How Do You Raise a Black Child?
From the dead. With pallbearers who are half as young as their faces suggest...
Pray and Hope God Can Hear You.
Will Campbell interviews poet Cortney Lamar Charleston
Describe your writing process for “How Do You Raise a Black Child?” What was the catalyst for the poem, and how did you develop the poem from there?
The catalyst for the poem, as with most of the material I’ve written in the past, say, two years, is the ever-present and systemic violence perpetrated against Black peoples. In the wake of highly publicized murders of Black men, women and children, frankly, as a Black person, one begins to feel a little helpless, a little lost. When all in the present proves awful and absurd, I think it natural that people turn toward the future with a hopeful eye, and that hopeful future is symbolized by children for many, many folks: they are the chance that the days ahead might be better. And yet the reality of Black existence is that our children are continuously at risk due to a myriad of compounding and oppressive forces that prevent most from ever realizing their full potential. The challenge of Black parenthood is mitigating these forces, but ultimately, with every passing funeral comes the realization there is no foolproof plan; I’m sure Trayvon Martin’s parents thought he was safe in his own subdivision, for example. As it stands, too many of our children are simply martyred before they ever become men or women, but following their deaths, nothing seems to move forward in terms of either public policy or public perception. The world is a willing witness to Black suffering, but doesn’t mobilize to stop it.
Was your process for this poem typical of the way you usually work?
I believe the writing of this poem differed from my usual practice, simply due to its structure and organizing concept. There is no obvious overarching narrative, and I’m not sure I’d describe it as especially lyrical either (others may disagree). With that said, I think the poem certainly leverages my natural tendencies as a writer to experiment with and employ repetition, which is why there are multiple instances of similar clause constructions being used throughout the poem and also the repeated use of linguistic negation as well. Furthermore, I pay a great deal of attention to both sound and rhythm, which is jointly derivative of my love for hip-hop music and my background as a performance or spoken word poet, whichever term you prefer to use; I believe this concern with musicality is observable in much of my work. Because of this, and despite the slightly different spin on required to conform to the concept I envisioned, I didn’t feel like I was floating far outside my comfort zone with this piece; the poem felt familiar from the beginning, almost like I was reciting words I’d memorized a long time ago.
The poem offers a multitude of answers to the question its title poses. Is there a particular answer, or answers, you’d consider most important for how to raise a Black child in America?
There are two answers that pop in my head immediately, if I’m being honest. In regards to the poem, these answers are both implied in its existence rather than explicitly stated in its words:
1. Pray and hope God can hear you.
2. Love Black Children unconditionally and don’t feel ashamed about it.
What thoughts do you have on the poem’s translation from page to screen?
I admit that the poem itself perhaps isn’t the most immediately cinematic or imagistic piece, but the filmmaker, Seyi Peter-Thomas, has done a fantastic job of weaving the disparate but related threads of the poem into a powerful short film that is somehow as clear as it is mysterious. In my wildest dreams, I don’t think I could have imagined anything close to this film were someone to probe my mind for an illustration of the poem, and I’m still very much bewildered that my poem could serve as the backbone of a project like this to begin with. As I imagine Seyi is, I’m very anxious to hear people’s impressions of the film and what they take away from it on a personal level. I absolutely believe it has the ability to do important work in the world and allow some folks who would not have encountered the writing otherwise to engage with its message and call to action.
Will Campbell is an actor/writer/reciter active in Central Virginia. Between working with Heretic Pride, an experimental performance trio, he works in a restaurant, writes odd poems, and walks for hours at a time.