“Black, Brown, and Beautiful”: Elizabeth Acevedo Encapsulates Culture & Current Events in Spoken-Word Poetry

Cluthing her curly hair, Elizabeth Acevedo, a spoken-word poet, performed her poem “Hair” in a resonant, rich voice that reverberated through Kemper Auditorium. Acevedo’s dramatic hand gestures and powerful language developed an increasing sense of urgency and tension as the poem culminated in the final line: “My mother tells me to fix my hair, and so many words remain unspoken. Because all I can reply is, ‘You can’t fix what was never broken.’ ”

“My cheeks were just burning the entire time just because her words were just so powerful. [‘Hair’] really helped me love my hair just because throughout my childhood I’d chemically straighten my hair so often that I lost my curl pattern for a while… so that poem really helped me through that,” said Madison Pettaway ’17, an audience member.

Acevedo was invited to campus by Alianza Latina, a club that represents Latinx students and their cultures. She gave a performance of spoken-word poetry – the art of reading poetry out loud – last Saturday as a part of Alianza’s Latin Arts Weekend.

“[Spoken-word poetry] is a lot more emotional, and I think that it kind of was a different platform that we could use to talk about issues,” said said Nicole Rodriguez ’17, Co-Head of Alianza Latina. “I think that it was really awesome to have her come during Latin Arts Weekend because we don’t really have the opportunity to have these kinds of discussions all the time and to make it interactive really engaged the audience [and] was really important to us.”

Born and raised in Harlem, New York City, Acevedo often focuses her poems on her experiences as a woman of color, a child of immigrant parents, and a resident of an inner city.

During her presentation, Acevedo said, “Stories about where I come from, and what I know, what I’ve been told or have felt aren’t good enough, and that, for me, became really important that moment to say [that] my story is just as important as whatever all these other acceptable topics are. I’m just trying to see myself in pages, and that’s been really important to me, but sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes having to face things that you’re ashamed of or feel guilt about isn’t easy.”

Throughout graduate school, Acevedo’s classmates often failed to comment on her work due to an unwillingness to look up unfamiliar Spanish vocabulary. According to Acevedo, this often made her feel as if her stories were unimportant. But instead of letting the attitudes of her peers discourage her, Acevedo became even more determined to share her story and change the perception of poetry as an art form not suitable for people with experiences like hers.

“I think it serves as a reminder for any of us who have ever been told our story is too small, or too ugly, or too different for high art, and that we are all deserving of poetry,” said Acevedo during her talk.

With shaking fists and closed eyes, Acevedo performed “Beloved, Or If You Are Murdered Tomorrow,” a “love letter” that expresses her thoughts on the loss of a loved one to police brutality. In the poem, Acevedo discusses her fear that police brutality could be directed at her husband or to a future child or family member.

“From the poems I did, the one about the loss of black lives feels most urgent right now,” wrote Acevedo in an email to The Phillipian. “It has the most at stake for me in terms of being a plea for change and showcasing immense vulnerability. It’s also the most difficult to perform because I know the current climate makes it a controversial topic. I continuously have to believe in that poem.”

Acevedo addressed the embarrassment in her culture and identity through her poem “Afro-Latina.” The poem shared the shame she felt growing up with immigrant parents who speak with a Dominican accent.

“I really liked what she said about embarrassment and about the pride of Dominican families. Sometimes I’m embarrassed or ashamed of my family and of my accent because I’m very different from all of my classmates in Andover,” said Jami Taveras ’19, an audience member. “People would assume for me to be Caucasian or white, and when they hear me speak, they’d be like ‘Oh wait, where are you really from?’ In the Dominican Republic, when I go visit my family there, they usually tell me that I look too white because of my skin color, my eyes, and my hair.”

Despite the Latinx-centric content of her poetry, Acevedo hopes that everyone, regardless of their cultural background, was able to learn something new through her presentation.

“Sometimes, folks are like, ‘Oh, that’s not an event for me, because it’s not by someone like me.’ And I think that is just as much an event for you, so perhaps people who saw this [thought], ‘Oh, it’s part of Alianza, it’s a Dominican or Latino event’ – [Being a part of Alianza] doesn’t mean it’s just for Dominicans or Latinos. Hopefully, people will realize that we need to do a better job of reading and learning about other people. Because that’s the only way, I think, that we better the world, is by being more empathetic to one another,” said Acevedo.