Poetry vs. Violence at South Philly High
PhillyNow column in our Sept. 22 print edition:
“You dead, Chinese bitch.”
If no one was paying attention, they are now. Michelle Myers is standing on stage in Community College of Philadelphia’s Coffee House reading her poem, “Take It Back,” which deals with the violence at South Philadelphia High School last year. About 50 people are in attendance as Myers warms up for Bao Phi, an award-winning spoken-word artist she brought to the school for this very occasion.
Myers is half of the Asian-American spoken-word troupe Yellow Rage a full-time professor at CCP. Since last year’s violence at South Philly High came to light, she’s made it her prerogative to create a dialogue among the city’s youth.
“There are a number of us who saw [last year’s violence] coming,” she says on campus, the day after her and Phi’s performance for Myers’ Writing OutLOUD spoken word series at the community college. “Back in September 2009 I was putting out emails, trying to connect with as many people as I could, saying I wanted to come in and connect with the youth.” But Myers couldn’t get a single response. She even told school leaders the city over, “I will come to you, I don’t want to get paid, I don’t want nothing, I just want to talk to the kids.” Once the South Philly assaults made headlines, she says, her email began “blowing up” with requests for visits.
Myers partially credits PW’s Sept. 1, 2009, cover story, “Asian Students Under Assault,” for her own and others’ recognition of something deeply wrong between Asian-American and African-American students in the Philadelphia School District.
“I didn’t want to complain about it—I was happy they were now contacting me,” she says, “but why did they have to wait until that point?”
Myers believed one of the key elements in helping to ease racial tensions was a dialogue involving both groups of students and community leaders. She recalls getting emails from Asian-Americans across the country as the violence made national headlines.
“It would be all this language of people wanting to retaliate and even, in some of the articles that were covering it, I would see Asian-Americans saying horrible things about black people. They would say things like, ‘They need to go back to the jungle, they need to do this and that,’ and I thought, ‘This is not constructive, this is not productive, this is only going to make matters worse.’ And I thought, for me what’s important is not only to have a presence in the Asian-American community, but I also wanted to be a part of the other side of that. Doing outreach into the African-American community.”
But tensions remained high. Even amongst her fellow Asian-American artists and poets, she recalls resentment in that, as the faculty advisor of CCP’s spoken-word club, she worked primarily with African-American students. She recalls a colleague taking her aside and asking when she’d begin working primarily with Asian-American students instead. Her response at the time: “Are you really asking me this question?”
Since the attacks at South Philly High made mainstream news headlines, she has participated in numerous performances and workshops and affiliated herself with area nonprofits to do so. At South Philly High, she worked in conjunction with Education Works, at Olney High through CityYear, at Fairhill Elementary through Congresso, and led a poetry workshop with the Mural Arts Program at Taggart Elementary in South Philly from January through the end of the last school year.
She shows a copy of “Writing On The Wall,” a small chapbook of poems created through her work at Taggart Elementary in which she encouraged young students to write their own poetry based on Bao Phi’s poem, “You Bring Out The Vietnamese In Me.” Along with the 24 poems, Myers worked with African-American muralist Yis Goodwin, who created a mural around the project that will be unveiled within the month at Taggart.
Phi, a Vietnamese-American from Minneapolis, met Myers in 2001 at a spoken-word summit in Seattle. He says while he hasn’t seen the Philadelphia violence firsthand, he’s witnessed similar troubles in other communities. Both poets agree that spoken-word poetry can result in empowerment and community dialogue. The power of spoken word lies in its sense of immediacy, they say, as well as the up-front nature of the performers.
“The stuff that the Philly students are going through, unfortunately, is not new,” Phi says. “It happened to me, it’s happening in Minneapolis/St. Paul right now [Phi says the violence in the Midwest often results among Somali-American and Native American students, or African-American and African students] and I’m thankful Michelle is actually here and doing something about it. The power of spoken word and arts programs is such that you don’t have to feel alone anymore.”
When Myers met with the students who’d been assaulted at South Philly High last year, she recalls they were too enthralled with her performance to speak about the violence. “They wanted to talk about the feeling,” she says. “They wanted to ask me how I was able to express that feeling within performance. They could see the emotion and that’s what they connected to.”
Though both artists admit it’s not all Kumbayah.
They lay the blame for such cultural violence in several sociological issues that can’t be taken back, including the American media’s portrayal of Asian-Americans as the ‘model minority.’ If that’s the case, Phi and Myers agree, then what are African-Americans to believe of themselves? That they’re the rejected minority of the United States?
Therefore, Myers often attempts to put cultural similarities in her poetry and performances, evidenced in “Take It Back”: “We go back to aching bodies laboring under the weight of trains tracking both transcontinental and underground routes, our dreams riding on elusive promises of freedom. We go back to exhausted bodies bending over a stretch of earth on plantations in Hawaii, the West Coast, and the South, our fingers caressing dormant seeds filled with hope…It’s time to realize that just because we don’t know each other’s struggles doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s time to stop loading our words to win some sort of oppression Olympics, to insist that we are the most victimized.”
Myers will continue her work throughout the year with her Writing OutLOUD poetry series at CCP, with a Nov. 4 performance featuring Philly poet Denice Frohman and is working to continue workshops at schools throughout the area. “I feel fortunate to be part of a community,” she says, “where people care enough about these things to devote their time and share their work and make a positive difference.”