The Poet Talks of Freedom | Tish Jones | TEDxMinneapolisWomen


Translator: Amanda Chu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven “Before I was born, there was movement – paddles pushing pent-up people
through oceans of pain. That explains my fear of water. When I was born,
there was movement still – lines, paths, roads, circles, and tracks. Check it. I had my first perm in elementary school. Went from coarse, curly black hair
to straight, thin. Then what you gonna do with this do? After that I did braids, weaves,
ponytails, extensions, this ‘fauxhawk, mohawk,
ducktail design on the side’ type thing. Now I have locs, but before all of that,
I also wore tracks. Then there was high school,
Saint Paul Central – big, gray, five-floor
and a basement building. Kinda looks like a prison,
kinda ran like one too. The 5th floor was for the academic
acronyms, like AP and IB, the 4th floor was for the quest learners, 2nd to the best
grade point average earners, the 3rd, well, the 3rd
was whatever the second was passed, and the first was us, the theater class. How we were placed in this system – tracks. Pause. My name is Tish Jones, and I have been called here
to represent ancestors whose blood sifts through the palms
of my little brother’s hands as he plays in the sand, and they bless him. Forefathers who existed
before my forefathers and raised men to raise men,
hence the sun and the raisin. Then a generation of beautiful black women born and bred to believe
that beauty belongs to everyone but them. So they dye and they fry
and they try to fit in, in many ways, allowing
trains to leave tracks on their thighs because the tracks attach
to the root of her naps, which hang on her back,
reduce self-respect; she is OK with that. They call her a runner,
making laps on laps, known as a track star –
she is on someone else’s track. Then there is the little boy
whose father was sent away yesterday. Yes, he’s having a bad day, so he answered the test questions
in the wrong way. He’s frustrated in the hallway,
fighting to keep his tears to himself. And she walks by: smart, skinny,
makes failing a test seem hard – if you don’t believe me,
peep her report card. Anyway. She and he were cool. They went to the same school,
hung in the same crew, did things that two best friends
would normally do until after taking that test, when she got labeled advanced
and he got labeled a fool. Dropped out of school, did whatever he felt he had to –
became a star mathematician, a genius in the kitchen, studied how different greens and whites
would help with his addition, financial advisor for women,
pimpin’ and flippin’. Now my man fights his tears
inside of a prison, right next to pops. Pause. Forget it. Just play track, black boy, or football
or basketball or just ball, black boy: rob, steal, fail, get money,
get girls, and go to jail. You do the same, black girl:
read Cosmo, People, VIBE, and Vixen. Try all your life to find the place
that you fit into. You see, I represent broken history’s
missing texts from textbooks, kinaesthetic learners
that don’t test good, products of society, 24 hours of good, clean sobriety, a language that I play with because mine was taken
in a country that shunned me, and I have so much stake in it. A people who are a direct result
of an action taken. And a people who fear those people, so they’ve created laws to evade
and contain them inside of lines, paths,
roads, circles, and tracks. My name is Tish Jones. And I have been called here
to represent the missing piece. Thank you for listening.” So, I’m sure you caught my name,
but for the sake of repetition, (Laughter) it’s Tish Jones, and the poem that you just heard
is called “Tracks.” We’ll talk more about the poem briefly, but for right now, I want to tell you
a little bit more about me: I am a poet. (Applause) (Cheers) So, I’ve always been a poet. I primarily practice spoken word poetry, which we define at TrueArtSpeaks as poetry that is written
with the intent to be performed. I don’t do this work because I like
to be the center of attention although I do like to be
the center of attention. (Laughter) I do. Is true. I’m not going to lie – But it’s because spoken word
is so dynamic; the writing process is deeply, deeply, deeply
introspective, critical and informative. It allows the writer
to learn more about themselves, to play and imagine while simultaneously
giving us a safe space to question, critique and challenge
the world around us through a creative process. The performance aspect of it
just allows me, or the performer, to connect with folks
we may have never otherwise encountered. Yeah? It is a powerful practice of meaning-making, knowledge,
and coming to know oneself. Paulo Freire, a great educator,
author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” once said that there was no such thing
as a neutral educational process. He said that education
either functions as a tool to integrate the younger generation into the present logic
of the education system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes a practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal with – creatively
and critically – their reality and discover the tools necessary to re-imagine and transform their world. Spoken word, then,
is a practice of freedom. And tonight, good people,
we are here to talk about freedom. Y’all with that? (Cheers) (Applause) But before we do, we have to
break the rules really quick. We have to do something
about the fourth wall. The fourth wall is a theater term that refers to this imaginary line
between the performer and the audience, meaning I need to hear from you. My style is too hip-hop
to talk at you all night, so we’re going to do this thing
hip-hop style – call and response – very true to TEDx, but also, I need to know
that you’re rockin’ with me. In the contemporary sense
of performance poetry, we have folks snap their fingers
when things resonate with them, so if you hear anything
at any point tonight and you’re like, “Whoa, I feel it,” just snap your fingers
so I know that we’re good. Good? (Fingers snap) Good. Sounds like rain. I love it. (Laughter) Cool. So let’s go back
to the poem really quick. “Tracks” was one of my
first practices at freedom. It was written just shy of 21, new to college, queer, black, woman from the historic Rondo Neighborhood,
which is in Saint Paul, a historically black neighborhood that suffered from many other black,
indigenous and POC communities throughout the United States. It suffered from targeted, systematic,
institutionalized racism. Yeah? This is important to my process because when I was writing this poem,
I had literally just hit my stride – know what I mean? –
like, I just got into being a poet. So I was thinking about these things; I was thinking deeply about the ways that my history and those different sort
of intersecting identities would affect my life, my future,
my social circumstance. The processes of writing the poem
help me dig into that a bit deeper. Let me explain. “Tracks” has three core sections. The first is about identity, right? It opens with a nod
to my ancestral lineage as a descendant of enslaved
Africans in North America. It then moves into a discussion
of my struggle with beauty standards, highlighting different hairstyles
that I wore through my teenage years. Pause. I heard some of y’all laugh
at that part of the thing thing. Which is cool; that’s actually really good. Your laughing lets me know
that spoken word is working; you can relate to what I was saying. I’m sure some of y’all have had some updos
and haircuts and, like, different dye jobs that you try to tuck in the back
of the photo album, hoping that they never resurface again. (Laughter) (Fingers snap) I thought so. I don’t want to call anybody out. I know some people,
but I ain’t going to call you out. But what that says to me
is that spoken word is effective; it essentially can build a bridge
across an assumed sea of differences, so when I talk about “braids, weaves,
ponytails, extensions, this ‘fauxhawk, mohawk,
ducktail design on the side’ type thing,” it allows you to dig back
into your catalogue of, you know, hairstyles
that we never want to mention again, and it affords us an opportunity
to connect with one another, yeah? Me, the performer, you the listener, and more specifically, in the context of my liberation
and the liberation of my people, other black women who may resonate
with this struggle to attain the unattainable
Westocentric idea and standard of beauty. (Fingers snap) There is a freedom in that connection, a freedom from isolation, a freedom from thinking
you’re the only one that’s dealt with it, you’re the only one
that’s thinking about it. There’s also a freedom
in letting go of the notion that you can’t connect with someone
that doesn’t look like you – a freedom to connect, yeah? Cool. So the second theme
of the poem talks about – the outward facing theme, I should say,
is the school-to-prison pipeline, but the real juice is highlighting
the absent narrative, yeah? What you hear in that poem
is the students’ perspective about their high school experience from the voice of the student: “The 5th floor’s for the academic
acronyms, like AP and IB, the 4th floor was for the quest learners, 2nd to the best grade point
average earners, the 3rd, well, the 3rd was whatever the second
was passed, and the first was (Inhales) (Exhales) us, the theater class. How we were placed
in this system – tracks.” This is nothing short
of a social, political analysis of the education system, a vivid depiction of an area high school
perpetuating social class hierarchies, yeah? (Fingers snap) The thing that makes this
so exciting for me is that it comes from
the voice of the student. There’s this thing that happens
with marginalized communities, where we don’t often
get to tell our stories ourselves, we’re studied like lab rats.
(Fingers snap) Jay-Z once said, “Want to know why they call
the projects the projects? Because it’s a project, an experiment;
we’re in it merely as objects.” Students, scholars, reporters,
researchers, missionaries – they come into our communities
and tell us about us. What this poem does,
what spoken word does, is it allows us to provide
a first-person narrative, to talk about the authentic experience
that we live, yeah? Furthermore, it pushes back against an age-old practice
of omission and erasure; we get to keep and write our history –
the people’s version. Are y’all with me? (Fingers snap) Tight. So the third and most important section
to me is the section about purpose. All poems have a purpose. They illuminate the poet’s purpose,
maybe even the narrator’s purpose, but there’s always a piece about purpose. “I represent broken history’s
missing texts from textbooks, kinaesthetic learners
that don’t test good, products of society, 24 hours of good, clean sobriety, a language that I play with because mine was taken
in a country that shunned me, and I have so much stake in it. A people who are a direct result
of an action taken. And a people who fear those people, so they’ve created laws
to evade and contain them.” Spoken word is a radical tool in our collective liberation. It makes way for the voiceless
to reclaim language, to reclaim words, to reshape the world. Now the approach and the methodology may be different
from poet to poet, for sure, but one thing you can count on
with the spoken word poem is that we are going to
come through with our history – be it personal, collective, whatever – we’re going to talk about our identity,
and we’re going to be creative, that’s one thing that’s consistent
and across the board with a spoken word poem. When a poet gets on stage,
they are sharing themselves – their history, their lineage, their hopes,
their dreams, their fears and their wildest dreams for the future. Yeah? (Fingers snap) They are a bridge beckoning connection. We all have been indoctrinated
into this idea of difference for so long. (Fingers snap) Spoken word is challenging us to let go of this practice of othering and really see one another, to build tribe. That’s my mission.
My mission is to build tribe. (Fingers snap) So this isn’t a call to you all to pick up
a pen and write a poem or a book – that’s my job – (Laughter) but it is a call to open your hearts
to support the arts, to go to a show, to practice freedom through deep listening and recognize the significance
of bearing witness to another’s story and carrying that truth with you
every day for the rest of your life. To paraphrase Lilla Watson: My liberation is intricately
connected to yours and yours to mine. And it is time to get free. Thank you. (Cheers) (Applause)

4 thoughts on “The Poet Talks of Freedom | Tish Jones | TEDxMinneapolisWomen

  1. “Spoken word is a practice of freedom.” Tish Jones. I had to listen to this TEDx a few more times just to make sure I really heard and understood the lesson. I received it. Thank-you, again.

  2. “What this poem does. What spoken word does is it allows us to provide a first person narrative. To talk about the authentic experience that we live. Furthermore, it pushes back an age old practice of omission and erasure. We get to keep and write our own history. The people’s version.” “Spoken word is a radical tool in our collective liberation. It makes way for the voiceless to reclaim language, to reclaim words, to reshape the world.” “Spoken word is challenging us to let go of this practice of othering and to really see one another. To build tribe.” Tish Jones.

    Tish,

    We have never personally met, but have occupied the same space many times. I appreciate how much you pay homage to those before you and for the love and respect that you have for your history, for your culture, for your people, for all people, for your community, for justice, for truth, and for art.

    I admire how you open minds, expand thoughts, create questions, and provide answers with your words.

    The education and safe space you provide for dialogue is light and because of that light, so many, including myself, have learned what has been hidden.

    I know I have my work cut out for me, especially as an ally, to learn more, but you inspire me, as well as many others, to want to continue that process and to do better.

    Thank-you! Thank-you! Thank-you! For sharing your talent with the world as a teacher and as a poet. This poem and the message that came with it are a true gift and I feel honored to have received it.

    Corinna

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