Poet uses her voice to confront racism
Anika Nailah discusses racism with the audience during a stop on her National Liberation Poetry Tour Experience in the First Congregational Church of Greenfield Saturday. Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »
GREENFIELD — “I am the one you tried to kill; I am still here.”
Poet Anika Nailah doesn’t mince words when it comes to racism. Her words here are a metaphor for black experience, from the forced assimilation of African slaves brought to the colonies, stripped of their culture, their rights and their very names, to the struggles of their descendants to receive equal treatment and regain their own identity and place in the world.
Nailah delivered her powerful words before engaging the audience in a discussion and workshop at the First Congregational Church Saturday. The event was part of a monthly series by the Greenfield-based Mass. Slavery Apology.
Nailah has taken her performance, the National Liberation Poetry Tour Experience, throughout New England, New York and New Jersey since 2013 and hopes to continue on to the West Coast.
Though her roots are African American and Native American Pocasset Wampanoag tribe, Nailah said her upbringing leaned more toward her black heritage.
Growing up during the civil rights movement, Nailah learned about racism at a young age. She saw the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., bombing and race riots broadcast into her New York City home, a brutal example of the injustice going on.
There were the subtle things, too. She learned to be ashamed of her kinky, “not right” hair, and other “quiet messages” that reminded her she wasn’t equal to white people.
She did not let that her keep her down.
“I woke up and took my place,” she said triumphantly. “I claimed my power, my right to be here.”
She also claimed her voice.
Nailah doesn’t pull any punches with her poetry. She realizes she’s bound to offend a few people here and there, but said it can be good if it sparks an earnest dialogue about race.
“If they’re offended or feeling something, it’s a messenger of what’s going on,” she said. “These issues are so urgent in our country, it doesn’t bother me when someone is offended.”
She said her audiences can become quite emotional at times.
“I had a performance in a Florence dance studio,” she said. “It was a small, intimate place, with people right in each others’ faces. There were a lot of of white women there, and some of them were crying by the end.”
She said they were inspired to get a group of white and black women together for a conversation on the race relations throughout American history.
If some of Nailah’s words sting, it’s not without good reason. She speaks of racism, inequality, social injustices, false imprisonment and slavery — things that should upset people.
Though her message is serious — and it shows in her face and the tone of her voice — one more humorous work lubricated the conversation with laughter.
One poem described a grocery store run-in with a well-meaning white woman, who beamed a bright smile at her and eagerly waited for one in return.
“Why are you smiling at me, I’m just trying to buy broccoli?” she wondered aloud.
When she moved to Massachusetts many years ago, Nailah was taken aback by the way white people seemed to go out of their way to smile at her.
Though she humorized such encounters, she said they’re quite awkward, an empty gesture of white guilt that does nothing to bring the races together.
“They want a black person to smile back at them so they know they’re a good white person,” she explained in the post-reading discussion.
She points that out in the poem’s refrain.
“When was the last time you invited someone who looked like me to dinner?”
Ending racism is about more than just acting friendly, she said. It’s about breaking down barriers, and people truly coming together in earnest.
After the performance, Nailah gave the crowd a while to absorb her words and asked them to jot down a few of their own. They formed pairs, and discussed what struck them about the performance, and what they could do personally to fight racism.
Nailah writes historical and science fiction and has taught fiction and creative nonfiction in addition to public presentations. For more, visit www.anikanailah.com.
While she will take her work on the road, the monthly forum held by the Mass. Slavery Apology will continue right in Greenfield.
“We want to deepen the understanding of slavery and racial injustice in ourselves and the community,” said member Sharon Alpert.
Next month’s event is “Franklin County’s first peoples.” Joe Graveline, of the Nolumbeka project, will lead a presentation and discussion on the native peoples of our area.
May’s discussion will explore white privilege and June’s forum will focus on the area’s diverse immigrant population.
Each will be held on the first Saturday of the month in the First Congregational Church, 43 Silver St. All are free, though donations are appreciated.
You can reach David Rainville at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 279