By Aanika Pfister
2020 stuck his ugly looking foot out
Thinking he could trip me up.
My black girl sequin high tops
Have a history of leaping
Off kitchen counters, cop cars, oak boats
My legs accelerate through air
Like roots busting through white sidewalk
I’ve got old bandaids hanging from my knees
From centuries back
Scraped and straight up broken
My brown eyes have been floor-bound
Looking for cracks and
Dodging shined shoes
Since the 50s
I’ve survived with my face to the concrete
Weathered bombings and
Blue shadows baton-banging at the front door
Dog teeth and water hoses and spit
I’ve seen myself as nothing but gum
I’ve learned to walk without my shoes being tied
To jump blind and land like a cat
By Toussaint Egan
In times of distress and profound uncertainty, it’s natural to look to the performing arts, music, and writing in search of not only a space of respite and relief, but an energizing source of reflection and resolve to further understand and address the challenges of both ourselves and the world at large.
Earlier last week, I had the opportunity to have a chat with Aanika over Zoom to talk about the origins behind her piece, “On Resilience,” her inspirations for becoming a writer and poet, and how poetry can act as a balm in steeling ourselves to overcome the challenges of 2020.
Toussaint Egan (TE): Tell me a little about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, what do you do, what do you love?
AP: I’m from Chicago and I just graduated from Lane Tech High School this past June and I’ll be attending Drake University in the Fall. I’ll be studying Writing as a major with a minor in Rhetoric, Media, and Social Change. I love writing, reading, and examining art is one of my favorite things. Apart from that, I also love reading comics and playing video games and hanging out with my cat.
TE: What was your inspiration for the poem and can you talk about the poem a bit?
AP: Y’know, every once in a while you just get this spark of inspiration and you’re like, “Oh my God— that’s a great line! I could go for that.” Gabrielle Lyon, who is the executive director of Illinois Humanities and a wonderful person, reached out to me with an offer potentially for writing a poem that could be used on a postcard or a website, so that was really exciting. I just had this idea of a rhythm of walking down the street, just talking about resilience in 2020 in a way that you just keep walking in spite of all the obstacles and challenges you face. I imagined it as a Chicago street, with the pavement all messed up, but you’re still walking and being confident. So the first part came to me, and then when Illinois Humanities reached out to me, I was able to develop and play around with it, which was super exciting.
TE: Can you talk about the significance of the poem during this time?
AP: When I was writing the poem, I was thinking about a rare moment of confidence within 2020 that I think came when I saw some of the power behind the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. The power that comes with people fighting for what is right, what is good, and having history behind them. So when writing about 2020, I wanted to convey that forward movement that was happening, even though we were all quarantined in Chicago, and some of us broke that quarantine to protest. We were still able to really make progress and make change, and we’re not done making progress and making change so I really wanted to write about that.
TE: You’re going to school for writing in the fall. How did you come to that decision? Has writing always been your passion?
AP: I would say it started in middle school. I watched this documentary in class about Louder Than a Bomb, this huge slam poetry festival in Chicago and I knew in sixth grade that’s what I wanted to do in high school the moment I got there. I got the opportunity to join Lane Tech’s slam poetry team and eventually became the captain, it was a total dream come true. I just found so much joy in writing, working with other people, reading through their stuff, and improving together that I chose to pursue it in college. I’m in a position where I’m very fortunate to have parents that are so supportive of this passion and dream of mine.
TE: Is Louder Than a Bomb how you first got in contact with Illinois Humanities?
AP: No, my mom and I first became acquainted with Illinois Humanities through the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards. She saw an advertisement for it on Facebook and encouraged me to sign up. I submitted a piece called “Mama Loves You” which so many people enjoyed and I was so happy to share it. So that’s how my relationship with Illinois Humanities first started, almost by chance, and it’s just grown into such a beautiful relationship since then.
TE: How do you think the world is changing right now — because of COVID-19, the Black Liberation Movement?
AP: I feel like this couldn’t have happened at any other time. Because everyone is quarantined, I feel like in any other situation the George Floyd video would’ve gone under the radar. But we’re at home right now, so there’s nothing else to do but to watch and confront the magnitude of what happened and what has really been going on for too long in this country. This is almost forcing people to open their eyes and look at the things that have been going on since 1619, pretty much. I think it’s allowed for this perfect catalyst of, “Oh, this is very obviously messed up and we need to do something about it.” In some ways, it’s been a blessing in disguise. The quarantine itself, let alone the pandemic, obviously hasn’t been a good thing, but these conditions have inadvertently sparked people to sit with and reflect upon themselves because they’re, for the most part, alone with themselves and their families which I think is really important. It demands real self-reflection from people, we’ve seen public figures speak out about these issues and how they exist as participants in this culture of policing.
I think we need to continue going with this. I know some folks would like to believe it’s dying out; I don’t think this movement is dying out any time soon. I think what’s been happening with regard to Minneapolis defunding their police department and some of the rulings that have been going on in other states is good, but it hasn’t gone far enough to reforming these systemic issues of state brutality and institutionalized racism yet.
TE: Do you believe that writing and poetry have the potential to change the world?
AP: Oh totally, yeah! I think it’s based in rhetoric and the humanizing ability poetry has. That sort of “goosebumps factor” that poetry has in putting you in tune with another person and their thoughts and feelings. When I think of poetry that’s capable of changing the world, I think of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building” which opened my eyes and changed my life when I first read it, along with “We Real Cool,” which is super mainstream because she really brought life to this set of people she was talking about whose lives reflect so much of the lived experiences of black and brown people of that time and even now. So yeah, I totally believe writing and poetry has the potential to change the world because we can see each other through the written word;you can feel each other through what people have felt and known and experienced and put to paper long before you or I were even born. And it’ll be the same for folks who look back and read the things we put to paper now.
TE: What’s your favorite poem right now?
AP: Oh, wow! I think I’m going to stick with Gwedolyn Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building,” but I also love Eve Ewing’s “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife,” which is named after a line from Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” I think both of those pieces have a really awesome ability to humanize and talk about the struggle of black womanhood. Gwendolyn Brooks has this perfect language to describe that characteristic Chicago home, and Dr. Ewing has this really confident perspective with her piece. Some of the language there is so crisp and inspiring and invigorating, I just totally love it.
Aanika also recited her poem, “Mama Loves You,” at the 2020 Illinois Humanities Public Humanities Award on May 21, 2020.