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Split This Rock! Poems Inspired by the American Folklife Center Archives

Members of the Washington, D.C. Youth Slam Team of Split This Rock performed poems inspired by recordings, photographs and field notes from the American Folklife Center archives on June 08, 2019 in an event co-sponsord by the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center. The video of these remarkable young poets is now available. This essay presents the video with some background about Split This Rock! and the poets.

Split This Rock, as described in their mission statement, “cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change.” Each year, the organization serves hundreds of young people and the schools they attend by offering opportunities to write, perform, and connect with a diverse community of socially engaged writers. The name of the organization comes from a line in “Big Buddy,” a poem from Langston Hughes.

Don’t you hear this hammer ring?
I’m gonna split this rock
And split it wide!
When I split this rock,
Stand by my side.

“Big Buddy”  was inspired by “Hammer Ring,” one name for a traditional song of which we have many versions in the American Folklife Center archive. A version of the work song used to break rocks sung by an unidentified group of men was recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in Brazoria, Texas, on April 16, 1939 and is called simply “Hammer Song” (the line split this rock is not in the verses sung).

The student poets, Amina Fatima, Takier George, Marjan Naderi,  and Jordan Shaibani, along with Alexa Patrick, a teacher with Split This Rock, visited the American Folklife Center reading room prior to the performance, assisted by folklorist Michelle Stefano and reference staff. The poets did research using the collections, listening to songs performed by the novelist, playwright, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, as well as recordings of former slaves in the online presentation Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories, and the oral histories of the Civil Rights History Project.

Their poetry was inspired by the experience of exploring an ethnographic archive for the first time, as much as by any item they found in the archive. Their poetry is also intensely personal, relating to their experiences as African Americans or as Muslim Americans, for example. Some poems eloquently express the experience of being treated as “other.”  For example, in one of her poems Amina Fatima tells us what it is like to be a hijabi, a woman who has chosen to wear a hijab; Takier George and Jordan Shaibani read their deeply personal poems that show us what it is like to be a young woman of color in America; and Marjan Naderi gives us a poem about her mother’s Afghan cooking that draws us into her family’s refugee and immigrant experiences.

These themes that come naturally to the poets are in keeping with the theme of ethnographic archives as they are of importance to those of us who want to better understand cultural identity as it is experienced in the twenty-first century and to promote a wider understanding of diversity in American society.

The presentation of poetry is followed by a discussion moderated by folklorist Michelle Stefano. The students and Split This Rock instructor Alexa Patrick talked about the work of creating poetry and the process of discussing poems as a group, a practice that helps the poets to develop their writing and their skills of presentation. I was impressed by the courage of these young poets in exploring personal, challenging, and emotionally charged topics in their poems. They discuss that and talk about how they come to the point where they are ready to write and then read poetry that has such deep personal meaning for them.

Five young women pose in front of the front steps of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress.

Members of the Washington, D.C. Youth Slam Team for 2019 of Split This Rock, vist the Library of Congress. Photo by Michelle Stefano.

The poets in order of appearance are:

Amina Fatima, a 2019 high school graduate of Hayfield Secondary School. She will be attending Northern Virginia Community College to study general science in the fall. Fatima has been a part of the Split This Rock community since she was 14 years old. For the past three years she has been president of her high school poetry club. She and her team won first place at Louder Than A Bomb DMV 2019.

Jordan Shaibani,  a junior at Walt Whitman High School. Outside of the D.C. Youth Slam Team, she participates in her school’s Debate and Mock Trial Teams. She also leads the Young Professionals Club and the Minority Scholars Program on both local and county levels.

Marjan Naderi, a five-time Grand Slam champion winner, the 2018 Library of Congress National Book Festival Poetry Slam champion, two-time Nationals MIST Spoken Word winner, and the 2019 D.C. Youth Slam Finals Slam champion. While being on the 2018 and 2019 D.C. Youth Slam Teams, Naderi was been featured in the Washington Post and Now This Her.

Takier George, an a 11th grader at Wakefield High School, set to graduate in 2020. She has been a member of Wakefield’s Louder Than A Bomb team for the past two years and a part of the Wakefield Poetry Club for the last three years. This is her first year on the D.C. Youth Slam Team.

Michelle Stefano steps up to offer a poem of her own in the spirit of the event.

The student poets’ instructor is Alexa Patrick, a singer and poet from Connecticut. She is a Cave Canem Fellow, and holds teaching positions through Split This Rock, the University of the District of Columbia, and the Center for Creative Youth at Wesleyan University. In addition to the D.C. Youth Slam Team, she has also coached the slam teams of American University and George Washington University for the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational. Her work has been published in CRWN Magazine and “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic.”

Resources

Botkin Archives: A Menu of Past Benjamin Botkin Lectures from the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (find lectures, storytelling, and more)

Muslim American Journeys Listening Event, July 24, 2017, Library of Congress

Opalanga Pugh African American storytelling from Colorado with Askia Touré on voice and drum, May 28, 2008, Library of Congress

Split This Rock! Poetry Jam, June 8, 2019,  Library of Congress

Waking Up the People with Linda Goss, June 29, 2006, Library of Congress (African American storytelling)

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