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Claiming Freedom: From Writers Week to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

Guests scheduled for the 38th Annual Writers Week at UC Riverside

As February and Black History Month begin, there is no shortage of literary and cultural events. This week L.A. Letters reports from three major readings in Southern California devoted to educational equality, uplifting the community and social justice.

UC Riverside Writers Week

UC Riverside is hosting its 38th annual Writers Week from February 2 to February 6. On the night of February 3, I attended a powerful reading delivered by California State Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and the celebrated social historian Mike Davis. Both of these figures have taught in UC Riverside's esteemed Creative Writing Program for several years. This event was extra special because they will both be retiring after this academic term.

Mike Davis read first. He spoke about how he is currently working on four books. His set included excerpts from his next three books. One especially compelling piece was a story about the great actress and singer Lena Horne in a Beverly Hills eatery during the early 1960s. Davis recounted a tale of how Horne responded to a rude and racist patron in the restaurant that called her a racial epithet. Before describing Horne's response, he explained Horne's connection to Paul Robeson and her radical politics. Moments after the man in the restaurant disrespected Horne, she threw a metal ashtray in his face and severely injured the deserving man. The audience at UCR listened closely as Davis read the tale and laughed incredulously, applauding at the story's outcome. The piece is from his forthcoming book with JOn Weiner, UC Irvine Professor and the writer from "The Nation." Their book will be titled, "Setting the Night on Fire: Los Angeles in the 1960s."

V Lazaro Zamora, a former student of Mike Davis, told me,

From the very first class I was amazed by his generosity and his encouragement throughout the writing process. What I learned most from Mike is to pull at every thread, to ask questions about your own process as a writer, and to tenaciously dig through text searching for truth so that you in turn can deliver it to your own reader. He was and still is my Yoda! I made it a point to show up to every workshop and to seek him out before and after class every chance I got. Mike was one of the few instructors that I recall always being available for help, guidance, or even just a conversation. Whether he was talking about igneous rock, rolling with the Black Panthers in the 60s, or discussing the Cuban diaspora I could always trust that he was being sincere and his knowledge of the subject was grounded in extensive research. But, it was his warmth, openness, and his generosity as a teacher that would beckon me to his office week after week.

Juan Felipe Herrera read a dazzling cycle of poems after Mike Davis. His set mixed themes and tones into a potent cocktail that was equally thought provoking and performative. His first poem, "Saturday Night at the Buddhist Cinema," was a surrealist tour de force that connected the dots between the parables of the three treasures and the silent film era. Next was a narrative poem in which he called up two of his former students, Vickie Vertiz and Miriam Arredondo, to read a bilingual conversational poem he composed about two celebrated Mexican women poets from the 1930s, who were incarcerated. Vertiz told me after the reading, "Juan Felipe Herrera is one of the greatest teachers I've ever met. He creates opportunities for his students to perform both with him and to share their own work. He knows how to be galactic in his poems but comes back to Earth when he needs to." Vertiz is now teaching at UC Riverside and is a columnist at KCET. She also studied with Mike Davis as well.

Zamora also worked with both Herrera and Davis. Zamora shared with me his experiences in Herrera's poetry workshop. "The way that he gently guides students through the process of writing poetry is unlike anything I have ever experienced," Zamora said. "His ability to tap in to the creative mind and help you break down the barriers between yourself and your work is uncanny. I could go on but the truth is it wouldn't do justice to describing the sheer joy that I feel when I think of the times that I've had in his presence. Studying under him left me changed as a writer and more importantly as a human being."

Herrera also read two poems that he wrote very recently. "Almost Living, Almost Dying," is dedicated to the memory of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. He also read "I am Kenji Goto," dedicated to the Japanese journalist that was just executed by ISIS. Miraculously, Herrera had written the poem on February 2, the night before the reading. Herrera said after reading these poems, that poets, "need to meet situations head on." He also said he "likes to bring in all the strings of the orchestra." His reading was incredibly contemporary and also very musical, even though he read a cappella.

Following Herrera's reading, Tom Lutz, UCR Professor and Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, briefly got up and remarked on his admiration for both Herrera and Davis. Following a long applause, lines of admirers waited to speak with both men. The combination of their outstanding work and inspirational teaching style has been a major reason why UCR's Creative Writing program has been so highly regarded in recent years.

Claiming Freedom Symposium

David Crittendon

On the following night of Wednesday February 4, I observed an equally thoughtful panel discussion at Cal State Los Angeles. Cal State L.A. is hosting the "Claiming Freedom Symposium" as a three day event in honor of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Movement, and the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. The symposium was the brainchild of writer and activist David Crittendon, an original participant in Freedom Summer back in 1964.

Freedom Summer was a campaign to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi, which had historically excluded most African-Americans from voting. Southern states had been known for disenfranchising Black voters throughout the 20th Century and Freedom Summer was created to remedy this.

Crittendon was one of over 1,000 volunteers and students from across the country that participated in Freedom Summer. The 10-week campaign was a life-changing experience that forever politicized him. Though he had already been an activist and engaged in the Civil Rights movement, his experiences during Freedom Summer opened his eyes and inspired him to carry on the work for the rest of his life. During the course of project, dozens of the Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten and 37 churches were burned by Mississippi residents that opposed their efforts. Three activists were murdered as well. A recent documentary called "Freedom Summer" revisits the importance of the project, and was screened on campus at Cal State Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon. Following the film, several intellectuals and professors like Crittendon discussed Freedom Summer, the Civil Rights Movement, and whether or not times have changed.

Early on in the panel discussion, Crittendon recalled a famous quote from Malcolm X that "the Civil Rights movement was actually a human rights movement." He was joined on the panel by a number of other intellectuals, like the noted Chicano writer and activist Tomas Benitez, education activist Sylvia Mendez, former Black Panther Ericka Huggins, and Professors Melina Abdullah, Michael Soldatenko and Jean-Philippe Marcoux. The panel was moderated by the Cal State Los Angeles Professor Dr. Lauri Ramey. The discussion addressed racial justice, what it means to claim freedom, and whether or not the American Dream still exists.

Tomas Benitez is known around Los Angeles for his work in the Chicano Movement and his many years of work at Self Help Graphics. He summarized the 90-minute discussion with this statement:

Listening to history-makers talk about the history they made. Listening to Sylvia Mendez talk about her childhood and what she endured. Listening to Ericka Huggins talk about freedom, even while incarcerated for being a Black Panther, listening to David Crittendon talk about Freedom Summer, his perspective from being there at ground level. And scholars like Melina Abdullah, Michael Soldatenko and Jean-Philippe Marcoux were there to add their rich insights to the Claiming Freedom Symposium tonight at CSULA. It was an honor to be part of this presentation tonight and thanks to Dr. Lauri Ramey for her leadership! It was an empowering evening, rife with wisdom, passion and memory. But the keynote was not what has been done, great as it was, but rather what is next? What is to be done now? Push back on hate, fight forward, and never stop moving, never give up.

As Tomas Benitez notes above, the main point of this event is to carry the work on and never stop fighting for justice. The discussion continued the following day with more poetry readings, as well as teach-ins led by each of the panel participants. The teach-ins are based on the similar teach-ins that were held during Freedom Summer. A final third part of this symposium continues on February 19 with the screening of Sophie Rachmuhl's Los Angeles poetry documentary and a reading by Marisela Norte. This was covered in last week's column.


Video still of Ashaki Jackson reading her poem 'Passing Pahmona' from a post on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut tumblr
Video still of Ashaki Jackson reading her poem 'Passing Pahmona' from a post on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut tumblr

On Saturday February 7 at 5 p.m. in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, 30 poets will be reading in conjunction with a nationwide event called, "BlackPoetsSpeakOut." Similar readings are happening in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Kansas City, Chicago, Austin, Indianapolis, Boulder, Twin Cities, and New Jersey. The series was organized by Cave Canem fellows Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, Jonterri Gadson, Amanda Johnston, and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe. The Brooklyn-based Cave Canem, founded in 1996, is "A home for the many voices of African American poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets." They have produced many publications, conducted countless workshops and hosted dozens of readings during their illustrious run.

The Los Angeles edition was organized by Cave Canem fellows Ashaki Jackson and F. Douglas Brown and the Emerging Voices fellow Kima Jones. Other prominent Black Los Angeles poets like Conney Williams will also be reading. In addition to these writers, the event is a cross-community reading and will also include people like Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, Nicky Schildkraut, Luivette Resto, Margaret Rhee, Gloria Basulto, Kenji Liu, Vickie Vertiz, Xochitil-Julisa Bermejo and Jean Ho, among many others. All of the readers will be reading poems written by Black elders like Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, and Amiri Baraka and more.

Working in conjunction with a Tumblr site, BlackPoetsSpeakOut, the project's purpose, according to organizer Mahogany Browne, is "to centralize in one space hundreds of poems, songs, prayers and testimonies speaking on behalf of black mothers, black fathers, black brothers and sisters--thousands of voices insisting on justice. BlackPoetsSpeakOut videos are a collective outcry for our black lives."

One other participant in the Los Angeles reading is Dr. Fred Moten. Moten is an award-winning poet and also Professor at UC Riverside. His recent book, "The Little Edges," published by Wesleyan University Press has been celebrated for uniting the African-American vernacular with avant-garde sensibilities. Moten advocates for justice in elevated language or as poet Maggie Nelson says, "With political meditation, and undeniable beauty."

The 30 poets on stage at BlackPoetsSpeakOut, like Juan Felipe Herrera and Mike Davis at Writers Week and the participants in the Claiming Freedom Symposium at Cal State L.A., are all working together in unison to advocate social justice and to push America forward. Similar to the Langston Hughes poem, "Let America Be America Again," these voices say, "O, let America be America again--/The land that never has been yet--/And yet must be--the land where every man is free." Across Southern California and across the country, there is a collective consciousness advocating for equality and racial justice. Salute to all of these voices for their groundbreaking work in the topography of American and L.A. Letters.

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