For the past two weeks, young writers representing more than 90 schools and community organizations throughout the Chicago region have come together to compete at the 12th Annual Louder than a Bomb teen poetry competition.
The program boasts an 85 percent high-school graduation rate, and no incidents of youth violence. It’s presented by Young Chicago Authors, WBEZ, Vocalo and Columbia College Chicago.
The teens’ poems cover a wide range of subjects, including what it’s like to grow up in Englewood and in an Orthodox Jewish family.
You can hear that conversation, and an excerpt of their performances, above.
NOTE: Keith’s poem contains the “N” word.
What Ever You Are
Be a GOOD One
By Keith Warfield
I love exceptions
I’m discriminated against
Because of my hood
I’m a product from my environment
My home, my, hood, produces legends
I’m just an inaccurate statistic
Lingering Southside streets of Chicago
Labeled, everywhere I go
Like I harbor a nametag that reads
“Hi, my name is Englewood
How may I harm you?”
I’m named after my dad
But we don’t have the same middle name
And seeing how my mom raised him
Like she did me,
I could see the similarities
My friends wonder why she never calls me Keith
I don’t know the difference
Between a NIGGA and a NIGGER
I’m pretty sure I’m one of them
My crayola color will never be good enough
To be scribbled in America’s flag
I could only be 2 stars
And have three strikes
There’s an American flag
On the rooftop of Big Sam’s Liquors
Dancing to windy instrumentals
Shredded, hanging on for dear life
I dance, a lot
Half of the time for reason
But I dance
Consciously, and unconsciously sometimes
That’s just what ordinary people do
People who feel obligated to counter argue
Proving wrong deceptive assumptions
Label us Extraordinary
People who paints happiness over struggle
And doesn’t consider it a masquerade
Label us Stage Artist
Label us Legends
Label us Acrobats
As we attempt to limbo
Under horizontal totem poles
Label us, or better yet don’t
A full body post it note that reads
“Minority” to those with authority
Prioritizing on the youth as their highest priority
“Unmalleable” see we only have illiterate minds
so they place us behind bars
in hopes we’d read between the lines
So my 1st Degree was Murder
And I’m 2nd degree burned
Never Mastered my 3rd Degree
Massa no want us no learn
When I do average stuff
I get an abundance of glory
There’s expectations of me so low
That when I do average stuff
I get an abundance of glory
I am the most un-average
Average guy ever met
If you ever have the chance to meet me
The Stage Artist
The Living Legend
The Ordinarily Extraordinary Human I’m pretty sure we’re all of them
I’m not an envelope opener
By Tova Benjamin
God appeared to me when I was very young.
He whispered to me through the mouths of dumpy woman in straw like wigs and sang to me, together with shuckeling men in black hats, and long beards.
God came to me, in the form of my community – a cross-word puzzle of streets where everyone was somehow connected because we all claimed to have a piece of God inside ourselves. I listened to the trees boast this claim, listened to the ants tell me how the leaves fall to the ground to protect their children, and I listened as my teachers looked me the eye and said:
“Chelek Elokie Mimaal Mamesh, you are a literal piece of God above!”
I asked, “How did it get there?”
They said, “He blew it into you, through your nostrils”
I asked, “Is that why Jews have such big noses?”
I still don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know, that it takes a community to keep a child in line, to infuse a love of learning – it take a community to raise a child, and it takes the same community to ruin another but I don’t know anything good that doesn’t cause harm. Because God made this world like my mother makes soup. With too many vegetables - and he sprinkles in salt like my brother, too much. But you can’t take out the extra salt without throwing the soup away too, and my community liked things salty.
In elementary school the nine year old girls would wear men’s style uniform shirts because the woman styles showed off too much of their underdeveloped bodies and Sex-ed wasn’t taught. Boys were only told masturbation is a sin and the girls think that God magically places babies in their bellies after marriage and don’t know what a period is. Until they get theirs, and think they’re dying. When I was young they said “Tova! Respect your body, your body is a precious gem!” So for the high school play they duct taped our chests so our breasts wouldn’t bounce around on stage, I wondered “Is this what God wants?” I pictured him in heaven making cookie cutters, and I saw that my ideas were too big to fit inside.
When I told my teachers I wanted to go to college, they told me that college is wrong and the principal said it’s unnecessary, there are too many outside influences. So I argued with the Rabbi, I said “What if I don’t JUST want to have nine children?”
The Rabbi stroked his long beard and said, “Would you have an envelope opener do anything else, other than open envelopes?”
YES. I would use my envelope opener to open up the packaged potential inside of me and I would use my envelope opener to file my nails and put on my shoes so the backs don’t bend. I would engage in pirate sword fights with my envelope opener, and spread butter on bread.
I would take my envelope opener, thrust it in the ground and draw a circle around it to make a sundial to tell the time, and I would see – that I’ve spent way too long, flattening my hair, so it would fit into God’s cookie cutters.
So I left. I left the crossword-puzzle of streets that I could no longer figure out the answers too, and when I left, I left my envelope opener there too with a note for God. It said, “Hey God? There are other ways to shape cookies.”