On being Black in America.
MADISON, WI (December 17, 2020) — The intersections of racial injustice and the pandemic in 2020, came together in poetry during a unique and moving livestream event sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Two UW professors, a married couple who are also poets, shared some of their work about Black identity and the brutal realities of being Black in the U.S.
Cherene Sherrard is the Sally Mead Hands-Bascom Professor of English. In her new book, Grimoire, Sherrard uses the text she found in an early African American cookbook by Melinda Russell and mixes it with current events and pop culture. Her poem “Things to do with Ginger,” for example, contains references to the character of Ginger from the TV show Gilligan’s Island. During the event, Sherrard also read from a poem titled “Dixie Moonlight,” which describes an enslaved woman giving birth to a child she was forced to produce.
“I see these poems in some ways as spells and the book as a kind of a survival guide, not necessarily with answers but with words that can sustain in a time of precarity,” said Sherrard. She added that when writing these poems, she had no idea of the uncertainty that 2020 would bring, especially for people of color in terms of heightened pandemic health risks and racial violence.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the Halls Bascom Professor of English at UW–Madison and director of the MFA program in creative writing. Johnson was born and raised in Compton, California, and drew on his experiences there for his latest poetry collection, Imperial Liquor.
Johnson says he rarely sits down to write about his personal experience, but recent events moved him to confront his feelings of fear and anxiety. He says 2020 has forced many to change their perspectives. “It’s something we’re all experiencing in the pandemic. We don’t have any real sense of when this is going to end — we’ve kind of given up on our plans,” said Johnson. “But I exist that way in a poem. Usually I have no sense of what’s going to happen in a poem, how the poem is going to end. That kind of indeterminate, floating experience I think forces a different kind of awareness and sensitivity.”
You can listen to Cherene Sherrard and Amaud Jamaul Johnson read selected poems from their collections in this livestream.