Monday, May 1, 2017

"My Heritage Holds Me Hostage": The Puppet Show

Before reading my commentary, please watch this two minute group spoken word poem.  The poets are on the slam team that I co-coach with Anita Cellucci (@anitacellucci, @LibraryWHS).  The students are (from left to right):  Kofi, Nakia, Nikki, and Nadine.  You may need to watch it more than once because the poets speak fast.

Pretty incredible, aren't they?  Yes, they co-wrote that poem.  Yes, they blocked and choreographed the poem.  And yes, they are so proud of their performance. As Anita and I are!

The students put their voices, hearts, and souls on the line.  They commit the ultimate human act:  to share their vulnerabilities in order to connect with fellow peers, family members, and community members.  Often the hope is to be validated, to be heard.

And yes, what they slammed is indeed from personal experience; I validate that important point, because today in 2017 we know people still will call with malicious intent someone a "cross breed" or will follow someone because they are "suspicious" based on the color of his/her skin.  Unfortunately, these are our students' lived experiences.

Our students speak the words My heritage holds me hostage, not intentionally,  but because of this skin.  The statement is a powerful, haunting, and chilling line because it is packed with the complexities of race, racism, identity, and other social constructs that our students are facing on a daily basis.  Our students chose the metaphor of puppetry because they often feel like they are puppets being controlled by society's stereotypes, misperceptions, and falsehoods.  However, by sharing their experiences in this poem, they are educating the viewers, empowering themselves, and dispelling the stereotypes that they have been labeled.

Co-coaching the team has been a transformational experience for me as I have learned way more from my students than I believe I have been able to offer them.  And yet, humbly, I know Anita and I have offered them a safe space in which to feel, think and act freely.  We have guided them to process life experiences, encouraged them to celebrate their creativity, and laughed and cried with them about the silly moments and harsh struggles of day to day life.  I have such a deep respect for these young people who are willing to perform in front of peers and adults.

Our students also perform individually in slam competitions.  They write and perform poems on a whole range of topics:  race, racism, sexuality, friendships, love, social justice, body image, etc.  We are grateful to MassLEAP (Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective  ( who provides a multiple opportunities and venues for our students to slam.

Below are some resources to check out if you are interested in looking at more spoken word poems.  I also use a lot of slam poetry in my classes as a way to complement the literature I am teaching.  Students are so moved by the performance poems and often make strong personal connections.