STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

A poetic look at race and culture in Michigan

I put a call out a few months ago for poems by students that somehow tied back to the issue of race and culture. The kind folks at InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit, an organization that brings creative writing into Detroit Public Schools, sent me a number of relevant poems by youth from the area.

We would love to read more poems about race and culture. If you think you've got a poem that fits, send it our way!
Meantime, here are some poems we'd like to share with you.

In Southwest Detroit
Life grows best on the roofs of abandoned buildings.
Outsiders look at the graffiti juxtaposed against islands of grass
but don't understand that art and science create wonders.

When I moved near Vernor St.
it took me a while to blend in with the community.
Like oil paint submerged in water, I always stood out.
Maybe I never understood the environment.
Learning the culture was like trying to decode
the meaning of a Van Gogh painting,
except my neighborhood was more like a mosaic
of different backgrounds glued together by struggle,
to prove that those abandoned buildings aren't abandoned.

Our city's hopes live there, like dandelions
yawning beneath the sun on Sunday morning.
They grow on city roads and in schoolyards,
on the surface of children's minds,
in the hearts of people who've been left behind
by everyone else. But they stand tall, their wild hair
blowing seeds of change across the horizon,
taking root in places they were told they'd never grow.

My dandelions have been the poets who've shown
me that weeds can be beautiful in their resilience,
that everything planted won't choke the sunlight out,
that just because they get overlooked doesn't
mean they don't exist.

They learn to adapt,
refuse to die quietly beneath
the ruin.

--Joseph Verge


Black describes me.
My moods, my personality.
Black is a color that everyone likes.
Black is subtle.
Not too flashy, not too boring
Black is power, authority.
Black moves like air.
Close your eyes, it's everywhere.
Black's nonchalant.
Black's carefree.
Nothing phases this color.
Black's hard as steel.

Black is my best friend
Because we're both alike,
Plain, basic, understated.
Unlike red, orange or yellow
We don't brighten up a room.
We bring a coolness
That can't be produced by another.
Stone-faced is our expression.
Relaxed is our mood,
Our state of mind.
We stand alone
But we can mix
With all people, all colors.

--Lawan Mitchell


I am the grass of the field.
I am the rock of the mountain.
I am the soul of the food.
I am the spinning wheels of the Charger.
I am the hotness of the sun.

The king bee out of the hive.
The brain of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Obama of my neighborhood.
The treasure of the chest.

--Mario Perkins

And this poem, from a Native American woman in the U.P. who shared her poem with me via email.

Anomie proves to be a faceless monster.
Rejecting purpose. Rejecting self.
A generation with wobbly knees,
playing hopscotch between realities.
Clawing and starving for a middle ground that evades the majority.
The loss of my face causes my fingers to fumble as I struggle to tie two sides of my entirety.
These ignorant fists, caked in bitter, enraged at how each end has met the other.
Desparity, I find myself floating inside a bottle in the land of minimum wage;
churning in the convuluted tide of froth somewhere between science and spirits and money and love.
My eyes close to the numbing sensation that is the twenty-first century disconnection.
But still, an ember stays and radiates, buried under miles of mysteries, surviving the relentless blizzards of austerity.
An idle drum sounds out, left quite but preserved. A dustless sound. It illuminates images of family and home, like photograph slideshows before my eyes; this sound I remember.
The drumbeat gently pulls me by ignored strings tucked somewhere deep inside my chest, kept in small and frayed interlaced knots of gray for so long, for too long. A subtle tug, it comes undone, and with a surge of realization, reason says most struggles have been imagined.
I find that even with wobbly knees; the suture can be clean. Culture colors find a way to flow through primal veins and I find the strength to say...I'm proud to be what I always have been, and what I am today.
--Sheena Trudea

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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