Amanda Johnston is a poet and one of the organizers of Black Poets Speak Out (BPSO), which started as a hashtag video campaign in response to the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. I talked to Amanda recently to ask about the origins and evolution of the BPSO movement and how it has interacted with her practice as a poet who is politically engaged. . . .
. . .Tell me about one of those readings. What was the atmosphere like? What stands out in comparison to other readings you’d participated in or organized in the past?
I organized two BPSO readings in Austin, TX. The first one in January was during a winter weather advisory warning. The temperature had quickly fallen to freezing and the roads were slick with ice. I almost canceled the event concerned for the safety of everyone attending. By the time the reading was to start, the weather was still miserable but not as dangerous as predicted. I still wasn’t sure what to expect. The space donated by Salvage Vanguard Theatre overflowed into the lobby. Experienced poets and attendees who’d never read before signed up to share a poem in protest against police violence. An older white man came to the mic and said, “I’m not a poet, but I’m here for my two black sons. I thought I wouldn’t have to talk about this until they got older, but the police are killing boys in the park.” Then he read a poem from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin, one of the books I’d brought. Representatives from The People’s Taskforce in Austin came out and brought a petition for people to sign in support of the work they’re doing to bring justice in the case of Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man who was murdered by an Austin police officer on July 26, 2013. I had not heard of the case until they showed up and shared information. The second BPSO reading in Austin took place May 15, 2015 at Resistencia Bookstore. Again, the space was overflowing with attendees. Because The People’s Taskforce attended the previous reading, I was put in contact with LaKiza Fowler, sister of Larry Jackson and activist with TPT. She attended the reading and spoke about her brother, the case, and the work of TPT on an art and activism panel that followed along with myself for BPSO, Florinda Bryant for Creative Action, and Lilia Rosas for Resistencia and Red Salmon Arts. These were not just readings. These were live poetic protests where people organized and united to push back against police violence. The poetry was a vehicle to not only touch the hearts and minds of others; it was the catalyst for community organizing and civic engagement.