This Monday, Jan. 18, the Peabody Museum hosted its 14th annual program of festivities for Martin Luther King Day, entitled “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy of Environmental and Social Justice.” The program included dance performances, an open mic and a poetry slam.
I went for the poetry slam.
I was late.
The room was hot.
What seemed to be dozens of toddlers wandered around me, nudging knees, peeking over chairs with tentative, anticipatory gazes, and scurrying back to their mothers when they caught me offering an encouraging smile. I can’t pretend I took notes, or remember the specifics of the poets’ names or cities of origin. I can only offer the scraping impression that lingers on my left forearm that I unknowingly clutched nearly the whole time, as the poets raised their voices and their fists as my discomfort heightened.
The poets were given three-minute time slots in which each one separately, but rather consistently, executed an artfully dramatic crescendo, beginning with elegant quiet and deliberate words, and climaxing with an outbreak of fever and fury. The sounds, the compositions and the subjects themselves differed, but the basic structure was the same, with familiar mantras of peace, the falsehood of racial stereotyping and the struggles of oppressed cultures. All around me, the audience buzzed with assent to particular concepts that struck a familiar chord, ululating “oos” and “mhms” as the poets’ larynxes hummed with passion and fatigue. The listeners became as much a part of the performance as the poets themselves, and together we lamented the struggles of slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement and today, as they celebrated the birthday of a man who gave his life for equality. All I could do was clutch my arm and wonder.
“What is my struggle?”
This was a disturbing thought for me at the time. Amid this flurry of artistic expression and celebration I didn’t want to just think about myself; I searched desperately for something that I could wail into the microphone that would move people. My mind settled momentarily on my mother, the last person in her family line. The rest were wiped away in the genocide of World War II. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I tried to wax poetic about how when my high school friends flung pennies at my Jewish friend’s car as a joke, it stung as if that copper had hit my very own face, I would feel blatantly self-indulgent. Why in the face of tragedy do we feel an inherent urge of one-upmanship? Why do we want to connect to others through our misfortunes? Why, in the face of other’s struggles, did I feel this innate need for zealotry, to simply have something to shout about?
On a day dedicated to moving on from injustice, it seemed wrong to leave the slam searching for my own.