Smile Politely

The Writers of Oya’s debut collection of poetry unmasks their serious power

We may just be kids
This affects us too
We hear the news
We feel the blues
Our voices are small
And need to be heard.
— from “Just A Kid” by MaKenzee Johnson

In her latest publication, Urbana Poet Laureate, Ashanti Files, takes the lead as editor and shares a collection of poems written by young girls of color in Champaign-Urbana, titled Unmasked.

The book is a product of Writers of Oya, a project headed by Files and funded by the Urbana Arts and Culture Commission. The project sets out to teach middle school girls how to use slam poetry as a means of self-expression, empowerment and as a healthy coping mechanism. The result is a book which paints a grim portrait of current events but also shows the window of a bright future.

Files herself fell in love with poetry at a young age, when she first heard “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. She passes on her love of Angelou’s craft and message of strength in writing sessions with the young poets. The girls responded to Files’ teachings with strong words and tackled tough issues; racism, feminism and cultural identity. Files success in passing on the torch is evident in the poem “Am I a Threat” from one of the Writers of Oya, Danyla Nash.

I am a threat.
To all the men out there who thinks it’s “ok” to tell a little black girl
“shhhh, don’t tell anyone.”
I am a threat.
To all the white folks out there who think
your skin being kissed by the sunrise is not okay.

These tough subjects came naturally to the girls, without coaxing from Files. “I honestly have to give them very little in regards to topics to write about. I give them a prompt, such as bubbles.” Files said, adding “I feel as though adults largely underestimate how much information and observation this age group has.”

In a previous interview with Smile Politely, Files shared that her work with Writers of Oya “is to date an endeavor which has simultaneously challenged me, inspired me, and forced me to determine exactly what kind of woman I am.”  

Files shared that the best advice she gives to those working with young poets is to listen. “I cannot express how discouraged I was to begin working with these young ladies and to have each and every one of them reiterate that no one listens to them. They have ideas, desires, skills and they are just waiting for an adult to take them seriously enough to give them the resources to put their ambitions into actions. I show that I trust them by asking for their ideas and how they want their ideas implemented.”

As for the advice she gives to the young poets themselves, she starts with this simple, but powerful idea. “To write in pen. You can ask any of the ladies what makes me mad and they will tell you it is when they write in pencil. I impress upon them that every emotion and every thought is valid when they write it. I challenge them to recognize that emotion can definitely change and likely will. But the moment it reaches paper it is valid, it has purpose and it must be preserved. I try to teach them that there is strength in that; in owning up to what you have written and unapologetically displaying it.”

Unmasked was released to the public on Friday, February 5th with an online event hosted by The Urbana Free Library and met with great reception. Proceeds from the sale of the book go back into Writers of Oya and the profits go to the young poets. Files said “This is to promote self efficiency” also noting “These ladies are serious poets and deserved recognition.”

Evidence of this seriousness resonates in the poem “Black Lives Matter” by Writer of Oya, Shakura Bramley, which is excerpted below.  

Kids are scared to go outside every day
because they’re afraid they are going to be next
We get down on our knees and put our hands up
But you continue to shoot us

Unmasked is for available for purchase on Files website

Poetry readings by Writers of Oya are viewable on the IMC Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center’s Youtube channel. You can also watch their interview on ArtNow here. Find out more about Writers of Oya and they ways in which you can support their work here

Top photo from Urbana Free Library Facebook page

Related Articles