Cuban-Jamaican poet and Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist Aja Monet came to Kenyon on March 28 to share her message of intersectionality and resistance to oppression. Monet led a spoken word poetry workshop during common hour on Tuesday in the Bemis Music Room in Storer Hall. Over lunch, she spoke with members of Sisterhood and discussed the successes and challenges Sisterhood has faced as an organization on campus. At night, she spoke in the Horn Gallery about her time visiting Palestine as part of a delegation from the BLM movement.
Monet — now 29 — broke onto the spoken word poetry scene at age 19 when she won the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam and has not let up since. This January she read her poetry at the Women’s March on Washington. She has also taught poetry to inner city youth, helped edit a collection of poetry titled Chorus and won the YWCA of New York City’s “One to Watch Award” in 2014 for her activism. Her upcoming book of poetry My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter discusses mothers and all people who work as nurturers. Monet read the poem “What My Grandmother Meant to Say Was,” which begins, “I taste of salt. My fingers cannot sit still. I smuggled / tears from smile to smile. When I became too tired / to run, I swam.”
As students filed into Bemis for her workshop, Monet said, “Don’t you revolutionaries know that you never sit with your back to the door?” Monet explained that this is an old joke among black civil rights activists. Jokes like this one, Monet said, are a way to make light of grim realities.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) sponsored Monet’s visit to campus. The Department of Asian Studies, the Rogan Fund, Sisterhood, Men of Color and the Black Student Union were co-sponsors.
Ghada Bakbouk ’19, a member of SJP, was surprised at how Monet managed to bring the issues alive.
“A lot of times we tend to think about these issues the way we think about math,” Bakbouk said. “Like they are stuff out there we can never see, we can never understand. She made it more like a 3D printer. She 3D-printed the issue.”
During the poetry workshop, Monet emphasized the importance of sensory details to writing. She asked everyone to think of a difficult event in their lives and to write a happier version. There was one catch — participants could not look at their paper as they wrote. One student was brought to tears during the workshop while discussing her family history. When the student apologized for crying, Monet told her no one should have to apologize for crying. Monet expressed a desire to have a longer workshop, one where she has the time to understand what students need and can give more specific feedback.
Hours later, Monet sat cross-legged during her evening appearance at the Horn Gallery and encouraged her audience to sit up close. She spoke about her time in Palestine and the connections between the African-American and Palestinian struggles for equality. She showed pictures and read several poems from her forthcoming book of poetry. Monet told the story of how, during the 2014 Ferguson protests spurred by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Palestinian refugees had given advice to BLM activists about resisting highly militarized police.
“We have to do the work of decolonizing how we see each other,” Monet said.