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The 2020 cohort of the Youth Reporting Institute and their work.

Paint And Poems: Combating Racial Injustice Through Art

Courtesy Assata Goff

WUNC Youth Reporter Manzili Kokayi highlights how local artists and activists are producing art during lockdown to cope with and amplify the lives taken by police brutality. The following is a transcript of her report:

For me, this summer was supposed to be one of new beginnings and adventure. However, for the most part, I felt stuck — physically committed to one place because of the pandemic lockdown, but also in a loop, unable to move forward because of police violence toward Black people. Every time I pulled up social media, there was a new injustice, reminding me how little my life mattered in this country. 

“It's been actually kind of difficult to create work. Creating work around police brutality and the patriarchy and white supremacy is like really emotionally draining.”

That’s Assata Goff. She’s an artist and friend of mine from Durham. She’s been creating art about Black liberation for years, but being in a pandemic makes it tough.

Credit Courtesy Assata Goff
Durham artist Assata Goff has merged activism and art following the killing of George Floyd.

“It’s like really difficult because I get a lot of my inspiration from moving around so it's like, what does my art look like now that I’m in one place for a seriously long time.”

She still found a way to express herself. After George Floyd, downtown businesses expected riots, which meant boards went up and new canvases presented themselves. She and her brother used one to paint a mural. Originally it was at Five Points Durham, an area that gets a ton of traffic. Since then it has moved to a few places. 

“And then ours is just around the corner, or was just around the corner. Right here…”

They painted Black Lives Matter in black, blue and yellow with the old Durham skyline above it. Assata decided to use Metallica font.

“Using that loud, bold type of font that just feels like it's yelling at you, I think is really important. When people walk by here, especially people who maybe don't see how big of a deal the Black Lives Matter movement is, like, just feeling that energy and that, that power.”

This is one of many art installments Assata has been doing around the city to bring back the culture and make Durham feel like home again.

“I remember feeling like I didn't belong in downtown anymore, because the climate had changed. And so coming down here and seeing like, people had painted like superheroes and like, families, Black families, and like, Black Lives Matter. And guess me and Sekou just wanted to add to that.”

And more additions may be coming. Since George Floyd’s death in May, more than 200 people have been murdered at the hands of police, often without any justice being served. Knowing that makes me feel stagnant, like nothing will ever change

“It's like I can literally feel the trauma, like I can feel the way my body and my mind react. I can feel myself absorb the darkness…”

That’s Hausson Byrd, one of my friends and poets from Raleigh, NC.

Credit Courtesy Hausson Byrd

“Especially because it's just like, with all the other things going on in my life, you feel me, trying to figure out my emotions, figure out my relationships, fighting my own depression and my own anxiety, trying to make myself a healthier person. It's just like, I can't keep absorbing death all the time.”

Hausson was out in the field, protesting, organizing, and uplifting his community. But after the shooting of Jacob Blake, and seeing Breonna Taylor’s killers walk free, that darkness and exhaustion set in. He knew he needed to do something to pick himself back up so he used his art to work through it. He wrote a poem.

“This poem is tired. Tired of the hashtags and the comments, tired of arguing on the internet. This poem is numb. It doesn't even feel the bruises anymore, doesn't even feel the loss or the choking, this poem suffocates while breathing, this poem is tired of having to explain its screams or its worth, it doesn't think you’ll understand. It wanted to make you understand. Now it doesn't care, it never wanted sympathy or thoughts or prayers. This poem no longer wants equality. It wants revenge.”

Hausson used his art to channel his emotions, and it helped.

“I intentionally wrote it in a way where it contained all my anger, it contained all my hate, it contains all my rage, and even since I've written that poem, I have been calmer.”

Credit Courtesy Hausson Byrd
Open mic poetry nights like those organized by Poetic Justice and Emancipate NC give youth a platform to express their feelings during a period of racial reckoning.

He decided to bring it to the community. Recently he has been curating open mics on Zoom with Poetic Justice and Emancipate NC to spread information and give other youth a platform to speak on their feelings. 

“We’re here for the Poetic Justice event, we’re about to get started in a few.” 

“I like that, beautiful.”

“Thank you for bringing your energy into our space…”

Hausson is also setting up a neighborhood express program to deliver food to South East Raleigh.

“So the two things that motivate me, one is the community that is around me, the people my age that are working just as hard, if not harder to see this through. And the fact that, I can see us building up, I can see us getting better and getting stronger.

At the end of the day, my generation needs change now. It can be hard for me not to just shut down, feeling hurt and numb from everything going on. But sitting with Assata and seeing the art and the work she’s doing, and listening to Hausson talk about how everything must be done in steps, inspired me. It helped me to see that my reality is not fixed — but that I have the power to fluctuate it in my favor. 

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited. 


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