Monday, October 26, 2009

Chicago Youth Poets Rage Against the Dying of the Light

I read Dawn Turner Trice's article about the spoken word performances of two Chicago student-poets, confronting the murders of classmates in a particularly violent year. Merging elegy and protest, these poets are raging against the violence of the our inner city streets, where war is not an abstraction somewhere "over there."
Video captures poetry slam performance of tribute
Dawn Turner Trice

October 26, 2009
They are performing "Lost Count: A Love Story," a spoken word poem (which they wrote with another student, Deja Taylor) that's an homage to the Chicago Public Schools children who were murdered that year.

Will they ever call your death beautiful/Your life a sacrifice/Will the meeting of blood and bullet ever be called romantic/A love story to be jealous of

The young men and women in the audience are from all over the country, but, for too many, their lives have been touched in some way by violence. Soon the audience members are overcome with grief and begin shaking their heads and sobbing. A few snap their fingers.

I recently saw the video and contacted Marshall, who's now 20 and a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, and Amparan, 19, a sophomore at Valparaiso University. Although their performance is solid, it's their message that's absolutely breathtaking.

The creative place from which Marshall draws has roots in the West Pullman neighborhood, where he grew up not far from the troubled Fenger High School.

He would have gone there if he hadn't been accepted at Whitney Young.

Though Marshall's mother worried about his long commute to Whitney Young, it was the walk through his own neighborhood that frightened her the most. One day, during his junior year, four thugs jumped him at 115th and Halsted streets as he was getting off the bus on his way home from school.

"I was fine physically, but my mother panicked and wanted to restrict where I went," Marshall told me. "She wanted my father to pick me up from the bus stop. I couldn't live like that, afraid."

But the fear was something he couldn't escape completely. Weeks after Marshall was attacked, the bludgeoned body of his friend and Whitney Young classmate Christopher Pineda, 17, was found in the Cal-Sag Channel. From "Lost Count," Marshall recites:

I remember you wearing Guatemalan green matching your flag on your Independence Day/Your hair was a black puff of curl and confidence/ ... I couldn't sleep for a week/When you washed up water logged in the Calumet River/Puffed and purple like violets before bloom

The students began writing "Lost Count" when Young Chicago Authors, a group that provides workshops on artistic expression for teens, asked students to prepare for local and national contests.

Initially, Marshall and Amparan were only going to write about friends who had died. But they began to pore over local newspapers culling information about all the students who were dying that year. Eventually their names were added to the performance and you can hear someone in the background reciting the names.

"We started with 12 and over a two-year span ended with over 60 kids who were killed," said Amparan.

He said writing the poem became an obsession. Marshall and Amparan met with a group of students four days a week after school at the Young Chicago Authors facility. But sometimes the two collaborated at a distance. Although they lived nearby -- Amparan's family lives in the Morgan Park neighborhood -- they could never walk to each other's house.

"Morgan Park is a tricky place to live in," said Amparan. "One block in the wrong direction and you're in the wrong place. We both lived on good blocks but the distance between us was just too dangerous."

Marshall and Amparan worry about their family members who remain in those communities. Their parents worry about them when they come home for visits.

Marshall is majoring in English and African-American studies; Amparan is studying sociology. They told me they want their rhymes and life work to mean something in a city where too many teens continue to struggle.

In Chicago, anyone under age 20 is a target/And I don't know how to do more than be afraid/That an age allowing me to be on this stage/Might have me murdered by Monday/I'm 18 and I play pick-up basketball games with ghosts/Is there a reason, I'm making it out of a community that has martyred young men I might be mistaken for

You can view the performance -- which won third place and aired on HBO in May -- on YouTube by searching for "Lost Count: A Love Story."

I challenge you to view it and not feel something.

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