It's a blessing when it rains in LA these days.
Despite the chaos of an entire city collectively forgetting how to drive and a nagging feeling that your roof is going to cave in, the misty solitude is a welcome vacation from our static backdrop of plastic sunshine. The streets become a patchwork of mismatched concrete and the famous forest of LA signage becomes somehow more artificial, more contrived.
The rain forces Angelenos indoors, though where we choose to end up is up to us. This Saturday I chose to end up at The Sweatspot for the LA edition of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, an international series of events structured to gather artists and audiences from all communities to highlight the words of Black poets in response to anti-Black state and societal violence.
I know The Sweatspot as a dance studio where I took an ironic jazzercise-ish class a few years ago. 2011 was an odd year for me. Funny how life choices evolve.
Though perhaps applicable to the entire stretch of Sunset Boulevard's Silverlake section, the studio is surrounded by hip food joints like the go-to Night + Market and a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich shop. Walking from my car I passed a billboard for handcrafted single-stone jewelry. Community murals lined the approach. It's a complex area.
After exploring a parking lot for a bit to figure out where I was (the entrance to the studio is hidden in the back of a burger joint parking lot because it's Silverlake), I stepped out of the foggy pavement and into the warm light of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut LA.
It really felt warm. Like that feeling of stepping into a ramen shop after schlepping from your car through sprinkling rain. Not only did the temperature shift, but so did the energy in the air from abandoned streets to communal gathering.
The room was packed, and it would be get more crowded over the course of the evening. I found a far corner seat next to two kids failing hard at sitting still. I sat down just as the program started.
Internationally, the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut model is the same. Poets step up to the mic one by one. Before reading they recite the same words -- "I am a Black [or insert community here] poet and I will not remain silent while this nation murders Black people. I have the right to be angry." They then read the writing of a Black poet, some pieces contemporary, some pieces classic, all performances powerful.
Though I knew some of the folks reading, I was struck by how few of the overall I recognized.
In fact more than struck, I was a little shocked.
In a city that affords us all such limited bandwidth, I often find myself cutting corners in my community building process out of perceived necessity/basic time availability. I cannot read every e-mail that crosses my inbox or examine every Facebook event invite. These are not excuses, mind you, and this post is certainly not intended to be navel-gazing self flagellation (perhaps I have already failed) but reading through this list I was shocked that I knew so few of these names yet have owned the title of artist-organizer for a good two to three years. Where have I been that I do not know any of them?
The event went on. Artist after artist stepped up to the mic. "I have the right to be angry."
The voices were strong, passionate. Every performer who stepped on the stage owned their words. Organizer Natalie Graham paused and drank in the air before floating Anne Spencer's haunting piece "White Things." Artist Kuahmel recited Ted Jones from memory. Poet Luviette Resto sparked the room with June Jordan's "Poem About My Rights."
"I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name"
In working towards solidarity with any non-Japanese American community I find myself anxious sometimes, nervous that I am not a strong or educated enough ally to take action or mobilize. Even with this event I was asked to read but did not want to take space; I was concerned that I might misstep or might take time away from someone else who needs to be heard at this moment.
And it goes back, perhaps, to learned behavior that roots in culture or family but the more I sat and listened the more I was able to de-center my self-anxiety and pompous inflated ego. The passion, intensity, and pure artistry of all the readers reminded of how urgent the need for change is and how unnecessary/problematic it is to prioritize my own mis-read misgivings. I must always be self-critical and in a process of self-awareness and evaluation, but I can only hide behind "I don't know if I'm good enough" for so long.
At some point I must stop being wholly concerned with how little I know and instead invest in self-education and growth into action. It may seem reflective and mindful at first, but it is not long before paralysis at the hands of fear becomes little more than an excuse for laziness. I can not sit at home wondering what I "should" be doing and then claim the role of an "ally"; that role must be earned through action.
And here is an action item that we can all participate in!
#BlackPoetsSpeakOut is currently in a phase of letter writing:
1. Find your elected official's contact info
2. Modify this letter and send to your elected official
3. Spread the word!
Don't be that person sitting at home waiting for the word. As my friend Damon Turner said it, "This is the word."
Though I am glad I went into this event as a listener, I will not let that become a precedent for future action and future building. I am glad to have met the people I did at the event and am excited to learn more names and explore more processes with intention. It is unreasonable and self-centered to hold myself accountable for names the universe has not introduced me to yet. LA is a big city. I am ready to explore.
Patrisse Cullors stepped up to the microphone at the end of the program. One of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter, Patrisse has been traveling the world organizing and speaking to share tactics and build movement. We were asked to stand as she recited Assata Shakur as a call and response.
"It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains"