NEW HAVEN – Racial injustice, women’s rights and a divided nation dominated the Z Experience Poetry Slam at Yale Peabody Museum’s 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, shining a light on the continued fight by Black Americans and honoring a local activist.
In partnership with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the museum enlisted ten poets for a free event on Monday. In each of the three rounds, performers spoke of the efforts of the civil rights leader and of modern day inequalities.
The winner of the poetry slam, Slangston Hughes, earned the highest score of the event – 29.7 out of 30 – from the five judges in his impassioned second-round performance with a piece calling for the cancellation of America. Attendees in the crowded Yale O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall cheered as Hughes began, urging Americans to stop debating gun laws and statues, and instead question the treatment of Black people in their country.
“In these sensitive times, one of the most prevalent phenomenons is what’s known as ‘cancel culture.’ We’ve been aiming at the wrong targets. Fuck all the fuckboys, problematic rappers and political barriers, scrolling through the hysteria. It’s time to cancel America. This is it. Fuck reparations, I want sanitation. America, we’ve had enough of your shit. Forget hashtags – this country deserves a body bag.”
“We demanded reparations, and they tried to put Harriet on a 20. That’s not what we meant. We asked for change, and they put Maya Angelou on a quarter. That’s not what we meant. Y’all not listening. Our word is infinite. What the fuck is 25 cents when you know you owe interest?”
In the three-minute round, Hughes repeatedly referenced failures of the government to improve life for Black Americans, including the more than 125 years between the surge of lynchings following the Civil War and President Joe Biden declaring lynchings a federal hate crime in 2022.
Close behind Hughes, second-place winner Lyrical Faith earned a score of 29.6 in a tie-breaker round against third-place winner Goddess Tymani Rain. Faith detailed seven lessons that she learned at Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. She laughed as she described the first lesson – let White people stand at the front of the march – but shifted her tone as she discussed an ongoing failure to protect Black lives.
“Let the White people get in front. Nah, deadass. We know y’all wanted to be invited to the cookout, and praise God – this is the cookout. Can’t you see the fire ablaze in the distance? Don’t you smell the brown meat grilling? Hot, angry from years of being burnt in the freezer? Hungry from how long we’ve been left to rot? You asked for this upon building a cold shoulder to my existence on our backs. Damn right, this ain’t a democracy unless you ice it down with me. So yeah, allow your white shield to cover me like a picnic of guilty tears. It’s the least you can do after showing up early and bringing nothing for decades.”
Faith continued with the remaining lessons she learned since the 2020 protests, including a lack of justice for the deaths of Black women like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland and an everlasting need for marches – citing the seven-month Freedom Rides and six-month Greensboro sit-ins – before tying her seventh lesson in with the first.
“You wanted an invite so bad, right? Well, here it is. Don’t walk up empty handed and then expect us to still fix you a plate.”
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 variety of issues including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, police brutality and a growing reliance on technology, they all called for change in pursuit of equality and justice.
In an interview with CT Examiner, Yale Peabody Museum’s Director of Student Program David Heiser said the event began in 1997 at the suggestion of New Haven community activists. But he said that one leader in particular, Zanette Lewis, truly cemented the poetry slam as the centerpiece of the event.
In addition to volunteering at Peabody, Lewis was 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 Peabody staff to Ngoma Hill – longtime emcee of the annual celebration – who has scouted the poets and helped to coordinate the event since.
Following Lewis’s death in 2009, Heiser said, the museum named the slam “Z Experience Poetry Slam” in her honor.
“We got together with [Hill], with some of the other organizers and we said, ‘How can we honor Zanette’s memory?” And it didn’t take long,” Heiser recalled. “It became pretty clear that the best way to do that, in everybody’s mind, was to name the poetry event in her honor.”
Heiser began working for the museum only a few years following the start of the event, and said that it had continuously evolved over the last 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 had continuously brought in members of the New Haven community.
“It’s a moment where all sorts of people are getting together. The energy is really high, the passion is there, people are speaking their truth and they’re speaking their minds,” Heiser said. “We hear year in and year out that it’s among people’s favorite, among the most memorable part of the program.”
Peabody Event Coordinator Shannon Mitchell continued, saying that poetry was an integral part of the Black community and a time-honored tradition.
“Within the Black community, I feel like poetry in general has just been so integral and so ingrained, so it’s honestly no surprise that this part has so much staying power,” Mitchell said. “I’m just really glad that we can continue to honor spoken word, and just continue pushing people who want to do poetry and want to listen to it.”
Monday marked the first in-person Z Experience Poetry Slam since the start of the pandemic, and garnered the largest audience the event had seen – as of Friday, over 500 people had registered for the slam. During the competition, Hill thanked the attendees for their support between performances.
“It’s really good to see all of y’all,” Hill smiled. “This has been the largest, most-attended slam that we’ve had.”