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  • Roadwork, Poetry, and Change

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    “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” —June Jordan

    Poetry, whose definition and form has evolved throughout time, has continuously proved to be an expression of strength and revolution from within. Roadwork, a D.C.-based multiracial coalition that puts women artists on the road globally, advocates for the expressive power of poetry. Roadwork attended the 2018 Folklife Festival in the form of the Sisterfire concert as well as poetry, spoken word, and activist reflections on women’s cultures past and future.

    The “Words That Build a Movement” session, held on July 8, coincided with poet and activist June Jordan’s birthday. Jordan, who highlighted the power of truth and poetry in her work, was repeatedly invoked throughout the event, especially by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, the first person to conduct archival research on her papers.

    Hosting the panel was Alexis De Veaux, whose own writing has amplified the voices of the Black Arts Movement as well as the black feminist movement and the Third-World Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. The panel featured poets, writers, and activists Venus Thrash, Roya Marsh, and Gumbs. Although they come from different cities and backgrounds, they share a belief in the power of words. The poems shared touched upon police brutality, white supremacy, lesbian relationships, femininity, sexuality, and hope.

    Alexis Pauline Gumbs
    Alexis Pauline Gumbs founded her own grassroots publishing initiative Broken Beautiful Press at the age of nineteen.
    Photo by Ryan Whittemore
    I Must Become the Action of My Fate
    Alexis Pauline Gumbs at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    A Spell to Save Your Life
    Alexis Pauline Gumbs at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    In these recordings, each poem tells a particular story and provides a glimpse into the poet’s life, serving as a sort of catalogue of emotion. The poems range from beautiful to angry to erotic, but never lessen in power and strength. They exemplify the power of words and the role they can play in inspiring and maintaining a movement as well as giving voice to the experiences and stories of the poets who share them.

    Although the panel opened up multiple times for questions from the audience, each time they were asked to share more of their work.

    Venus Thrash
    Poet Alexis DeVeaux was born and raised in Harlem. Her work has bridged multiple genres: fiction, children’s literature, playwriting, and poetry.
    Photo by Ryan Whittemore
    When Earth Is (To Those Who Have Abused Our Humanity)
    Alexis DeVeaux at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    The artists featured have been published by Redbone Press, which was founded in 1997 by Lisa C. Moore and endeavors to publish work celebrating the cultures of black lesbians and gay men as well as promote understanding between black gays and lesbians and the black mainstream.

    The crowd grew so large it couldn’t fit in the designated seating area of the Ateneu Exchange. The National Mall—site of the Women’s March, the March on Washington, and so many other momentous protests—provided the perfect backdrop for these powerful poems. As I stood, haphazardly taking notes on my phone, I found myself repeatedly sucked in by the cadence of their speech. The rest of the audience seemed to as well, occasionally calling out affirmations or nodding along. Nestled between programs about Catalonia and Armenia, places familiar with restriction and violence, the words of freedom, change, and acceptance seemed to reverberate.

    Roya Marsh
    Roya Marsh, a New York native, explains that it is okay to feel angry about the state of the world today, but also emphasizes the importance of black joy.
    Photo by Ryan Whittemore
    For Every Woman
    Roya Marsh at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    Rachel Barton is a media intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a rising senior at Rowan University, double majoring in English and Writing Arts. Most of her interests are shaded by her concerns for social justice and gender equality. Audio recorded and mastered by Dave Walker.

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