RIT MLK Event: Poet Joshua Bennett

Uploaded by ritetcvideos on 29.02.2012


>> Please, join me in giving him
a warm RIT welcome, Mr. Joshua
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you [inaudible], I
appreciate it man.
[ Applause ]
Hey everybody.
This is actually thousands of
That's pretty awesome, okay.
My name is Joshua Bennett and
I'm just going to read some
poems like I said I was going to
do this morning.
First of all, how's everybody
Is everyone well?
[Applause] Good, everybody is
like yeah, we're about to hear
Cornell West, so you turn me
down a little bit actually.
So, yeah, I'm totally ecstatic
to be here.
I am honored and humbled by the
warm reception I've received
from everyone here.
And it is an absolute honor, I
wanted to be, after Garth Fagan.
First of all, those folks were
dancing like they had powers.
Did anybody else think that was
just absolutely amazing?

[Applause] Yeah, and Dr. West
and he doesn't know this, but he
actually inspired me to want to
become a professor when I was 17
years old.
I read his book, Race Matters
everyday on the way to school,
so, thank you [applause].
And yeah so we'll jump right
into it now.
I have my comb in my pocket.
That was unprofessional, okay
Has everyone here heard spoken
word poetry before?
>> Yeah [applause].
>> Okay, so you know what to do?
When you like something, you
make noise, throw objects,
everybody knows that, that deal?
Okay so this first poem is
called "10 Things I Want to Say
to a Black Woman" and I hope you
guys enjoy.
Thank you, I didn't say anything
yet, you guys are great.
They're like, "Yeah, I love that
tie, brother."
Okay, alright, 10 Things I Want
to Say to a Black Woman.
One, I wish I could put your
voice in a jar, wait for those
lonely winter nights when I
forget what God sounds like, run
to the nearest maximum security
prison and open it.
Watch the notes that bounce off
the walls like ricochet bullets,
etching keyholes into the
sternums of every brother in the
room, skeletons opening, rose
blossom beautiful to remind you
that the way to a black man's
heart is not through his
stomach, it is through the
heaven in your hello, the echo
of unborn galaxies that pounces
forth from your vocal cords, and
melts ice grills into oceans,
baptizing our lips, until harsh
words fade from our memories,
and we forget why we stopped
calling you divine in the first
Two, when I was born, my
mother's smile was so bright, it
knocked the air from my lungs,
and I haven't been able to
breathe right since.
It's something about the way
light dances off your teeth, the
way the moon gets jealous when
you mock her crescent figure
with the shape of your mouth.
Queen, you make the sky
insecure, self-conscious from
being forced to stare at your
face every morning and realize
that the blues of her skin was
painted by that symphony doing
cartwheels on your tongue.
Three, who else could make kings
out of bastards, turn a
fatherless Christmas into a
floor full of gifts and a
kitchen that smells like the
Lord is coming tomorrow, and we
must eat well tonight.
I used to think my sister was a
blacksmith, the way she put fire
and metal and made kitchen
miracles at 15, making enough
food to feed a little boy who
didn't have the words to say how
much she meant to him back then,
or enough backbone to say on the
day he turned twenty.
Four, your skin reminds me of
everything beautiful I have ever
known: the color of ink on a
page, the earth we walk on and
the cross that hung my Savior.
Five, I've seen you crucified
too, spread out on billboards to
be spiritually impaled by
millions of men with eyes like
nails, who made martyrs of your
daughters, so I'm sorry for the
music videos, for Justin
Timberlake at the Superbowl, and
the young man on the corner this
morning, who made you want to
shed your flesh and become
Never doubt [applause], and he
only insults you because, men
are confused.
And we're trained [applause],
and we're trained to destroy or
conquer everything we see from
Six, if I ever see Don Imus in
public, I'll punch him in the
face [applause], one time for
every member of the Rutgers and
Tennessee Women's Basketball
Then I'll show him a picture of
Phylicia Rashad, Assata Shakur,
Eartha Kitt, my mother, my
grandmother and my
seven-year-old niece, who's got
eyes like firebombs, and then
dare him to tell me that black
women are only beautiful in one
shade of skin.
Seven, you are like a sunrise in
a nation at war, you remind
people that there is always
something worth waking up to.
Eight, when we are married, I
will cook, do the dishes and
whatever else it takes to let
you know that traditional gender
norms have no place in the home
we build, so my last name is an
option, babysitting the kids a
treat we split equally, and our
bed will be an ancient temple
where I construct sculptures of
wax on the small of your back.
And we make love like the sky is
falling, moving to the rhythm of
bedsprings and Bell Biv DeVoe.
Angels applauding in unison,
saying this is the way it was
meant to be.
Nine, my daughter will know her
father's face from the day she
is born, and I can only pray
that this superman complex lasts
long enough for me deflect the
pain this world will aim at her
from the moment she's old enough
to realize that the color brown
is still not considered human in
most places.
And my daughter will have a
smile like a wheelchair, and so
even when I am at my worst, when
the Kryptonite of this putrid
planet threatens to render me
grounded, the light dancing off
of her teeth, would transform
the shards of my broken body
into heart-shaped blackbirds,
taking flight on a wing that
reminds me of my Savior's hands,
my daughter's smile, my mother's
laugh when I was in her womb.
Ten, never stop pushing, this
world needs you now more than
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
Thank you guys [applause].
Alright, thank you, thank you
I can't stand out that early.
Now I'm all nervous I got to
follow that up, I'm like, "Let's
do it again."
[Laughter] Okay, cool, so let's
get right to it.
So this 2nd piece is actually
for, well it's now for Alvin, I
love you, you're great.
But I remember you said you
wanted some lines for your wife
and for your son Juse
[phonetic], you know, to prep
him, you know, for later in
If he grows up to be nerdy and
wonderful, he needs, you know,
creative punch lines, you know,
for the ladies.
[Laughter] So, this next piece,
I wrote it during my year abroad
in England, where I'm studying
for theater.
And this is just something that
really weird poets like myself
So one day I was up just really
late and I thought to myself,
"What if I was an old man
writing a love letter to my wife
using an extended metaphor of a
blue whale?"
You know, it just sort of came
to me, in the throws of the
night, it came to me.
And this came to me also from--
this is why I should pay
attention in science class when
you're in college.
So I was in an oceanography
lecture once and I distinctly
remember my professor saying
that a blue whale has a heart
the size of a car.
Now granted, I have no idea what
kind of car, you know, 'cause a
Humvee and a Prius, it's not the
same thing.
[Laughter] But the image stuck
with me and this poem came out
of it, it's called
"Balaenoptera" and that is the
genus name of the blue whale,
[Inaudible Remark] [Inaudible],
shout out.
Hello New York people, we're so
vibrant, aren't we, like
Brooklyn, is Brooklyn in the
house, just to check?
Okay. Everywhere I go, you could
be in Tokyo, Brooklyn house,
yeah, you know.
[Laughter] Okay, to the poem,

When we are old, hair the color
of tombstones, bones that sound
like wet windshield wipers
whenever we slow danced through
the living room, I imagine that
I will look you in the eye, as
if there is something small and
precious imprisoned there and
say to you, "Darling, did you
know that a blue whale has a
heart the size of a car?"
When you reply correctly, as you
always seem to do when I ask you
difficult questions about
oceanography, I'll probably just
laugh, rejoicing over the fact
that every time you smile, it
makes the wrinkles at the corner
of your eyes look like 6 willow
branches, all lifting their
heads from prayer and unison of
the wind, humming a somber hymn
beneath it's breath.
Just as our anthem jogs to a
close, and I whisper in your
ear, "How did you know that I
was the one?"
When all of those well dressed
jackals came galloping to your
door, begging for the rights to
your ring finger, what make you
lock the dead bolt on your ribs,
looking them squarely in the
face and saying with joy, "I am
saving all of this beauty for a
man I have never even met."
Did you ever doubt?
Ever sit in your dorm room and
think that maybe your soul mate
had chosen someone a lot more
boring but a lot less pickier
than you, and opted for the easy
way out of a life filled with
When I was 22 years old, beard
freshly grown, an ocean away
from my family with the kind of
pain that drives men to do
selfish, barely forgivable
things, I dreamt of you nightly,
hunted for your smile in every
audience that I broke for,
hoping that I could literally
steal a glance, download it on
to my retinas and replay the
moment, our eyes first played
freeze-tag and neither one of us
wanted stop being it, so we just
kept on touching, hoping that
father time would give us a hall
pass and allow us to orbit one
another forever.
And speaking of orbits, did you
know that there are more stars
in the sky than grains of sand
in the entire planet, and I will
give you either one if you
merely asked, peel the night
from the sky's skin like the
rind of an orange or ask God if
I can borrow the breeze for just
a moment and pull the shoreline
of every beach into a giant
hourglass made just for us and
say, "This is how long I will
adore the things about you that
no one else even notices like
your laugh, and how it sounds
like a mix of Jimi Hendrix at
Woodstock, and 2 rainstorms
singing perfectly in tune, those
orthopedic shoes and how they
always match our cardigans
perfectly [laughter].

Those crooked glasses and how
they dangle at the edge of your
nose like the legs of 2 lovers
on a tire swing, the last summer
they will ever see each other's
The first time I saw your face,
I thought "Wow."
If there were a Gorgeous
Olympics, you would be a lock,

and maybe I would be your key
and maybe love is a club that we
both got into for free, and we
just haven't stopped dancing for
all these decades because we
really like the music in here.
And maybe if you asked me to,
I'd crawl through the veins of a
blue whale on my hands and
knees, photographed like I've
got a handful of diamonds in my
throat and say, "See, I told
you, the biggest heartbeat God
ever made and now it's all
Thank you [applause].
Thank you guys [applause].
Alright so, I decided 2 more for
you all.
And I guess this next piece is
probably is the most closely
wedded to this idea of King's
legacy, right?
When I think about King's
legacy, what, actually, first
can I just say how amazing it is
to be around this many people,
just generally and those people
of color, like, I'm at
Princeton, I don't see black
folks that often, this is
[Laughter] Thank you, you have
made my week, I feel amazing, I
feel awesome right now, might
dance, might have to hit up
Garth Fagan, [inaudible] trial,
I'm so excited, I'm like "whoo",
modern dance out here brother
But this next piece, I guess
it's tied to dancing, sort of,
it is tied to the tradition I
grew up in which was a feminist,
a black feminist church
I was raised by women, you know,
by my older sister Latoya, by my
mother, by Tamara.
You know, I was raised in a
family of women that were
strong, that loved me, and had a
dedication to me that is what I
think is the legacy of King
really is, right?
What is King's legacy if not an
outpouring of love that always
orients us towards justice and
freedom, right [applause]?
And so, thank you.
You know my father, first black
man to graduate from his high
school in Birmingham, Alabama,
he integrated it.
And then my mother, you know,
growing up poor in the South
Bronx, they both just gave me
this incredible perspective
about what it even meant to be
That my grandmother, who was a
sharecropper, would ever see the
day of a black president, right,
would ever see the day when her
grandson could stand on stage
and do a poem that is about her
in some respects, you know.
So this next poem is called
Jesus Riding Shotgun, and it is
about inlarged part, you know,
the family that raised me to
love, yeah, and the God that
held them close in his arms.
And I knew even when anyone else
abandoned me, you know, that God
was there and that he loved us
and loved us the way we were
made and that we were just fine
being who we were [applause].
So rock with me, I got 2 more
and I'm going to let Dr. West
just blow this thing open
[laughter], one song, one song
I was raised by a family of
sharecroppers, the descendants
of North Carolina slaves who
held my infant body as if it
were cut in 3 mothers, all with
skin like carpenters.
I learned how to worship from
the texture of my sister's
hands, figured, that's what
Jesus' hands must have felt
like, like wood and fire and
hard work from everyday walking
through a world that clearly
does not love you.
Me and God have never been
I've always seen his face, in
the eyes of the women that made
my life worth living every
Sunday, looking at over a sea of
brown faces, church hats,
adorning their heads like nylon
halos, the pews, one giant
rainbow, our sanctuary flowing
just inches from heaven, close
enough for our savior to look
upon us and smile, two-stepping
in rhythm with His chosen, we
danced as if the floor is made
up of angel feathers, as if we
had trampolines in our shins, as
if salvation wasn't just some
foreign concept, as if we could
touch it, snatch it like
lightning bugs from the indigo
blanket of the night sky,
hundreds of hands stretched
outward for a promise we could
actually depend on.
My mother spent the first 18
years of her life in a tenement
in the South Bronx.
Five brothers and sisters, 2
parents, and my great
grandmother cramped in a brick
box the size of a welfare check.
I can't imagine what those
winters must've felt like with
nothing but secondhand blankets
and faith to keep them warm, as
Ronald Reagan waged war on the
inner city and hip-hop was born
from the ashes of apartment
buildings, children going to bed
with their shoes on just in case
the buildings begin to burn in
their sleep, they say that Jesus
had eyes full of fire, hair like
wool and feet of bronze that I'm
sure he used to help my mother
hopscotch over heroine needles
everyday on her way to school to
be proud, in spite of a poacher
that said that her skin was too
dark to be washed clean.
I was born into the arms of
women who believed in God more
that they believe in gravity,
who taught me how to fly when
this world got a little bit too
heavy for my fragile skeleton
with no money and a fist full of
bible verses stretched as thin
as the cotton sheets that
covered beds and killed
[inaudible], my great
grandmother's tears like
saltwater hymnals sung into the
same soil that sheltered dead
lover's bones.
We dream of heaven and imagine
angels that looked nothing like
the whitewashed religion we had
been fed.
I serve a God without a color,
who loves in spite of everything
and made me this way, a man
forged from the wombs of
warriors who always knew what it
meant to serve, to be both
humble and steadfast, who stood
as if their backbones are made
of gold, smiled when their
husbands left them before they
expected new, on their Sunday
morning car rides, the Baptist
church has built more like
canyons that their savior was
riding shotgun, His watchful
eyes protecting their firstborn
son, teaching him how to be a
father that would never leave
their side.
>> That's good.
>> Thank you [applause].
Thank you [applause].
Thank you [applause].
Thank you [applause].
Thank y'all [applause].

Thank you so much [applause].
Thank you guys [applause].
Don't make me cry again, I cried
yesterday, don't do it, don't do
it [applause].
Alright, so this is my last
piece of the evening, or the
morning, I'm disoriented from
the plane ride [laughter].
So this piece is the piece I had
the pleasure of doing for Barack
Obama back in May of 2009.
That does sound like a long time
ago, doesn't it?
I didn't even have facial hair
and see where I'm at now, right?
[Laughter] I'm, it was amazing
and that was truly a blessing
and probably my favorite thing
about, well there are a couple
of favorite parts.
One, Michelle Obama is just
super down-to-earth.
I don't know if you all get that
vibe, but she was chilling with
my mom, right [laughter]?
Like, that last poem about my
mom, my mom is like very South
Bronx, I don't know if everybody
here knows what that means, but
my mom was in the White House
like, "That's my son, whoo."
Like really [laughter], my mom
is very South Bronx and I love
it, I'm fine, I was like,
"That's my mom, that's my momma
in here."
I had one plus 1, I brought my
momma every time, that's, I'm
married, I'm going to be like,
"Sorry sweetie," so now I'm
playing, I'll bring my wife
But you know, so to me that was
tremendous, right, that the
first lady took my mother aside
after my performance and really
talked to her and then my mom's,
"What do you think about my son,
you know, he's good right?"
She's like, "Yeah, I really like
She's like, "Yeah, I know, I
know that, you know," she like,
"That's all me."
I'm like, "That's not all you,
you don't write poetry like,
what are you talking about,"
right [laughter]?"
But my 2nd favorite thing
besides, you know, the mom-Obama
connection was having a group of
students from Gallaudet
University that were there, that
were present.
A group of deaf students that
told me how much they appreciate
it, this poem which is about my
beautiful, gracious, brilliant
older sister Tamara who is here
today with me.
Oh yeah sure, can we give it up,
please [applause].
That's a-- yeah, you have to
stand up girl, you are good,
yeah, yeah [applause].
Yeah, so and I think in a way
that is completely unexpected, I
was telling Alvin earlier, I
thought this was going to be a
Like I thought I was going to
show up and do some poems and it
was going to be awesome, you
know, get some bananas, just
have a good time, you know.
And I think what actually ended
up happening at RIT was I got
potentially a firm insight into
what I want to do for the rest
of my life which is help build
connections between the deaf and
hearing community here in the
I feel like-- [applause], thank

It is such important work that
needs to be done and I sincerely
hope, if you take nothing else
away about whales, like I really
want you to take away this idea
that I have a sort of firm
desire in my heart to pour the
rest of my life out into these
communities that I was born
into, into the life that my
sister was born, into the
culture that she loves, the
culture she shares with her
boyfriend Benjamin and her
daughter Jedah [phonetic] and
that she shares with her younger
So this is "Tamara's Opus", it
is a poem for my older sister
and for everyone here.
So thank you just for taking the
time to listen, you've been an
amazing audience and I will
leave you with this [applause].
Alright, alright.
[ Pause ]
Tamara has never listened to
hip-hop, never danced to the
rhythm or raindrops or fallen
asleep to a chorus of chirping
crickets, all she knows is
A lonely Long Island apartment
as quiet as a premature infant
dying before it takes its first
She has been deaf for as long as
I have been alive, and ever
since the day that I first
turned 5 and realized that my
sister cannot sing happy
birthday like all my other
friends and family.
I wondered why things had to be
this way.
My father said, "Joshua, nothing
is wrong with Tamara.
God just makes some people
And at that moment, those nine
letters felt like hammers swung
gracefully by unholy hands to
shatter my stained-glass
innocence into shards that can
never be pieced back together or
do anything more than sever the
ties between my sister and I, I
waited, with patient numberless
years anticipating the second
her ears would open like lotuses
and allow my sun kept sentences
to seep into her insides, appeal
to her subconscious mind and
make her remember all those
conversations we must have had
in Heaven back when God
handpicked us to be sibling
souls centuries ago.
I still remember, her 20th
birthday, readily recall my
awestruck 11-year old eyes as I
watched deaf men and women of
all ages dance in unison to the
vibrations of the speakers
booming so loud, that I imagined
angels chastising us for
disturbing their worship with
such beautiful blasphemy.
Until you have seen a deaf girl
dance, you know nothing of
These people knew my sister in
ways that I never could, shared
a common struggle that obey
whatever fickle traces of my
father's blood actually ran
within our veins.
There was a barricade between us
that I never took the time to
destroy never for even a moment
thought to pick up a book and
look up the sign for sister, for
family, for goodbye, I will see
you again, someday, remember the
face of your little brother.
It is only now I see that I was
never willing to put in the
extra effort to love her
So as the only person in my
family who is not fluent in sign
language, I have decided to take
this time to apologize, Tamara,
I am sorry, for my silence, for
the blank stare in my eyes when
you and dad would make jokes
that cause volcanic laughter to
erupt from your insides and peel
the covering off of the foolish
pride that's allowed me to pass
through notes for all these
years, instead of simply coping
with the fact that you cannot
hear and loving you for the way
you were made, true love knows
no frequency.
And so I will use these hands to
speak volumes that could never
be contained within the
boundaries of sound waves.
I will shout at the top of my
fingertips until my digits dance
and relay these mental messages
directly to your soul.
I know, that there is no poem
that can make up for all the
time we have lost so please, if
you can, just listen [applause].
So I'll play you a symphony on
the strings of my heart, made
for no other ears in this earth
but yours.
[ Applause ]