Silence falls on the audience as a student steps toward the microphone, clutching a paper in one hand. Out spills a poem of pride, of accountability and of hope, reverberating around the Walker Student Center.
The Multicultural Organization of Students Active In Christ (MOSAIC) hosted a poetry slam on March 12, inviting students to listen “to others celebrate African American and POC poetry,” according to advertising for the event. Leaders of MOSAIC desired to host a slam since their freshman year Sophie Mumba, vice president, said. “We also wanted … events that did not directly focus on educating white students on campus about racism but rather focus on lifting up students of color on campus,” Mumba said.
This event celebrating creativity and culture reflects a larger movement, the Black Renaissance, which echoes the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While many may call to mind the image of Amanda Gorman performing her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, author and anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi cites the works of Ava DuVernay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael B. Jordan, Chloe x Halle and other Black creatives over the past decade.
“In this new Black Renaissance, we are once again shedding what and who do not serve us. Our plays, portraits, films, shows, books, music, essays, podcasts and art are growing in popularity—are emancipating the American consciousness, and banging on the door of the classical canon… Black creators have inspired Native, Asian, white, Latinx and Middle Eastern creators just as they inspired us. Black creators in the United States have inspired Black creators abroad just as those creators abroad have inspired us. Around the world we are becoming,” Kendi wrote for Time.
The John Brown University poetry slam competition featured multiple students and staff members, including President Chip Pollard and Jonathan Himes, professor of English. Himes, along with Trisha Posey, director of the Honors Scholars program and professor of history, and Ted Song, coordinator of diversity and innovation, served as judges.
Olivia Lee, freshman English major, recited “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes.
Emily Branum, senior Spanish major, recited “La gramática de mi hije” by Mara Pastor, a poem about a mother, her child and the power of words. Describing the inspiration behind their selection, Branum said, “I wanted to share one … that taught me a lot about my identity, my own strength, my own power, in addition to improving my language skills.”
Pollard shared “homage to my hips” and “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989” by Lucille Clifton. Himes shared multiple poems, including “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and “Ash” by Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States.
The judges, after tallying their scores, awarded Lee with first place and a $50 Amazon gift card. Branum won second place and a $30 gift card. Mumba shared hopes for future poetry slams. “We would like it to be an annual event, and maybe next year we can get more students to read at the event,” Mumba said.