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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

From Slam Poetry To Mr. Rogers: What Vermont Artists Have To Teach Us About Race

A man in gold-rimmed glasses and a Malcolm X shirt stands outside a library.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR File
Vermont poet and educator Rajnii Eddins shared his perspective on racism and anti-racism during the pandemic.

Protests erupted across the country over the killing of George Floyd in police custody on Memorial Day. Calls for justice and the overthrowing of systemic racism in the U.S. echoed from Burlington to Seattle. In this recorded conversation, we speak with Vermont poet and educator Rajnii Eddins about how he views this historic moment.

We also include a poem Eddins wrote, a list of Vermont artists of color whose work you can explore, and book and podcast recommendations about racism and anti-racism from Vermont Edition guests and NPR.

Our guest is:

This is the fourth post in a series from the episode of Vermont Edition that originally broadcasted live on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 1 p.m. 

  • The first post featuring Xusana Davis, Vermont's Executive Director for Racial Equity, can be found here.
  • The second post featuring Erin Maguire and Christie Nold, two Vermont educators that specialize in diversity, can be found here.
  • And the third post featuring Tabitha Moore and Mark Hughes, the leaders of Rutland Area NAACP and Justice For All, respectively, can be found here.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Jane Lindholm: Rajnii Eddins, how are you feeling and thinking about this particular moment?

Rajnii Eddins: I feel like this time is a crucial opportunity for people to have that much heralded revolution in human conscience. Morality seems to be consistently beset with these tragedies, and usually they're localized as isolated incidences, but it seems like there's much more opportunity now to see the glaring reality and face it more forthrightly.

More from VPR: Shelburne, Charlotte Teens Lead Village In Rally For Racial Justice

Do you think that'll really happen?

I think as long as we have life and breath, we have time and opportunity to choose it. So, it depends on all of our work collectively.

Are you seeing a different tone or tenor to the conversation right now? Because it's not that you haven't been seeing this, that you haven't been working on issues of equity and racism and culture. But you're saying there's a chance that those who haven't been, including those in power, may do it now, even though that’s not really something you get to control.

I think what we're seeing now is new because it's a new year. It's a new day. We have gone in cycles historically, but I think collectively, if we utilize it as an opportunity to really serve our human needs with equity, then it can be transformational. So, I'm hopeful. But I think that it just relies on each individual person's integrity as a human being to kind of claim humanity as a priority more than Whiteness.

More from VPR: Juneteenth Commemoration Spurs Call To Action For White Vermonters

Rajnii Eddins, we started this conversation talking a little bit about how parents can talk to children and how families and schools can have this conversation. You also work with kids. How are you talking to young people about what they're experiencing and seeing?

I think the greatest gift you can give, one of the greatest gifts you can offer to young people, is respecting and recognizing their own intelligence and capacity for critical thinking. So, I think just communicating to them with candor, being willing to listen and not patronize or be paternalistic. Then your manner towards youth goes a great deal of a long way. And I think youth often spot the hypocrisy of adults because they notice the discomfort that sometimes we have in terms of communicating honestly about these things like race and racism. But we need to don that armor of courage and respect for human dignity to serve them and model well.

More from VPR: The Future's In Flux. An Opportunity For More Equity In Vermont Schools?

"White Is" a poem by Rajnii Eddins:

White as it stands
is sitting
on the bloody backs of a million headless children
White is a cancer
They should call it that
Cancer privilege
Cancer supremacy
Cancer power
Disease lady
The disease man
The sick man
The sick people
The poison culture
The predator culture
The murder rape mayhem society
The silent ill innocent ones
White the color is angry at white the lack of consciousness
For ever being associated
With its benign antiseptic massacre
Milk now curdles at the sound of the word
Henceforth the conduct of angry wounded insecure people will be called
Wicked
The wicked people
The wicked witch
The wicked man
The wicked children
Spit in the faces of the brown children
While their wicked parents cheered
Their reddened faces swelling at the mere thought
Of a colored people
Tainting
Their wicked only spaces
Toni Morrison wrote in the bluest eye how one beautiful black black girl
Thought it would be more beautiful to be wicked
My mother was alive
When it was illegal
To drink from wicked only water fountains
As if the water itself was wicked
The fronts of stores and buses were reserved for the wicked
Redlining
Segregation
The 13th amendment
Convict leasing
Trigger happy policing
Demonizing the deceased is a wicked thing
It's the wicked man's burden to civilize the primitive natural world
You see what happens when the word is replaced for the conduct a veil slips and suddenly a grinning rictus appears behind what was deemed normal as if a blacklight turned on and all the myriad residue was revealed in what had seemed to be so unblemished
The violent selfish amnesiac people
The violent selfish amnesiac feminists movement
A crowd of 3000 violent selfish amnesiacs watched with their violent selfish amnesiac children as a man was burned to death
My great grandmother called anyone who was not Black
Funny folk
Sadly there is nothing funny about these people
Their hands are too bloody from feasting on my ancestors flesh
They come to me with chunks in their teeth
Centuries of devout devouring still on their breath and expect me not to recoil at the stench
The violent selfish amnesiac lady gripped her purse tightly
Smiled tightly
Crossed the street
Swiftly
I think she knew I knew

Explore more of Rajnii Eddins work including his new book, ‘Their Names Are Mine,’ on his website.

Explore the works of other Vermont artists of color

Major Jackson is a poet and professor of english at the University of Vermont. Jackson is the author of five book of poetry including Leaving Saturn which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Roll Deep, his most recent book of poetry. Jackson has been published in The New Yorker and has been featured in Best American Poetry. We recommend you read Renga for Obama, a poem featuring Jackson and 266 other American poets, published stanza by stanza during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.

More from VPR: The Poetry Of Major Jackson

More from Major Jackson on VPR: ‘Between Abject Fear And Inexplicable Optimism’: Vt. Poets On The Pandemic

Muslim Girls Making Change is a group of four young Vermont artists working for social justice through their slam poetry. Even though Kiran Waqar, Hawa Adam, Lena Ginawi and Balkisa Abdikadir are just freshmen in college, they have been recognized by the National Education Association and Senator Bernie Sanders and written about in Huffington Post. The group performed several of their poems including 'You’re White' and Wake Up America at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education’s Big Ideas Fest in December 2018.

Watch the four perform at VPR in 2018 here. 

Bill Forchion is a multidisciplinary artist and motivational speaker based in southern Vermont. Forchion incorporates many forms of media into his work, including film making, poetry and acrobatic performance. He is the author of five books of poetry. We recommend you check out some of Forchion’s recent poems, including Too much to live for and It ain’t safe yet (a poem for Juneteenth 2020).

Shanta Lee Gander is a photographer, poet and journalist currently pursuing an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Gander is a director and editor for Mount Island, a literary magazine for rural LGBTQ+ and POC voices. She received a New England Newspaper & Press Association 2019 award for investigative journalism work in The Commons. We recommend you dive into Gander’s photography collections, including Surrender and Adventures in the Everyday.

More from Shanta Lee Gander on VPR: Exploring The Link Between Art And Healing

Dr. François Clemmons is an actor, playwright, singer and educator living in Middlebury Vermont. Clemmons is most known for his 25-year career on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, where he became the first African American to have a recurring role on a kids' U.S. television series. Clemmons is also a Grammy-winning opera singer and founder of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. He was the director of the Middlebury College Choir for 17 years before retiring in 2013. Listen to Clemmons’s conversation with NPR’s StoryCorps in 2018, recorded 50 years after the show’s premier. Clemmons recently published a memoir which you can buy here.

More from VPR: François Clemmons On His ‘Mister Rogers’ Role, His Career And Identity

Learn more about Vermont artists through the Vermont Arts Council and their series on creative expression ‘I am a Vermont Artist.’

You can also check out the Clemmons Family Farm, one of the largest African-American-owned historic farms in Vermont and a non-profit organization that works to celebrate African-American heritage, farming, culture and arts.

An Anti-Racist Reading List

With the help of listeners, in-show guests, NPR, Everyone's Books in Brattleboro and the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, Vermont Edition compiled a list of books and podcasts for Vermonters who want to learn more about race, racism and antiracism in the United States and Vermont throughout history.

On the history and politics of racism:

On policing and incarceration:

On antiracism and the role white people play:

On the story of Black Vermont:

More from VPR: Remembering Vermont’s 19th Century Black Communities

On race, racism and antiracism for young people:

For more Vermont specific reading on racism, check out Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail.

Anti-Racist Podcast Listening from NPR:

Check out NPR’s complete list of book podcast and film recommendations here.

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