The art of staying woke

The poetry of protest will be on display at St. Pete's Carter Woodson Museum this Sunday.

A Night of Protest Poetry and Witness

Sun., July 24

Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum, 2240 9th Ave. S., St. Pete. 727-323-1104. Event on Facebook.

Stay woke.

It’s a social media hash tag, shot unfortunately into the limelight in the wake of the Trayvon Martin “stand your ground” shooting. Erykah Badu popularized it in her song, “Master Teacher.” It means, simply put, that black people should be aware that the dream of racial equality remains only that: A dream.

“It’s a... way of saying ‘wake up’; it challenges people to become politically aware, politically conscious, to educate themselves about history and political action and to put these deaths into a broader political context and a longer historical context,” Dr. Julie Armstrong, professor of American Literature and Culture at USF St. Petersburg, says.

While that phrase may be a relatively recent addition to our lexicon, the underlying sentiment is not. To find it, look to the arts, not the news.

“A lot of civil rights literature and art has a wake up call in it —do you remember Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing?”

The first scene in that movie has the disc jockey with an alarm clock next to his lips, and he tells listeners, “Waaaake up, wake up wake wake up, up you wake, up you wake up you wake up you wake.” 

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun begins with the wife, Ruth, telling Walter Lee, “It’s after seven thirty! Lemme see you do some waking up in there now! (She waits.) You better get up from there, man!”

“It’s s not just getting up out of bed,” Armstrong notes “It’s that he needs to stand up for himself.” 

History may be written by the winners, but art? That’s another story. Sarah Lain created A Night of Protest Poetry and Witness at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum to help people understand the race problems facing America. The evening will combine poetry and art that help people process recent racially-motivated events.

“I gathered together poets I knew with the largest voices and reach. My hope in doing so was that the merit of their positions in ... our community would necessitate a listening audience. These are diverse voices — educated voices — and I believe they should be heard,” Lain explained.

“Art and literature gives us the means to express and talk through some of the most difficult social times,” Armstrong says. “You’ve seen this in the civil rights movement, through the Viet Nam War, through other times of social conflict. It helps people express grief, it helps people express anger, it helps people express frustration in productive ways.”

Sunday night, Armstrong will read US poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s, “@the Crossroads: A Sudden American Poem.” She’ll be in talented company: Sheree Greer, Gloria Munoz and Florida’s poet laureate Peter Meinke will also read.

“Peter Meinke... has called poetry ‘the emotional history of the world,'” Lain says. “In times of great systemic oppression and grief, people have turned to poets, and to the arts, to help interpret complexity of emotion, such as rage, grief and resilience. Understanding these emotions, and the histories involved with these emotions in America, is critical right now.”

Armstrong agrees.

It’s not going to change the world, but it might change my world, and it might change the world of people who are there.

“We’re trying to use art and literature to make sense of this really difficult time in our country,” she says. “I think this is a way for concerned people to come together and hear art that helps them process some of those most difficult thoughts and feelings, help them make sense of what’s going on. If you listen to social media, especially, it’s so vitriolic, it’s so polarizing. It’s not productive and it’s not helpful. For me, art and literature is a much more productive way of thinking through what’s happening. It’s not going to change the world, but it might change my world, and it might change the world of people who are there.”

The night will also include art from Christy Marie and Evan Thomas Niemann. Marie, a photographer who lives in Tampa, will have six of her I Matter, WE Matter photos. She took the photos earlier this month at the Orpheum during a rally related to #blacklivesmatter; her subjects represent the crowd at the event: black, Afro-Latina, white, Asian and transgender.

“It was to show our humanity, that I was tired of seeing dead bodies all over Facebook and Instagram. It was really taking a toll on me,” Marie, who describes herself as a ‘person of color’, says. “I wanted to show that people had purpose while they’re living, and to see us and not just see blood and gunshot wounds and ‘rest in peace’ and all that stuff after the fact.”

“There’s a cycle of: Protest, a change in headlines, some of the population going back to life as normal, and then another shooting and then a protest. There needs to be a prolonged mechanism for protest, where it’s brought to attention on a weekly basis,” Lain says, adding in an email: 

“Real creativity is when you think of all the things you could do to help the problem, and you say, ‘I have already tried all of this more than once, and the problem persists.’ And you make up your mind to think of something else, and you make up your mind to do it.”

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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