Black Heritage Month brings slam poetry to PSU campus

Portland State University’s Black Cultural Affairs Board (BCAB) sponsored the “Poetry off the Page” poetry slam in the Smith Memorial Student Union on Friday.

Held in honor of Black Heritage Month, the event showcased a number of local poets and hip-hop artists who came together to celebrate the cultural heritage of African Americans.

With students participating from PSU, Reed College, and Lewis and Clark College, as well as many community members from as far away as Seattle, participants presented in a number of different styles and sent a variety of different messages.

The evening started with open-mic readings in which performers discussed issues from racism and domestic violence to religion and George W. Bush. The atmosphere was one of hope and celebration.

Statements such as “live the truth” and “love is crucial” set the tone for the evening, and the audience was receptive to performers’ efforts to encourage social change.

Turiya Autry, host of the poetry slam and performer in the group Womb Dialectic, reminded the audience that poetry can be a form of resistance.

“The art of word has been key to the history of our struggle,” she said.

Usman Ally, a presenting poet and junior at Lewis and Clark, explained that writing is his form of release. Through his writing he is able to influence the way people think, he said.

“When you’re on stage, you have people’s attention,” he said. “There are very few times when you can mold people’s minds.”

Having moved to the United States three years ago, Ally, who is of Pakistani descent and grew up in Africa, has experienced some frustration since becoming part of American society. After having to complete special registration because of his Middle-Eastern descent, he feels that he has watched the United States go downhill since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ally explained that his poetry allows him to express the frustration that he would otherwise be unable to.

“I feel like I can’t talk about certain things without being in danger,” he said. “Onstage I feel like I have artistic freedom.”

One of the main themes in Ally’s poetry has to do with his experiences moving to a predominantly white society.

“People think physical racism, like apartheid, is worse,” he said. “It’s not. Here, I fear a church-going white American who clutches the hand of their child when I walk by more than a neo-Nazi.”

Events taking place in honor of Black Heritage Month are organized in an effort to lessen racist thinking in America. Muhamud Abi, treasurer of the BCAB and vice president of the PSU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the main purpose of such events is to educate those who attend about the realities of American history as well as racism that exists in America today.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about minorities,” he said. “We put on these events to show that this is something that happened, that’s still going on. We’re trying to show images and realities of how black people live in America.”

Though the events being held in honor of Black Heritage Month are already under way, there are still many more taking place throughout the remainder of February and the beginning of March.

Among such events are a number of lectures, which will discuss African history, African/African American unity, the role of women in the movement, as well as the importance of black education. Another lecture taking place is titled “York and the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” and will be focusing the often-neglected person of color who participated as a servant in the famous expedition.

The final event scheduled is the Ebony Ball, a formal dance taking place March 14 on the Portland Spirit. Advance tickets are for sale, though the dance is for those 18 and over.

For more information, look for the Black Heritage Month calendars located in the black studies office, and in various spots on campus, or go to for the full calendar online.