January 8, 2014

River Reveries: Citywide Poets Anthology

by Jim Welke

River Reveries: Citywide Poets Anthology presents poetry written by Detroit metro high-school students who participated in the Citywide Poets after-school writing and performance program sponsored by InsideOut Literary Arts Program:

  • Khaylon Bell
  • Ashley Brooks
  • Amiah Burner
  • Dejiza Coleman
  • Ajanae Dawkins
  • Michael Faison
  • Bianca Gould
  • Wendy Hernandez
  • Damon Hogan
  • Kennedie King
  • Cynthia Lee
  • Terrell Morrow
  • Aminah Muhammad
  • Briana Sanders
  • Ralph Smith

The poems in the anthology were selected by Joy Gaines-Friedler, Kim Hunter, and Dawn McDuffie.

As Detroit stumbles through its fiscal crisis, created largely by actors other than city residents and leaders, the students of Detroit schools live their lives shrouded behind a curtain of misinformation and cynicism. When you hear people outside of Detroit talk about the people inside of Detroit, you hear distrust, and bigotry. The public comment sections on the websites of media outlets amplify the negativity, the fault of anonymity these sites afford cowards eager to blame everyone but themselves for all of the world’s ills. Sadly, these same observers influence public policy by electing clever demagogues who echo the observers unfounded beliefs in exchange for votes. This pernicious reverberation affects education reform with things like standardized tests rising to excessive importance, ill-conceived cost cutting, and pressure on teachers unions. The real fixes for education are usually more complex, but achievable if we forgo demagoguery and pursue solutions that keep the students’ interests at heart — witness Baylor-Woodson (see following). In a state where educational achievement compares poorly to other states, and Detroit ranks below other big cities, our elected leaders tend to fault urban students for dragging the averages down. To quote a report from The Education Trust, Midwest “Annual Report 2012 What Our Students Deserve” (pg. 6)

So why has our ranking declined? The conventional wisdom in Michigan holds low-income, and black and brown children responsible for our state’s low average — and assumes middle-class and white children are doing just fine. Indeed, this belief is so prevalent that state educational leaders and policymakers have been known to say, “If it wasn’t for our urban and poor students, we would be doing a whole lot better.”


Not only is this belief based on dated stereotypes, it also is patently false. Yet, it is used to justify inaction on improving our state’s schools.

Then, the same report goes on to profile Baylor-Woodson Elementary School in Inkster, MI (sidebar, pg. 4):

The demographics alone predict that a school like Baylor-Woodson would rank among the lowest performing in the state. Most of its students (98 percent) are African American, and 84 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Serving third through fifth graders, the school was in dire financial straits and rapidly losing students to nearby charter schools when Maridada (previous district superintendent who initiated reforms) arrived.


Despite the obstacles, he and his school leaders — including Bashir (current district superintendent) — committed to raising achievement. Baylor-Woodson beat the odds, countering recent trends in almost every way. While student learning has stagnated for years across all racial and class distinctions in Michigan, the children at Baylor-Woodson have made huge academic gains.


In the 2010-11 school year, nearly all Baylor-Woodson’s more than 550 students met state reading and math standards. Moreover, 73 percent of the school’s fifth-graders exceeded the math standard; statewide, only 45 percent of fifth-raders posted advanced scores that year. Reading proficiency rates in the school are almost as impressive, with 63 percent of fifth-grade students posting advanced scores in 2010-11, compared with 44 percent statewide. Local families have responded.

A few more statistics and observations from the same report:

Certainly, our (Michigan) African-American children are in deep trouble: They were the lowest achieving black students in the nation, ranking dead last in fourth-grade reading among the 45 states that reported data on African American students. They also were last among the 44 states reporting scores in fourth-grade math on the 2011 NAEP.


Michigan’s eighth-grade African-American students fared not much better, scoring 34th out of 43 states reporting for reading, and 42nd out of 43 states reporting for math.(pg. 8)



But Michigan’s performance problem goes far beyond our communities of color. Our white students are sinking to the bottom of the national academic ladder, as well. They now trail 34 other states on the NAEP fourth-grade reading national examination.


While other states’ white students have been making significant gains in learning, our white students remain stagnant. (pg. 9)



Clearly, our state’s achievement challenge is hardly a “minority problem” or a “poverty problem.” Michigan has an education problem — and it cuts across all income brackets, races, and school sectors. (pg. 10)



As the data throughout this report make clear, Michigan’s students are falling farther and farther behind their peers across the nation. This is through no fault of their own; our students are just as talented, intelligent and full of potential as any children in the United States.


Be they white, black, Latino, higher income, or low-income, Michigan’s children are not the problem. Our state’s education problem is something that we, the adults of Michigan, have created, and we must fix it.


Certainly, Michigan’s parents must do their part by supporting their children in school and sending an unequivocal message that kids who work hard get smart. But we also call on Michigan’s political and education leaders to step up and provide the leadership and resources that our state needs to turn around our dismal student performance.


If we commit ourselves to creating the excellent schools our students need and deserve, the Great Lakes State can also be a Great Education State.

What all of this means for many students in Detroit is that they get their education in a parallel universe: parallel, that is, to the more affluent suburbs where the basic needs of student living — supportive parents, siblings, and neighbors; good diet; adequate sleep; a safe, quiet place to do homework; after-school recreation; absence of crime — are met. While legislators and bloviating observers seem to think these assets occur everywhere like sunshine and rain, they don’t. A lot of kids in Detroit have longer, more threatening walks to bus stops, where they wait interminably for buses, where they witness or fall victim to violent crime; many go to school hungry and tired due to chaotic and crowded households. Most go to school thinking they matter less than kids in other parts of the country, that they face opportunities limited to the point of suffocation — they believe the world at large doesn’t give a damn about them, and rightfully feel skeptical when outsiders promise to help. Yet, keep in mind that not every Detroit resident lives in abject poverty — just show up outside one of the magnet schools at the beginning or end of the school day and you’ll see a line of late-model autos driven by well-dressed, well-educated parents arrive to pick up or drop off their offspring. A plethora of solid, hard-working, media-ignored citizens occupy the neighborhoods of Detroit, and pay taxes that sustain it. At the same time, the emergency manager, governor, and legislature seek to drive municipal, teacher, and other labor unions out of existence, thus dealing a blow to the engines of middle class stability those leaders claim to revere. Not every student rides the bus through mean streets every day. But many do, and not by choice or inclination. If these leaders get their way, more will.

That’s a shame, because as the excerpts from the above report indicate, education in Detroit need not stay broken. But preserving the faltering middle-class should be a pillar of every aspect of the recovery.

The poetry in “River Reveries” proves that kids in Detroit know exactly what some benighted souls beyond the boundaries of Detroit think of them despite having never met those kids; and it proves the students are smart — smart enough to perceive the narrow slot their circumstance forces them into, and which demands they fight their way out of. “River Reveries” also reveals that youth in Detroit suffer the same vagaries of life, ride the same emotional and aspirational roller coaster as youth everywhere.

“Detroit” by Terrell Morrow in River Reveries brings many of the historic emblems of the city to bear — red wings, fists, a paradise valley, pistons — in a forceful argument for the resilience of city residents:

They tell me we can’t keep it together.

I fight for your honor, trying to ignore the families

I’ve seen ripped apart through the pressure

of financial stress that weighs down the strength

of even the toughest pistons.

Briana Sanders brings an impassioned defense against the prevailing misunderstanding of her and her peers in “Detroit For the 1%,”

We aren’t murderers, and the only thing

we’ve ever shot down are stereotypes.

There are some people in this city

who actually keep their heads in books for fun.

The authors of these poems see the world with the crystalline clarity that adults often fail to credit teenagers with. In “Moon to the Woman” by Ajanae Dawkins, subtle metaphors convey perceptions of inadequacy unfairly assigned:

I am still only the moon.


I am barely a light

and far from glory.

How do you think I feel

about the sun? The sky spends

its darkness resenting me.

Michael Faison with “The Real Glasses See Everything,”

I see the reason they call my city what they call it.

I see people selling green trees that burn like firewood.

I see females getting inside big black cars with dark-tinted windows

Like midnight.

I see two people fighting on the corner for money.

Angry pit bulls in cages.

“They Don’t Understand My Stance,” by Wendy Hernandez,

The resonating report of the searing bullet case.

It sprung but did not coil back.

Leering at me for coiling,

falling, crumbling, and gasping

between sobs at his lifeless knees.

But while these students stroll amidst the ashes of a city that we all hope has bottomed out and now begins a new ascent, they remain young and suffer all the slings and arrows the gods hurl at youth.

Such as this, in Aminah Muhammad’s “Advice from a Giraffe / to Any Tall Skinny Girl Going Through Puberty,”

…Ah my spots. I know you might wanna keep

those blemishes from the acne you’re going through right now,

But they’ll go away eventually. Unfortunately, they’re not

permanent like mine.

“Smile” by Bianca Gould:

Pretty girl,

why don’t you see

that everything

about you

is satisfying?

That the one thing

I desire

is your smile?

“P.S.” by Cynthia Lee,

You always made it seem as if

fatherhood was just another game

of hide-and-go-seek for you.


Forever hiding and leaving me to seek.

Kennedie King’s “So Vain,”

For once in my life,

I have written a poem about this woman:


And for once, I am forcing you

to listen to me.

Amiah Burner with “Silence,”

“I see you as a friend.”


There is nothing more

to say now, as we sit

in awkward silence.

In some of these poems, the anger rises up unmistakably. And other times we see despair and angst that no child should countenance.

“When Life Gives You Lemons” by Damon Hogan,

When life gives me lemons, I say

give me oranges.


Because life — I’m tired of this!

You expect me to drink

your lemonade forever?

Dejiza Coleman, “My Bomb”

Is not made of time,

it has no limit.

What created it? I’m not sure,

but it’s indestructible

inside of me

And sometimes these poems wander into the realm of taboo, where irrational denial blinds us to what’s going on.

Khayleen Bell’s “Wait For Me,”

Age is just a number,         Right?

Age shouldn’t determine

who you can love, who you can’t.

I want to go back

to the Elizabethan Ages

where this kind of love

is allowed.

Ralph Smith’s “The Artist,” that enumerates various paths to suicide, and then:

So I’m here on the floor,

on the floor on my back.

On the floor on my back

when my vision fades black.


So what do we do now?

I asked the voice in my head

Now we just wait until

you’re on the floor dead.

And then we find the pure, hard-earned resilience that so blesses Detroit residents.

Ashley Brooks, “I Wanna Be a Bottle of Water,”

So I can be recycled,

Or poured into something

To make it grow,

Or used to wash things

When there’s nothing else to use,

Or mixed into red Kool-Aid,

Or crushed like a junkyard car

Only to get my shape back.

Except for the above poem, you’ve only read excerpts. Get a copy of “River Reveries” from the Citywide Poets and the InsideOut Literary Arts Program. The work enshrined in “River Reveries” stands as testament to the decency, dignity, and most importantly the discipline of the students who composed these poems, as well as the efforts of those who mentored them. And, it gives the lie to the small-minded myths that hover and cloud perceptions of urban youth everywhere. Kids, in their brief careers as students can accomplish much when granted the opportunity and given a little guidance. They possess a nearly infinite capacity to learn and startle all of us with their creation. This volume of poetry will bring clarity to your vision of youth in Detroit that no jaded news anchor or journalist can. George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In a way that’s true, at least when seen from the perspective of age. But we can listen, and learn. And then it won’t be so much wasted.


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