Fresno State celebrates African American poetry through ‘Lift Every Voice’

The Henry Madden Library hosted two virtual events in January, a workshop titled, "Sight Unseen: Poetics of Black Identity" and the "Lift Every Voice" virtual poetry slam. (Vendila Yang/The Collegian)

With Black History Month just around the corner, the Henry Madden Library has already begun celebrating this historical annual observance. 

In partnership with the African American Programs at the Cross Cultural and Gender Center (CCGC), the library hosted two virtual events in January to pay homage to African American Poetry, a workshop titled, “Sight Unseen: Poetics of Black Identity” and the “Lift Every Voice” virtual poetry slam. 

The sold-out event was held on Jan. 23 via Zoom, where Fresno State creative writing professor Venita Blackburn led the poetry writing workshop, “Sight Unseen: Poetics of Black Identity,” to begin the festivities. 

Audience members were guided by Blackburn to write a poem based on objects and themes that described themselves.

“I am into you engaging at the level that you want to,” Blackburn said. “When you share your work you are an artist, when you are writing, you are engaging.”

Blackburn is a fiction writer and a storyteller who is influenced by the Black community. She is the author of “Black Jesus and Other Superheros,” and her second collection of stories coming out this fall called, “How to Wrestle a Girl.”

Fresno State librarian Ginny Barnes heard about a grant from the American Library Association that was in search of libraries and public universities to host events for an organization called Lift Every Voice.

Lift Every Voice is directed by the Library of America in partnership with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and with libraries, arts organizations and bookstores in the United States. It is a year-long celebration of 250 years of African American Poetry. 

(Credit: Henry Madden Library)

Barnes reflects on the importance of bringing awareness to the African American community at Fresno State and said that African American poetry is something that is important to share within the community too. 

“Events around African American Poetry was something that we wanted to see more of for our African American students,” Barnes said. “It’s a need that we have and I love poetry as well so I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Award-winning poet and host of Inner Ear Bryan Medina led a virtual poetry slam on Jan. 28.

With over 50 attendees, eight of them performed two pieces of poetry and were scored by a select group of judges.

The judges were Del Hornbuckle, dean of the Henry Madden Library; Brianna White, coordinator of african american programs and leadership development at the CCGC; TJ Taylor, student coordinator of african american programs and services at the CCGC; Sam Bautista, Associated Students Inc. senator of social sciences and Allyson Bautista, psychology student and peer mentor for TRIO Student Support Services. 

The poets were asked to perform at the event by Medina who knew most of them through other virtual poetry slams. 

The performers were Jo Paul Repozo, Tino Rayos, Rachel Johnson, Bianca L. McGraw, Shelly Fairbanks, Hector Castaneda, Maritza Altamirano and current Fresno State master’s in fine arts student Jacqueline White. 

McGraw won the poetry slam with a perfect score from the judges after delivering two emotional pieces of poetry about Black identity. She was then asked for an encore performance after her win. 

McGraw is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in adult and higher education at Northern Illinois University. 

“Words do mean something,” Medina said. “A lot of these poets are sharing the human experience and that’s what we are needing right now.”

At the conclusion of the poetry slam, Barnes was ecstatic and thanked everyone for coming.

This was the first event that Barnes hosted for the Henry Madden Library and its success meant a lot to her. 

Barnes hopes to host more events this semester focused on mental health. 

“A lot of people feel digital fatigue so I have been trying really hard to promote these events to Fresno State students and the community,” Barnes said.

Next Story Fresno State uses late run to defeat New Mexico, splitting series with Lobos article thumbnail mt-3

Fresno State uses late run to defeat New Mexico, splitting series with Lobos