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When the people meant to protect us become our enemy

In her first poem, Aja Monet tackled the question: why do we write?

Aja Monet was in class at Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan when a terror attack brought down the World Trade Center. The day awakened her to the “interconnectedness” of people and brought her a new perspective on her place in the world, she said.

“For me, language was always about trying to articulate my own truth,” she said. “It was the beginning of me starting to feel valuable in the human narrative.”

Monet, a Brooklyn-based poet of Cuban and Jamaican descent, soon began writing and performing with the organization Urban Word NYC and performing in talent shows at her high school. In 2007, she became the youngest-ever poet to win the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion at the age of 19.

Video by Button Poetry.

The relationship between storytellers and the public is shifting, with the media paying more attention than ever to the issues poets have been raising for years, she said.

“There [are] many moments that we are participating in right now, as black people in this country, that [are] causing us to start to rethink ourselves and how we talk about who we are,” she said. “I feel like there have always been poets. Now there’s a lane, there’s more interest. The public is ready to deal with those poems in a way that they weren’t before.”

“The First Time” arose from Monet’s first experience seeing her brother be “talked down to” during an interaction with a police officer. She described the experience as “a reckoning of power” that changed her perspective on the relationship between people of color and law enforcement.

“It’s a series of sometimes very nuanced things that happen to you in your life, as a person of color, that build the type of relationship with this country where you feel like you don’t belong,” she said. “This is the moment, for me, that the people I was told were meant to protect us became our enemy — became the people that I resented and could not understand, as much as I wanted to try to understand.”

The poem also examines the intertwined entities of light, by which skin color is perceived and used in policing, and “shade,” the behavior by which police instill fear, she said.

“Toward the end of the poem, I want to assert this notion, that we’re children of the sun and police stay throwing shade,” she said.

These subtle interactions generally receive less public attention than violent aggressions against people of color, she said.

“What the police have perfected is instilling fear in our community,” she said. “And that’s the core of what the poem is trying to share. It’s trying to share some sort of counter-narrative to the mass narrative that we hear around these sorts of issues. And also, too, I love my brother.”

The First Time

I hated a cop he was
mouthing off the tongue to
my brother about how he ought
to show him some respect
carrying on and whatnot
as if my brother didn’t
have a little sister watching
who looked up to him
like moonlight and stars on humid nights
those days he lead and I followed
and he kept on
like my brother wasn’t
a sky scraper or something
like he wasn’t
the bridge that led to boroughs
like he wasn’t
my hero
like he wasn’t
the grandson of a union worker
who died building a water tunnel
for a coupla knucklehead kids
trying to  turn  fire hydrants into car washes
I saw how brown and black boys grow
into themselves angry at the world that day
how no matter what
a sister did to show her love
she couldn’t make a boy no man
he wasn’t bent on becoming
and even when I thought I was fighting him
I was fighting them
we were always fighting them
all those people out their fighting us
doing everything to remind us
of our place,
and I couldn’t undo
all the hate that builds

watching the men you love cower

watching the men you love cower


bending on their knees

to the scowls of overseers
all the bright and magic that dims
the light that lowers

the bright and magic
being policed for being
too poor
too much the shade

a color
a shade of color
too close to the root
too close to the color
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllof a heart

a beating heart


for being

too close

to the color
lllllthe shade.