As part of its commemoration of Black History Month, the Tennessee State Museum hosted ‘Reflections: Poets on Black History in Tennessee,’ featuring local Black poets and writers reading original works associated with or inspired by history. Each writer spoke about being a Black artist in Tennessee—how they were influenced and how their work reflects those who came before them, their challenges, and triumphs.
The event was moderated by Stephanie Davis, part of the community engagement team for the Tennessee State Museum.
“As a poet myself, and a poet enthusiast, I’ve seen the power of poetry to reflect movements, memorialize moments in history, celebrate and commemorate.”
Artists included: Cameron L. Mitchell, the Actor Laureate of Murfreesboro and a spoken word artist; Kashif Andrew Graham, a writer and theological librarian at the Vanderbilt Divinity School; and Ciona Rouse, the author of the chapbook Vantablack.
Following the readings, the artists shared their thoughts on being a Black artist in Tennessee.
“Being a spoken word artist, I feel like I have been able to have conversations through my spoken art that are difficult for me to communicate beforehand,” said Cameron L. Mitchell.
According to Mitchell, he’s able to use poetry to provoke thoughts and questions about issues.
“Some of the poems that I have are very controversial in Tennessee where we are right in the thick of so much racial issues, gentrification, redlining, gender issues. We’re in a place where we really need to talk about this stuff.”
Rouse discussed how poetry is a rich part of Tennessee history, and how it should not be viewed as a monolithic voice of the south.
“I hope that we’re breaking through—that people are seeing that people of color come with many different experiences and truth,” said Rouse.
Kashif Andrew Graham talked about the importance of being introduced to Black poets in school.
“You have to be able to see yourself in the poem,” said Graham, who was attracted to poetry as an act of rebellion throughout history. “Learning about the world behind the poetry can help draw interest and illuminate the poem.”
This program, as well as other Black History Month commemorative programs from the Tennessee State Museum, can be viewed on its YouTube channel.