Some people read from the back of the room. Most, from the front. A few just stood where they were sitting. Some used the microphone; some said, “Can everyone hear me without the mic?” (We could, always.) People read from books, from print-outs, from phones. In another context, all these particulars might not have mattered. But Thursday night was about the literature of Haiti and the 54 countries of Africa; we were there to listen.
Peter Williams welcomed us with the words of Edwidge Danticat. The quote (and the post which included the quote) is notable in its entirety, but here’s part: “Haiti is not unacquainted with racists or white supremacists. We defeated our share of them in 1804 when we became the world’s first black republic. Haiti is not a shithole country.” And there it was—the catalyst for the event.
The readings themselves, of course, were stellar. I thought deeply throughout the night—about resistance, naturally, but also about crossing a busy intersection, about what you can do with a name, about dogs. I felt deeply, too. Gavin Colton read a passage from Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. Dr. Elizabeth Dodd read a poem by Dieurat Clervoyant in French, and then her own English translation of that poem—a celebration of language. Dr. Katy Karlin read “Had Death Not Had Me in Tears” by Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, which contained these lines that keep rolling around in my head: “The land wreathes in rhythm / with your soul, caressed by history / and cruel geography.”
I read “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)” by Warsan Shire, a poet born in Kenya to Somali parents. At the end of the poem, the speaker addresses all the people who might (and do) say “go home” to immigrants and refugees: “All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.”
It’s been a long year, and when President Trump said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” I felt tired. I thought, “He’s wrong. Let’s just ignore him.” That thought didn’t stick around for too long. But then, I’m a poet, and poets, like all readers and writers, believe that words have power. It’s an indiscriminate belief. So, sure, President Trump can say what he said last week—and it’s powerful. He’s the president; there was media coverage. But, in response, students, professors, instructors, and community members can gather at Arrow Coffee in Manhattan, Kansas to read aloud the words of Haitian and African writers, to listen to their incredible voices, to not ignore President Trump, but instead support those he attacks. That’s powerful.
— Maddie Pospisil (M.A. ’19)