A “strong black man,” he recited from a poem, “takes care of his own.”
The boy, Rhys Dorsey, was speaking at Anniston Museum’s 32nd Annual Black Heritage Festival. Attracting a standing-room-only crowd, a spoken-word poetry competition included performances by dozens of children from pre-K to high school.
Eddie Gates, a teacher at an urban private school in the Birmingham area, has been coming to the event since the early ‘90s. For Gates, the children’s speeches are the hallmark of the event. Each year, he said, their performance improves.
“The depth of what the children are doing has increased greatly,” Gates said.
From the stage in a small room at the museum young girls in floral dresses, cotton cardigans and patent leather Mary Jane shoes recited poet Maya Angelou.
They quoted work by Eloise Greenfield, also a poet.
“Walked in the store
Bought me some candy
Ain’t got it no more.”
And then the girls, speaking into a loan microphone, would turn their palms toward the ceiling and shrug like they had lost something.
“Went to the beach
Played on the shore
Built me a sandhouse
Ain’t got it no more.”
Again the girls shrugged their shoulders and pumped their upward-turned palms to the ceiling.
“Went to the kitchen
Lay down on the floor
Made me a poem
Still got it.”
One of little girls recited the last verse tapping her forefinger on her head, like she was in thought.
The spoken word has a significant place in black American culture, said Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who recently wrote a book about surviving the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. McKinstry said her ancestors have a strong tradition of oral history. In some African cultures people were designated to retain oral history for others in their community, she said.
Oral history was also important for black Americans’ ancestors during slavery, when education was rare and few could read, McKinstry said.
Oral history allowed black Americans to maintain cultural identity through decades, according to Smithsonian Folkways, an arm of the national museum in Washington D.C. In black American culture, spoken word is used as a way to express ideas about contemporary social norms and concerns, the Smithsonian Folkways website states. It is connected to a period known as the Harlem Renaissance.
McKinstry said spoken word is an echo of the oral traditions of the past. And, she added, it’s relevant in black American culture today.
She was there to promote her book, “While the World Watched.” It chronicles her coming of age in Birmingham in the civil rights era.
“I think I see it as rap. It’s a way to get their attention,” McKinstry said. “They will remember it because of how you spoke it.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter: LJohnson_Star