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27th Annual Yale Peabody Poetry Slam Marks Martin Luther King Day

NEW HAVEN – Racial injustice, women’s rights and a divided nation dominated the Z Experience poetry slam at the Yale Peabody Museum’s 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, which shed light on the ongoing struggle of black Americans and honored a local activist.

In partnership with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the museum has recruited ten poets for a free event Monday. In each of the three rounds, performers spoke about the civil rights leader’s efforts and the inequalities of today.

Poetry Slam winner Slangston Hughes received the event’s highest score – 29.7 out of 30 – from the five judges in his impassioned performance in the second round with a play calling for America’s annulment. Attendees in the packed Yale OC Marsh Lecture Hall cheered as Hughes began, urging Americans to stop debating gun laws and statutes and instead question the treatment of black people in their country.

“One of the most widespread phenomena in these sensitive times is the so-called ‘cancel culture’. We aimed at the wrong targets. Fuck all the fuckboys, problem rappers and political barriers scrolling through the hysteria. It’s time to cancel America. That’s it. Fuck reparations, I want sanitation. America, we’ve had enough of your shit. Forget hashtags – this country deserves a body bag.”

Hughes continued.

“We called for reparations and they tried to put Harriet on 20. That’s not what we meant. We asked for change and they gave Maya Angelou a quarter. That’s not what we meant. you don’t listen Our word is infinite. What the hell is 25 cents when you know you owe interest?”

During the three-minute panel, Hughes repeatedly pointed to the government’s failure to improve the lives of black Americans, including the more than 125 years between the post-Civil War wave of lynchings and President Joe Biden, who turned the lynchings into a federal hate crime in 2022 explained.

Poetry Slam Judges (CT Examiner)

Just behind Hughes, second-place finisher Lyrical Faith posted a score of 29.6 in a tie-breaker round against third-place finisher Goddess Tymani Rain. Faith described seven lessons she learned during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. She laughed as she described the first lesson – leaving white people at the forefront of the march – but changed her tone when she spoke of an ongoing failure to protect black lives.

“Let the whites come forward. Nope, dead. We know you all wanted to be invited to the cookout, and thank goodness – this is the cookout. Can’t you see the fire blazing in the distance? Don’t you smell the brown meat that’s being grilled? Hot, angry from years of burning in the freezer? Hungry from the time we rotted? You asked for this when you cold shouldered my existence on our backs. Damn right, this ain’t democracy unless you chill it with me. So yes, allow your white shield to cover me like a picnic of guilt tears. It’s the least you can do after showing up early and not bringing anything with you for decades.”

Faith continued with the remaining lessons she had learned since the 2020 protests, including a lack of justice for the deaths of black women like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland and an eternal need for marches – citing the seven-month Freedom Rides and the six-month Greensboro sit-ins – before merging her seventh lesson with the first.

“You really wanted an invitation, didn’t you? Well, here it is. Don’t go empty-handed and then expect us to fix another plate for you.”

While the remaining poets – Rain, Abioseh Joseph Cole, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, Hattress Barbour, Ray Jane, Tchalla Williams, William Washingston and Yexandra Diaz – covered a wide range of subjects including the fall of Roe v. Wade, police brutality and a growing reliance on technology, they all called for change in the pursuit of equality and justice.

In an interview with CT Examiner, Yale Peabody Museum student program director David Heiser said the event began in 1997 at the suggestion of New Haven community activists. But he said one leader in particular, Zanette Lewis, really made the poetry slam the centerpiece of the event.

In addition to volunteering at Peabody, Lewis has been an active member of organizations such as the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, the New Haven Historical Society, and the National Council of Negro Women. Heiser said Lewis originally introduced the Peabody staff to Ngoma Hill – the longtime host of the annual celebration – who tracked down the poets and has since helped coordinate the event.

After Lewis’ death in 2009, Heiser said the museum named the slam the “Z Experience Poetry Slam” in her honor.

“We have teamed up [Hill], with some of the other organizers and we said, “How can we honor Zanette’s memory?” And it didn’t take long,” recalls Heiser. “It became pretty clear that, in everyone’s mind, the best way to go was to name the poetry event in her honor.”

Heiser began working for the museum just a few years after the event began and says it has continually evolved over the past 27 years. But a celebration of MLK, a connection to environmental and social justice, and poetry have remained throughout, he said.

Heiser also emphasized the power of poetry and how it has continually drawn members of the New Haven community.

“It’s a moment where all kinds of people come together. The energy is really high, the passion is there, people are telling their truth and speaking their minds,” Heiser said. “We hear year after year that it’s among the most popular and memorable parts of the program.”

Peabody events coordinator Shannon Mitchell continued, saying that poetry is an integral part of the black community and a time-honoured tradition.

“I feel like poetry is so integral and so ingrained in the black community in general, so honestly it’s no surprise that that part has so much staying power,” Mitchell said. “I’m just really happy that we can continue to honor the spoken word and just continue to inspire people to write poetry and want to listen to it.”

Monday marked the first in-person Z Experience poetry slam since the pandemic began, drawing the largest audience to have seen the event — over 500 people had registered for the slam as of Friday. During the competition, Hill thanked the contestants for their support between performances.

“It’s really nice to see you all,” Hill smiled. “This was the biggest and most attended slam we’ve ever had.”

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