First Poetry-Based Symposium on Race and Racism Elicits Thoughtful Questions and Answers

by Donna Miscolta, Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

“I didn’t expect to feel so much.”

This testament to the power of the spoken word was one of several offered by the audience at the first of four symposiums on “Reflecting on Race and Racism through Spoken Word, Story, and Conversation” on January 12. This project, innovative in its approach to an understanding of racism, is made possible by the King County ESJ Opportunity Fund.

Two poets, Quenton Baker and Casandra Lopez, presented their work to a group of 50 employees. It was a new experience for both poets and audience. Baker, upon stepping to the podium to read his poems, elicited laughter from the audience when he remarked that this was the first time he’d come to a government building to read poetry to government employees.

Race Symposium QandC5

Quenton Baker (left) and Casandra Lopez (right).

Baker and Lopez took turns at the podium for two rounds of intensely felt and powerfully delivered poems that allowed the audience to see racism through the personal and very vivid lens of poetry. Baker believes “that poetry is key in creating the empathetic space necessary for people to excavate their unexamined investments in oppressive systems.” Here’s the opening of “Diglossic in the Second America,” one of the poems that Baker shared:

If you’re kind, you say high or low. Honest: you say [default] or black.

But we don’t say black. Not now. Only dog whistles: welfare queen

tough on crime. Wow! Look at her run, such a natural athlete.

What I mean is: two tongues: high and low speech; white teeth and suit or thug.

But don’t I have both? Little mulatto codebreaker, identity that jump cuts like a running back.

Wait, am I even black? How black? On a scale of rapist to corner boy?

Here’s a segment from Lopez’s piece titled “a few notes about public grief.”

6) don’t look too tattooed. don’t look too uneducated. don’t look too brown or black. don’t look too human, like a person who has made mistakes or has a drink at the end of a long day. don’t look like a person who laughs too loudly with a mouth of joy or someone’s whose body sobs history because that will make you look too brown or too black or too other. remember, you want the judge, officials, and jury to identify with you. don’t give them reason to see you as a thug, gangster or whore. don’t give them a chance to see you as too black or too brown, or too foreign.

Lopez noted the similarities in themes between her work and Baker’s.  But there is also similarity in the origin of their work. Most of Lopez’s work explores issues related to loss, identity, diaspora, race, grief, and healing. She says that “though her work tackles difficult subjects, she writes from a place of compassion which allows for multiple points of entry into her work.”

Likewise, Baker says, “My poetry begins from a place of love and is primarily interested in pushing back against stereotypes, implicit biases, and the myriad ways that various forms of supremacy act on and envelop us all.”

Following the readings, De’Sean Quinn from the Wastewater Treatment Division and Doug Nathan from the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution facilitated a discussion. Audience members were invited to ask questions of the artists. One of the first questions posed was, “What can government do to authentically address equity?”

The artists picked up on and appreciated the word authentically, a clear signal that the questioner was committed to action. Baker stressed that government has to understand how deep racism is and how much work it takes for those who hold power to break down the power structures that keep certain segments of the population. Lopez added, “There are people who are doing a lot of this work on their own but they need a more supportive structure in which to operate.”

Asked why it’s so hard for us to change, Baker cited two main factors: inertia and a fundamental disinterest.  “This has gone on for so long it’s easy for people to feel it’s not their responsibility, not their problem. And people don’t want to give up their power.”

When asked how they have the courage to write what they do, both poets responded similarly – that it’s not so much a matter of courage, as a need, even an obsession to put their stories on the page.  “For black people, survival is such an everyday concern,” Baker said. For both poets, writing seems to be a survival strategy, a way to process for themselves and others their reality in a racialized society.

An audience evaluation survey showed that nearly all respondents gained new or greater understanding of racism. Among the comments offered was “Let’s keep it going – the work is not done yet!”

Neither is the work of the symposium series. The next events are April 7 at the King County Elections Office in Renton, June 15 in the Chinook Building, and September 13 at the Eastgate office of Seattle-King County Public Health.  Employees can register on the training website (scroll down the page to find the series).

Watch some videos of the poets’ performances here.