watch QVC
or anything. But it’s just when, you know, like if I have a good day and I want to celebrate
myself. I’ll buy something. If I have a bad day, I’ll buy something. Or if it’s Friday,
I’ll buy something. But I realize that sometimes I get dressed
to go and do that. And upon much self‑reflection, I realize I get dressed up to go shopping
so I won’t be followed around the store. And perhaps that’s like the worst self‑profiling.
And there you have it. It’s like my therapy for today.
It’s called, this poem, Taking Aim at a Macy’s changing room mirror, I blame television.
No chain link fences leapt in a single bound. No juke move Nike commercial. Speeding bullets,
cross trainers, no brown‑skinned Adonis waving trails of industrial Vaseline down
a cobblestone street. Shucking trash receptacles, grand over the little blue recycling bin,
a prism of clouds rising beneath his feet. Nobody messed up in boot cuffs wide enough
to cloak quarter‑pointed tethers. Or slumped over, hoodie‑shrouded. Sheepishly scary,
according to one eyewitness. Definitely not gonna be your sweat suit, red carpet fashion
review coming at you live from E and FOX News outside of the morgue. No chance for homeboy
in the peekaboo boxer shorts. Home boy with the frozen wrist, iced. Home slice with the
paisley flag, low slung denim. No defense attorney calls me gang‑related. Tupac and
a leather bomber. No statement taken from the Clint Eastwood of your particular planned
community. Saying he had the right to stand his ground at the Super Target. Because my
flat‑billed cap cast a shady shadow in the checkout line.
No sirree, see? I practice self‑target practice. There is no sight of me in my wears. I, bedecked
in no‑wrinkled dockers, sensible Navy blazer, Barack Obama tie, double consciousness knotted,
stock dandy lion, paired to the skin of an American lapel with his head blown off.
[ Applause ] You didn’t think it was gonna end that way,
did you? Neither did I when I wrote it. All right. I’m gonna read you three more here.
It’s called, in my 31st year. There’s an epigraph from Tupac. Once you turn 30, it’s like you
take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this country. And you don’t
wanna fight no more. In my 31st year. Okay. So, it’s true. The last week I let Andrew
have in the bag a little crumpled cuff my wrist. Then perhaps too familiar, ring an
arm around my neck. And then he even called me his boy.
Yes, regrettably, I let it happen. Near the butler’s pantry in the dean’s green Victorian
with the mansard roof with the visiting poet. Black. Why did I tell you that? Yes. I could
have dug hard, my measured nudge. Could have drawn scotch and wind from his chest with
one thudding blow, brother were it not for the misfiring. Which is me at this dry ass
parties and too, that pesky other thing. One thing worse than being too seen is the not
being seen in profile. Ellison said something like that at 38. I
say it is still very much like that. Which is to say I waited until all the peanuts from
the gallery had done. All the olives, the brie, the mango chutney coopted from proper
serving treeing and safely out of range to say, are you okay? Which, I’ll admit, was
weak. Dear Pac, if there’s a heaven for a G, the red Rorschach splotches of bodies you
must stuck floating toward the kingdom each sunset. Yes, I know, I don’t see what you
see. But I read the Internet and history. Stand at rallies, weep openly. I metabolize
rage almost all of the time. You’re right. I should know better than let an old white
man too close to my throat. That’s true. But, Pac, what would you do for love in Southern
Indiana? Maybe not ride or die. But a friend who compliments your good will tie when you
miss the memo about a customary cumber bund. Threw a rope, and they turn into Cowboys.
Holler if you hear me, sometimes it’s hard to tell the mozzarella from the brie. Oh,
say can you see, I’m warring inside. And who am I really talking to?
[ Applause ] So, because of the occasion I’ve, you know,
picked particular poems. But if this were a different kind of reading you would hear
these poems where there’s a speaker and dialogue with higher power, more poems about suburbia.
And then there are some poems where there’s overlap. I do that through the idea of theodicy,
why bad things happen to good people. You need to know Ebenezer Baptist Church is in
the title which is the church that Dr. King’s father pastored.
It’s a real short title. First the epigraph. From the one spirit we were all baptized into
one body. Jews or Greeks. Slaves or free. And all were made to drink of one spirit.
That’s from 1st Corinthians. Stain on white Christ and Ebenezer Baptist Church. If in
his image made am I, then make me a miracle. Make my shrine a copper faucet leaking everlasting
Evian to the masses. Make this empty water glass a goblet of long-legged French wine.
Make mine a prince purple body bag designed by crown royal for tax collectors to spill
over and tide into and just before I rise. If in his image made am I, then make my vessel
a pearl, Coupe de Ville. Make mine the body of a 28‑year‑old black woman in a blue
pattern maxi dress cruising through hell on Earth Texas, again, alive. If in his image
made are we, then why the endless string of effigies? Why the moral blasphemies? Why immortal
me across a news ticker tied to a clothesline of broken necks? Long is time.
Is this thing on? Jesus on the ground. Jesus in the margins of hurricane and sea. Jesus
of busted levees and chocolate cities. Jesus of the Middle East, Africa and crows flying
backward. Of blood on the leaves inside diamond mines in underdeveloped mineral‑rich countries.
If in your image made are we, the proliferation of your tie-dyed hippy doppelganger makes
you easier to daily see. And in this image didn’t we make the godhead
slightly stoney? High enough to surf a cloud? Didn’t we leave you there where paradise or
justice must be meted out. Didn’t it take the form of whatever holds it most upright?
If then this is what it’s come down to, my faith and rifle shells, in Glock .22 magazine
sleeves, isn’t it also then how, why and a bucket shot full of holes I have been made
to believe? [ Applause ]
You all have been great. I’m going to read you this one last one. A lot of my friends,
they’re lawyers or they’re architects or they’re engineers. Like almost exclusively, those
are my friends. And when I say that I’m a poet or that I’m a professor, they never imagine
an event like this. They sort of think like all we do is go to cocktail parties and carry
forth. And that’s true, right? There’s some of that.
But I just want to say that not all parties are created equal. Yeah. I’ll start there.
I wrote this June 18th, 2015. It’s called Watch Elocute. So, I’m at this party, right?
Low light champagne, Michael Buble and a gang of loafers. Bill evens behind Myles, ever
present in few strokes win. Into the room walks this potentially well‑meaning waspy
woman. Obviously from Connecticut money boasting an extensive background in nonprofit arts
management. And without much coaxing from me, really,
none at all she whoops, gosh, you’re just so well‑spoken. And I’m like, duh, son.
So, then we both clink glasses, drink to whatever that was. Naturally, not until the next morning
and from under a scalding shower do I shout, yes, ma’am. Some of us does talk good.
To no one in particular. But the drain holes. No one but the off‑white tile grout. The
loofa’s yellow pores. Because I come from a long braid of dangerous men who learned
to talk their way out of small compartments. My own spar tan walls, lines with their faces.
Ellison and Ellington. Langston, Robeson, Frederick Douglass above the bench press at
the gym, but to no avail. What I’m at the cross-eyed cricket in Indiana, when they protest
too much. It’s, sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel? Which is cute. Because
he’s probably 10. But sometimes I sit in his twins section and
he once predicted I could do a really wicked impression of Wayne Brady. I know for a fact
his name is Jim. I’ve got Jim’s 18th birthday blazed on my bedside calendar. It reads, ass
whippin’, 12 a.m. And actually, that woman from the gala can kick rocks because she’s
old enough to be my mother and educated. If only by my own appraisal. But, boy, dear boys,
sweet freckled what’s his face and dipshit Jim. We can still be play friends. Your followings
didn’t explain I would take the praise as teeny blade. A trillionth microaggression
against and beneath my skin. Little buddies, that sore’s on me. I know
what you mean. That I must seem safe. But let’s get this straight. Let’s call a spade
a ‑‑ poor choice of words. Ali, I might not be, though. At the very least, a heavy
weight throwback, Nat King Cole singing silky and subliminal about the unforgettable model
minority. NBC believed Nat and his eloquence could single handedly defeat Jim Crow. Fact.
They were wrong. Of this, I know. And not because they canceled his show in ’57 after
one season citing insufficient sponsorship. Or because in 1948 the KKK flamed a cross
on his L.A. lawn. But because yesterday ‑‑ literally yesterday ‑‑ some simple American
citizen, throwback supremacist straight out of Birmingham, 1963, aimed his .45 and emptied
the life from nine black believers at an AME church in Charleston. Among them a pastor
Senator, an elderly tinner, beloved librarian. A barber with a business degree who adored
his mom and wrote poems. About the same age as me. I’m sorry. No friends. None of us is
safe. Thank you. [ Applause ]
Oh, that’s very kind. I appreciate you. Thank you. Do you want to have a conversation? Okay.
Cool. Oh, okay. Sure. Whatever you want.>>All right. So, we have time for Q and A
with Marcus. We have two microphones. If you have questions, you can go up to either one
and I can also roam if there’s someone in the back who I need to reach with this one.
So, anyone would like to make a comment, have a question? Please raise your hand or come
up to the microphone. Anyone want to get us started? Yeah.
>>Hello. My name is Diamond Guthrie. And I want to applaud you to a job well done.
I feel so compelled and moved by all of your poetry. I do not like poetry.
[ Laughter ]>>I understand.
>>Sitting here and listening to you, I just feel so moved. And I’m so happy that you are
an example, the epitome of black excellence.>>If I could bless you, I would.
>>It’s actually our reality ‑‑ my reality as a black person here in Burlington, Vermont.
Yes, it’s safe, but not really. Just last year, I said to folks, I don’t feel comfortable
walking to McDonald’s, which is literally one block over, by myself at night because
I didn’t know if I would be lynched or something would happen. I said it. Your poetry, you
said it too. It’s our life. It’s what we have to go through. And just hearing it from one
person and knowing that you’re hearing it in the form of air to make folks aware of
art in everyday life, I’m so happy and grateful. And as a future educator, I definitely to
want get your book and I want to read it to my students. Because I need them to know,
listen. It’s okay. We’re going to go through this and we’re going to overcome. Free at
last, free at last, thank God almighty, we shall be free at last one day.
>>Thank you. [ Applause ]
Diamond, that’s a really high compliment. Specially to hear that you don’t usually reason
to poetry. That’s the biggest compliment you could pay to a poet. Thank you. I’m glad.
I’m glad I reached you. Yeah.>>Hi, we already met, I’m Becca again.
>>Again, huh? All right.>>Becca again. But, in your poem where you
were speaking about having to dress better or the way you look and that pertaining to
being black or even a person of color, I guess I’m wondering where that came from. Because
it wasn’t until you said it that it really occurred to me. Yeah, growing up, my mom said
in a store, don’t look at anything, don’t touch anything, get in and get out. She came
from, if you get something and it goes miss, all of a sudden, we’re in the police station.
But I was wonder for you had experiences with that. Personally, or where that came from.
>>Yeah. Often, I guess, when I go it a store I’m followed around. And it happens usually
when I’m dressed down. Like, when I’m wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. And so, I started
to head that off at the pass by often wearing a sports coat even if it’s with a T‑shirt.
Silly. Something as small as self‑expression for you not to be able to take part in that.
It is tough. Yeah. That’s in the poem and that’s something that I went through a lot
in Evansville, Indiana. But really, I’m sort of imagining a wider reality and all the folks
who go through that. Not just myself. Yeah.>>Thank you.
>>Hello. Dr. Williams and thank you for sharing your poetry. One that you recited
about people not realizing that you’re cute anymore after a certain age and then you become
invisible or unseen. I’m wondering if you’ve shared that poem in your ‑‑ in your classes,
that experience, and what response or response it is you get from students?
>>I think it’s interesting. I think the students never imagine you as a teenager. Or a child
who, like, or a student who went through the same experiences as they did. I try not to
talk about my work in classes. But always, you know, when I share that poem, I often
end a reading like this with that piece. Or start with that poem, Close Encounters. And
one of the things people say to me is, I don’t find you threatening at all. Which I guess
is kind of a compliment. But implicit in that statement is the idea that there’s something
to be threatened by in general from a black man who is five foot five and a poet. I don’t
know. But part of why I do this work, when I’m not in front of a podium, I can reach
people, not just African‑Americans. The poem is about many different things, but it’s
important to me, when I can’t have conversations about social change with people, my words
speak for me when I’m elsewhere. Thank you. I appreciate you saying that.
>>Hi, I’m Julia Swift, I’m a professor here. And I was so moved by all of your work and
just what a wonderful, you know, ending to this day here at Champlain. I really appreciate
that. I’m curious about something you just said. That you don’t share your work with
your students. And I wonder why? What it is that you’re protecting them or yourself from?
>>Protection is a good word, right? I think poetry is a very private thing. And often
because in some of my poems I use the “I,” they assume the poems are explicitly about
me. But often I’m not telling the story. I’m telling the story about people like Diamond
who I met in an audience or another friend or sort of imagining a reality. And so, there’s
a way that I don’t want the work that I do publicly as an academic or on the page as
a poet to inflect class conversations because they sort of make assumptions about how you
align politically. Or your overall beliefs. And so, I just figure, I’m Google‑able enough,
if they want to know about me, they’ll find me.
>>I have a question.>>Yeah.
>>You started with talking about the friendship between Martin Luther King and Langston Hughes
and how they influenced and formed each other’s work. And I’m wondering who those people are
in your life. Who you influence and shape and who do that for you?
>>Sure, sure. I guess I’ll just talk about some of the writers that I really like first.
Yusef Komunyakaa, down the road, teaches at NYU. Can do anything. He can write in any
style, prose poems, son nets, lyrics. I’ve admired the bravery in his work. He’s a Vietnam
vet. And writing about sometimes being a queer that in ways that not a lot of folks were
willing to do. I always admire folks who are brave beyond
themselves. Or despite themselves. The poet Terrance Hayes who also apparently teaches
at NYU. He’s got this book called American sonnet for my future assassin about the Trump
administration. One of my good friends, Ryan Teitman, Litany For The City, which is about
living in Philadelphia. And was at the fine arts work in Provincetown and he was at Stanford,
and we would write joint poems. Write a couplet, and he would add, and we would send it back
and forth. And our friendship keeps us going on the page. It’s important to have mentors.
If you all have writers, it’s one thing to get feedback from your professors, it’s great,
right? But to have a compatriot who is invested in a personal way that perhaps will follow
you years from now, right? And still be in touch. That’s valuable too. I would suggest
that you learn from one another. And take onus of your education in that way. Yep.
>>In your answer to Dr. Williams’ question, you touch upon the back handed comment, oh,
you’re not threatening at all. I wanted to ask, what are your thoughts on the standards
of hyper masculinity when it comes to black men?
>>Yeah, I think there are these stereotypes that black men in this country are expected
to debunk, right? You can’t wear your hair a certain way. If you look at this ‑‑
this book, the cover’s done by Kehinde Wiley, the artist who did President Obama’s portrait.
There’s a way he’s wearing a suit to fit in the business world. But there’s play, it’s
business in the front, but uniquely black in another way. I think that there are so
many ideas about black masculinity and the things that you portray from a certain image
that maybe you had no idea where that came from. You, you know, you like that particular
shirt, so you put it on. You grew up in a particular community and so, you dressed that
way. But you step outside of those neighborhoods and those walls and there are expectations
about how you should present yourself. Yeah, I think identity politics is tough. That’s
what you’re asking about. I try not to deal in identity politics as much as I can. Yeah.
Uh‑huh.>>In a lot of the poems you showed ‑‑
or you read to us, a lot of them were talking about like the struggle or the pain ‑‑
yeah. They were talking about the struggle and pain or realities of being black in America.
But I was wondering if you’ve written or experienced like self‑healing things? Yeah.
>>Yeah. That’s ‑‑ that’s good. I try to. I try to. Sometimes that’s easier said
than done. I mean, for me, really, poetry is an act of catharsis. Every Friday without
fail I sit down at my desk and I write. Sometimes it doesn’t always go well. But I am sort of
getting things out of my system. And sometimes I’m ‑‑ or sometimes I’m afraid to share
with someone else. And so, I do think that poetry has healed me in a number of ways.
And it’s got the ability to heal you too. That’s my stump speech. As the President of
Poetry, yeah.>>I realize I was favoring that side. Anyone
over here? Last thoughts or questions?>>Doesn’t have to be about something black.
You can just ask me about life, you know? We could talk about TV. You know? Whatever
you want.>>Hi. My name is Chelsea. I guess I had a
question of, when did you start writing poetry and how did you kind of develop your sense
of like identity through that? Yeah.>>In high school. The first youth national
poetry slam came to Ann Arbor, Michigan. And if you have HBO, you probably have seen it.
Brave New Voices is what’s it’s called now. I think it was the first year that it started,
I was in tenth or 11th grade. I wrote poems and kept images or rhymes. I’m a child of
hip hop. But I saw teenagers like me who were much more brave sharing their experiences
and expressing themselves and I wanted in. There, I talked to teachers and read books.
And even when in college, I was a public law/poli sci major, that’s what my BA is. I kept the English
writing minor. I wrote poems in my books. One, it was cathartic, and two, I had a sense
that it would direct my life at some point. Thank you, all. Appreciate you.
[ Applause ]>>Thank you for coming out. Have a wonderful,
safe and warm evening.>>Hey, thank you.

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