Poetic Storytelling

By Anne Scheps

It’s a topic that’s careened its way across campus, weaving its way through conversations, classes, and events. Race. More specifically, racial identity. The subject is touchy for most people to approach and it’s common to want to avoid talking about it. But groups around the country are countering this fear with a widespread movement to use their silenced voices.

At the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a learning community called First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community is bringing conversations to college campuses using innovative performance techniques. I recently attended a “poetic story-telling” put on by four of its travelling members. The event was in Rackham Auditorium, an interesting place to hold what was about to happen.

The “poetic story-telling” began with a few introductions from the staff that work with the undergraduates in the living community. They talked about the hard work these undergraduates put into the performances, their dedication to social justice, and their courageous activism in the face of defeat. Even before the performance started, there was an atmosphere of reflection. It was infectious. I began to reflect on what I had done in my college years, if I could be considered an “activist”. As a senior with one semester left, introspection is my new favorite game. I ask myself what story I might leave on the campus and what I can take with me to the new places I’ll explore.

The performance started with a single student rapping with no instruments and only the beat of his foot against the floor to guide his rhythm. He spoke about his identity, how others saw him, and how he wanted to be treated. This theme continued throughout the rest of the six or seven separate skits. Some involved all four performers, which I found the most powerful. Singing and poetry played a large role in how they imparted their message to the audience. At moments, I was surprised to hear a performer start humming and singing while another performer continued on with his lines. It was beautiful to hear this harmony amid the deep and troublesome topics they were speaking out about.

A part of the performance I will hold in my mind and heart for many years to come was when the performers pretended to be students in a classroom with a teacher who didn’t understand how to teach or even interact with students of a different race than theirs. They described feelings of alienation, embarrassment, struggle, and shame. A line I distinctly remember is “If you had only asked me to eat lunch with you, I would have somewhere to eat.”

The performers used poetry to touch on a topic gone untended for too long. I will be teaching secondary math in a rural town in South Carolina next year and using the voices of youth to move and change society will be something that I take with me to the classroom. Hearing what this group had to say about teachers and society as a whole, my heart kept saying that there is a lot of work to be done. As teachers, we need to care for students, no matter what race, ethnic background, SES, risk status, academic success, etc, etc. We need to care about their future, about what they think about themselves, about how they view the rest of the world, and about how they want to change the world. If teachers could take this message and use it daily, we would have a very different population of adolescents than we do now. Putting that extra effort and extra heart when tough times arise can change everything.

As I look forward to the next few months and how I will train myself to be a competent, confident teacher, I think of the lofty goals I have for my students. I want to be a person who speaks out for them, like this performance group did. I want them to be able to speak out for themselves, in a world where their voice can be heard and they feel respected. I have a message to bring. I may not be using poetry, but the point is important. With the right approach, we can supply youth the hope they need to fight obstacles they’ll experience.

For more information about First Wave Hip Hop, please see their website

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