Winners of writing contest inspire community

Students in the School of Drama enchanted the audience with renditions of spiritual anthems and haunting spoken word poems.  (credit: Kevin Zheng/Assistant Photo Editor) Students in the School of Drama enchanted the audience with renditions of spiritual anthems and haunting spoken word poems. (credit: Kevin Zheng/Assistant Photo Editor)

“Like my grandmothers, I refuse to be the ink that gives the white page a meaning,” wrote Allderdice High School senior Amma Ababio.

On the other side of the racial divide, “I sob because I can’t let the world treat everyone / as it will treat me,” wrote Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School student Isaac Monroe in his second-place poem, “I Have it Hard (That’s a Lie).”

Creative writing senior Michael Mingo described clandestine racism in a homogeneous town in first-place poem “Rural Vandalism.” In her second-place poem “To Lebanon,” junior psychology and French double major Siriana Abboud reflected on the memory of her native country: “You, my land, have raised me.” In his third-place poem, first-year creative and technical writing double major Joshua Brown wrangled with a different brand of difference and discrimination, writing, “When I was born, I came out swinging, / Prepared to beat back the savage stinging / Of this world’s brutal preoccupation / With my private passions.”

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, students, faculty, families, and community members convened in Rangos Ballroom for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards, an annual event launched by Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English Jim Daniels in 1999, which encourages both local college and high school students to write about their experiences of racial discrimination or difference in memory of Dr. King, according to the call for submissions. First, second, and third place awards were given in four categories: college prose, high school prose, college poetry, and high school poetry.

Not only written word was featured at the ceremony: The event launched with powerful musical performances by students in the School of Drama, whose vocal talent, it seems, we so rarely get to hear. Their performances ranged from spirited to somber, from a pounding rendition of black spiritual anthem “Down by the Riverside” to a sobering spoken word poem that held the audience rapt: “This feels a lot like Selma,” the poem lamented about recent events in Ferguson and New York. “2015 feels like 1965.”

Following the performances, the winners commenced reading from their work, moving from college poetry to college prose categories. In third-place “Fair and Lovely,” junior psychology and creative writing double major Michelle Mathew spoke about discrimination against darker skin in her native India. In second-place “On Language,” first-year undeclared Dietrich College student Ellie Liu described losing her native Mandarin and watching her mother’s “attempts at accent-eradication.”

Junior chemistry and creative writing double major Sophie Zucker took to the podium last to read from her first place-winning essay, “The Washing.” Her hook, a description of a chemically extreme hair-straightening process called the Blowout — of which her mother is a devotee — seems, at surface level, unrelated to issues of race. The connection is subtle but significant, and becomes more overt as the piece goes on.

“It’s about how hair is racialized,” Zucker said in an interview. “Straight hair is seen as professional and socially acceptable; curly hair is seen as deviant.” Because it’s associated with people of color, curly hair is construed as exotic and low class — prompting many black women to straighten, weave, or otherwise alter their hair, from a “desire to emulate whiteness.”

Zucker said she started researching the natural hair movement in earnest during her senior year of high school, when one of her friends decided to go natural — and when Zucker herself was “trying to write about my identity in a more nuanced way.” While simultaneously learning about antisemitism and modern-day Judaism, Zucker watched Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair and read Malcolm X’s autobiographical descriptions of hair straightening in the African American community.

“ ‘We’re all just trying to look whiter,’ ” Zucker quoted her mother in her essay. “...‘Why do you think black women get weaves? Why do you think I straighten my hair? It’s not because it’s cheap or easy.’ ”

With the most emotionally resonant piece appropriately saved for last, first-place high school prose winner Ababio took the stage. Though her voice was firm, Ababio apologized in advance for her emotional delivery, and told the audience about her incredible struggle being thrust into American racial beauty standards as a young Ghanaian immigrant.

Ababio choked and came to tears while reading from her work. “I was disgusted by the coarseness of my hair, the hand-me-down clothes I wore, and especially the color of my skin,” wrote Ababio, who resorted to harsh skin lightening formula and baby powder in an attempt to whiten her skin. At this point in the reading, Ababio paused in earnest distress.

“It’s okay, baby,” a woman called from the audience.

As Ababio left the podium to the loudest applause yet, Daniels took the mic to propose they end the night in song. A single School of Drama student came to the stage to sing from the black national anthem, a ringing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was slowed and powerful for its lack of instrumental company, and after the last belted note hit the ceiling, a few moments passed before anyone spoke.