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To The Front: Poet & Activist Shatriya Smith


Across the country, it appears that a cultural sea change is taking place. Sexism that has long been inherent in society is getting acknowledged perhaps more than ever, in large part due to the #MeToo movement and activist women who have organized as a result of the 2016 presidential election. It’s unclear what lasting effects might take hold.

For the second installment of this series, we talk with Springfield activist and author, Shatriya Smith. Smith has been involved in conversations on race and a variety of social justice causes. She is self-published, her book of poems is called The Poem TreeSmith's grandmother moved to area from Cairo, Illinois as part of a vocational program. Smith is a lifelong resident of the Springfield's east side, and says more resources are needed to help women of color in particular find viable jobs. She joined us for this conversation about the nuances and struggles when it comes to being a female of color in the worlds of poetry and activism:


SMITH: "Well, I have been told and I recognize that there is a male-dominated inference in both (activism and poetry), but I recognize that people are really interested in African American females to become more involved in the community, and there's a push for that, but I've also recognized that we do get, you know second-best sometimes even though we put in a lot of effort."

OTWELL: "What personally drove you in both aspects?"

Credit courtesy
a poem by Smith in her book, 'The Poem Tree'

SMITH: "I can give all credit to Grandma Tina. She was an activist and her community, my grandmother Logan was an activist in her community, so the women in our family are very strong and capable of doing a lot of great things. Nonetheless in poetry, I want to give credence to my grandmother Tina, she read to me my first poetry book, and it was Paul Laurence Dunbar, and she taught me how to read, it and that was the first time that anybody actually sat down, and taught me how to read. Before that I was just repeating a lot of words, and then when she you know introduced me to what the meaning of the words were and how they came together to make poetry I would just be in awe of her and the way that she would speak especially with the Ebonics. She had the dialect down and she could read it to me so that I could understand it, and Paul Laurence Dunbar did dabble in Ebonics and that poetry can be very difficult to read."

OTWELL: "I've witnessed you being very active as far as supporting a group of younger poets, helping them establish a poetry "fight club" for instance. It's a group that's always changing, but it's a diverse group that's been led by females. What's it been like helping them find a voice and a place in the community?"

SMITH: "It just makes me feel warm inside. I'm just glad to be able to help and to share with guidance as much as possible. Johari (Idusuyi) and Emma (Wilson) put this together at the beginning, they just ask for consultation and what they should do and you know what it should look like. And it made me really excited just to be around the magnitude of artists that these people are ... I'm pretty lucky."

OTWELL: "And so much of your activism and to an extent the content of your poetry has to do with race - so can you talk about your identity and your self image, and how that plays into your perspective?"

SMITH: "I just have different facets of myself that I have to reach out and satisfy, or I don't feel satisfied as a human being, and as far as that having to do with a lot of my race and culture - racially it's hard for people of color to stand out and not be demonized. We're just regular individuals trying to do the best that we can do and to put yourself out there is really scary. You know you can be a Mary Magdalene at any moment, and it happens to people on a regular basis. So I already assumed that I'm Mary Magdalene. I already assumed that I'm "big mama." You know I already assumed that I'm "Miss Triya" and all of these different names that I've given myself throughout my life. I assume that identity and I just go for it. Because who can tell me who I am."

OTWELL: "And we're sitting in as you mentioned your grandmother's house, and you mentioned her activism - was racism something that she talked about openly?"

Credit Otwell
Smith reading at a "poetry fight club" event at The Pharmacy gallery in Springfield

SMITH: "My family did. She not so specifically, but I remember hearing stories ... When you talk about the history of race and that narrative, it's been going on for so long. So we're going to have these stories for the rest of our lives, and if it's not going to be about race, it's going to be about gender - if it's not going to be about gender, it's going to be about something else, so the stories will continue. Women telling on people and men in power right now, this has been going on for so long - though we might be able to turn a few pages and accomplish some things, it's not going to stop."

OTWELL: "There's been a lot of females who either got reacquainted with activism, or became activists after the presidential election -- the Women's March on Washington, we had a similar local version, as many cities across the country did, and there's still groups that are active ... have you been heartened at all to see changes...?"

SMITH: "That's a very good question. It's disheartening that you do so much and so little happens. You know? You put forth so much effort and so little happens, but if you don't, what happens when you just lay down and give up ... With the president now being Donald Trump people recognize the apathy that was going on, and more people are invested and still nothing's changed. Not much has changed to my community. We don't have basketball courts for the African-American kids. There is no youth center for the neighborhood for the kids. We have certain programs, but they can only take so many people. It was so overwhelming. It was so hard to see the same things going on and nothing changed, and you put in tons of effort. It's disheartening."

OTWELL: "What's your hope for the future in regards to equality both in terms of gender and race?"

SMITH: "It would be nice to see more diversity in programs and in jobs in the city, in the state. When my great grandmother came here from Cairo, she was on a patronage program for the state and literally, they only had to pass a single test and they did on the job training. I think the systemic narrative is if you've been down for so long you should stay down, that's very difficult to overcome for a lot of young women ... We should put out more hiring opportunities, just for young black women and especially from our own universities. So why is it that we don't have enough kids staying after they get college? Because they're not offered a position that's lucrative for them to stay."

OTWELL: "One thing that you were a participant in was the 'Sacred conversations on Race' that was part of Faith Coalition for the Common Good as well as the Dominican Sisters in town and some other groups, I'm sure had some buy-in, but tell us a little bit about what you witnessed."

SMITH: "Oh, it was amazing. I just want to say that was some of the best, almost two years of my life, spending with Dominican Sisters and the Faith Coalition ... giving me the opportunity to do so many things with so many great people. Just meeting people -- sharing my personal views to hundreds of people about race relations in America from my perspective. Oh that freed a lot of pent-up hostility that I had because I thought white people hated me. It made interconnecting relationships a lot easier, and I've been invited to homes that I would never have been in before, and eaten dinner with people that I would have never spoken to before -- and made friends with with amazing people that I would had never had the opportunity to meet. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it."

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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