Before Kanye stumbled his way into stating that slavery “sounds like a choice,” it was something of an exercise in fifth-grade history class to ask yourself what you would have done in times of injustice. Would you have spit at young black children marching into newly integrated schools? Would you have kicked black women out of your women’s suffrage march? Would you have remained complacent as a slave, or would you have run away?
The history of dissenters and radical movements is often consolidated and repackaged for mass consumption, but it's nevertheless the lineage from which we pull. Escaped slaves, for example, would join indigenous communities not only in an effort to avoid recapture but also to resist a society that actively dehumanized them and native peoples. These groups of enmeshed Africans and Native Americans were called Maroon communities.
Retreating to the wilderness and adopting indigenous practices seems like an unlikely strategy for political movement today, but it’s still useful to think of the new margins our society creates. For Aja Monet, Arsimmer McCoy Early, Nerlande Joseph, Joe Martinez II, and Alexis Hyatt, the margin they’re concerned with is poetry. They make up just a handful of the 20-plus people organizing the Maroon Poetry Festival, set to take place June 30 in Liberty City.
“It started with a vision of what our elders had created,” Joseph says, specifically elders such as Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez, who were both massive figures in the Black Arts Movement of the '60s and '70s. “How do we move that forward and continue to live and shine that light on the work they did?”
As part of Voices: Poetry for the People, Joseph and others studied figures in the Black Arts Movement who saw no distinction between making art and engaging in political movements. As members of the Poetry for the People group began to work together, they found the same.
“It was a space that I think we all really needed,” Martinez says, “a space for healing, a space where we could all speak our mind and not really need to be afraid of others’ reactions. But it wasn’t until we started getting into the workshop that I viewed poetry as a tool or a vehicle that a person can use to change the way people view themselves.”
Monet started Poetry for the People after she worked with the Community Justice Project in advocating for working immigrants and found there weren’t many resources for poetic practice outside of academic institutions, never mind for a poetic practice connected to political organizing. After being awarded a Knight Foundation grant, Monet began to work toward the ultimate vision of what will be the Maroon Poetry Festival — a free event rooted in empowering and uplifting the neighborhood in which it will take place. Festival guests include Sanchez and Shange, as well as the Harlem-based group the Last Poets and the Black Panther Party’s former minister of culture, Emory Douglas.
“I don’t think this community [is] privy to these elders. We don’t have access; people don’t think we matter enough for these types of people to be brought to us,” Joseph says. “Black and brown girls and boys can come and see that these are people to look up to. [They] deserve this kind of space.”
“They take that home, and a whole new world of opportunity opens up,” Martinez adds. “There has to be a point where we write our own narrative. There has to be a point where we’re able to share that with our people so that we see ourselves in a context that allows us to grow and to learn. We haven’t had that space.”
For Alexis Hyatt, the integration of the arts and political movement is essential, not only because it informs our understanding of moments in history, but also because it is one of the only inroads to true and meaningful community.
“Art in movement spaces is often used as a decoration. Hopefully, this festival is that bridge between organizing and arts, building a mutual respect between the two,” Hyatt says. “I hope [people] walk away feeling like, This is a feeling of love; I want to continue this. This is a feeling of community; I want to continue this, I want to search for this in everything that I’m doing.”
The effects of the festival also resist simply “decorating” the neighborhood. For Early, it’s as much about informing future events in Liberty City as it is about art — and not just for the residents, but for the organizers and promoters who bring events to the neighborhood.
“I’m hoping that these people see an event of this magnitude and see the community support it, because I have no doubt in my mind that even children walking by are going to come to this event and are going to see that there’s another way, a better way, a healthier way to engage with other people and engage with our communities,” Early says. “We need to demand to be treated with respect. That’s really what it boils down to.”
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On the other hand, the transformation of a community takes deep work. In referring to conventional activism, Hyatt vents, “I feel like I’m just screaming the enemy to death. Where is the real work? Where is the real internal reflection? Where is the community?”
“There’s a hyperfocus on individualism now, more than there ever was,” Monet explains. “People are very concerned with how they’re suffering personally or how they feel they are being wronged and not how that’s connected to a collective wrong. We have a collective hurt that we are grappling with.
“A big part of why poetry is important is it’s a humanizing art form that deals with meaning: Why are we here? What is our purpose? Where are we going? So bringing poetry back into now is a big part of the challenge of building the ‘we’ in a time of the ‘I.’”
Maroon Poetry Festival. 10 a.m. Saturday, June 30, at the Tacolcy Center, 6161 NW Ninth Ave., Miami; eventbrite.com. Admission costs $25.