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How slam ‘breaks the silence’ for marginalized voices

For Janae Johnson, a Boston-based spoken word poet who won the Women of the World Poetry Slam this spring, poetry is a bold act of breaking the silence.

Johnson’s identity as a black queer woman, and the act of speaking out in a world that has often silenced marginalized voices, form a focal point for her work, she said. “In poetry, you’re allowed to share the things that are not necessarily talked about,” she said.

Johnson began performing at slam venues like the Lizard Lounge and Cantab Lounge in Cambridge and other local venues several years ago. She said the support of other spoken word poets helped her work through her first few performances. “It’s a very vulnerable thing to perform on stage,” she said.

But spoken word performances form a special, often supportive connection between the audience and poet, and hearing reactions from the audience is important to her, she said. “When a black butch woman comes up to me and says something about my poetry, I really take that to heart. There’s not a whole lot of us,” she said.

Johnson normally performs poetry from her own perspective, but the piece “Black Girl Magic,” which you can watch above, is written from the perspective of a black stage mother. The poem is based off of a comedic skit from the television show “In Living Color” in which a young girl is rejected from audition after audition for her lack of talent.

The skit made Johnson think about “what it means to be a black mother and really encourage your child that it’s going to get better and to affirm their greatness even when they’re failing, and when people are doubting their talent,” she said.

Read the text of “Black Girl Magic” below.

Black Girl Magic

I brought Lil’ Magic to the fourth movie audition today in a yolk colored church dress I got from my sisters step-niece.

It didn’t fit Lil Magic until about a year ago.

Still hangs too loose on her hips.

But all I could think about is how these white movie producers be lovin’ them some church-going black folk.

And maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll picture a congregation behind her.

So I went to the salvation army and found a bow that matched the dress just right.

And it wasn’t ’til I was greasin’ her head that she asked me if she was gonna be beautiful today.

I told her we gonna have pork chops tonight.

And I’ma leave all the fat on the edges just for you.
And we gonna buy something that sparkles and tingles in our bellies.
That’s how much we gon’ be celebratin’.
I answered my daughter’s question with “yes.”
Everyday is a “yes.”

Those other white girls in the waiting room were all pale and blue eye make-up.
And they’d look at my Magic as if they just spat her out in a lukewarm water fountain.
And I’d wonder if they be askin’ they’re mamas if they’re beautiful every morning
or if they already stepped into this world knowing the answer to their own questions.

You know,
I could wash my hair for hours and I’d still feel dirty.
Once, I tried to melt crayons into my skin to be the type of black that is more familiar.

I do not tell Magic what it means to be a black womyn.
Or, how we are all waiting on someone to tell us “yes.”
I just tell her that we are going to audition for every movie she believes can benefit from her shine.

So when they tell Magic “no.”
For the fourth time.
I tell her that she can eat all the pork chops she wants but she bests not cry over no white man tongue.
There are better things to die over.
Do not let them reduce you to hair barrettes and broken combs.
Just show them your cheekbones baby girl.
Tell them “thank you for the opportunity.”
Let the fat seep down your lip and smile like you fixed this full moon yourself.

I’m sure she know mama be lyin’ sometime.
That mama can only afford these type of pork chops twice a month.
And mama will listen to her own stomach growl to make room for her to grieve properly.
I do not tell her to be a black womyn is to grieve properly.
That these movies, just be the best way to show ‘em you ain’t dead yet.

They ain’t never seen nobody like you Magic.
Ain’t seen no nocturnal sunrise ’til you entered the room.

They just scared
of all that bright
complimenting all that black.
You come from a long line of healthy hips and glass jaws but I swear they ain’t never gonna see you in pieces.
We don’t break that easily.

Finish your pork chops Baby Girl.
‘Cause one day you’re gonna stop asking me.
One day, you’re gonna know why I named you Magic.
One day, you’re gonna look in the mirror as if it were the first time you ever seen yourself.

And you gonna see all that black.
You gonna see all that womyn.
You gonna see all that shine.
And the only thing you gon’ hear is
Yes.
Yes.
Yes

Janae Johnson is the winner of the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is a co-founder of House Slam, a venue that hosts performances twice a month at the Haley House Bakery Café in Boston’s Dudley Square. Video produced by Mason Granger at SlamFind.

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