Young women in the Mississippi Delta are using words to empower and express themselves. MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports on how girls are writing, changing and shaping their world.
Kamessia Bonney reads from a poem she wrote at summer camp. It's called "Why are People Staring?"
“I’m sitting in class ready to learn
But I can’t concentrate
It seems like I’m a person at a funeral with the wrong color on," she reads.
She is a camper at Girls Write the World, a girls only weeklong summer camp in the Mississippi Delta.
“I can feel their eyes, a lot of them.
Why are people staring? Do I have something on my teeth?”
Bonney and about a dozen other girls are debuting their poetry to an audience filled with everyone from babies to grandmothers.
Four years ago, four teachers from the Delta started this camp. All four have since moved out of the region, but still come back each summer to host the camp.
Sara Hutchinson is one of the co-founders and says the camp was born from the teachers’ personal experiences with Delta youth.
“We were all concerned about the lack of safe spaces that I felt that my students had access to," Hutchinson said as campers rehearsed in the next room. "I had a really beautiful vision for what my classroom was gonna look like, and there were moments when I got pretty close to that. I also was just so unsatisfied with how it felt. We created Girls Write the World because we wanted to build a safe, new, alternative space for our students to learn and grow together."
For one week, 12 to 18 year old girls learn to express thoughts about their relationships, education and feelings by reading and writing poetry.
Popular music, like rap, is similar to freestyle writing and engages students more according to Murray Collum, president of the Mississippi Literary Association.
“The culture, and the different type of music we have that people like is nothing but freestyle poetry," Collum said. "What they find out is that they are actually the author, and there are no rules when you’re the author.”
Hutchinson said reading and writing poetry is educational and therapeutic for the girls. Students read poetry written by women poets, but the strongest lessons come from their own open conversations.
“We had a really great and deep conversation about things that make us angry," she said. "We talked about expectations that are put on women, and how that is very enraging. We talked about the way our culture and society treat women who are angry.”
Most of the students here are African American. Hutchinson said teachers encourage them not to shy away from talking about anger and race.
“We also talk about the racialized stereotypes. The label of being an angry black woman, what it means for them. How sometimes even expressing their anger can make them vulnerable, or make it so that they’re taken less seriously."
An Elon University study finds African Americans faced with negative stereotypes and portrayals deal with lower self esteem
But first time camper Ajaylah Thornton now sees the positive side of being open with all her emotions.
“Being around a positive group of females, adults and kids around my age range," Thornton explains. "It made me kind of change my perspective. I felt like I could open up more.”
At first, Thornton didn’t know what she was going to do this summer. She usually travels, but this summer she wanted to do something out of her comfort zone.
“It’s okay to be open and not hide things and be comfortable. It’s okay if other people say negative things, as long as you’re not negative, I wish I could tell my younger self that.”
Talks at camp directly address sex education, relationships and self defense, too.
The girls have bonded with each other through reading, writing and even cooking together. Now, they feel comfortable with each other.
Reading their poems aloud can also benefit them, according to Terri Lane, who is on the camp’s board and is a director of The Community Foundation of Washington County.
“When they have to make a presentation, [and] when they have to do a public speaking engagement," she explains. "They already have that background and that self confidence, that they can stand before a room of people they don’t know and make a powerful presentation on the subject matter at hand.”
She said the girls are learning to better their communities by empowering themselves.
“Having these leadership sessions and these empowerment sessions and learning how they can give back, that is something that becomes a life goal for them. Watching them support each other. Instead of girls knocking each other down, these young ladies are lifting each other up.”
When the girls finish reading, the audience starts snapping in support.
Derricka Scott’s words from her poem “Being Me is Unique” sum up one of the camp’s important lessons.
“Being me is unique,
Being a little cocky and being the top of my class And as the society hates, being smarter than the men in my class.
Being brave and showing that I can step outside my box.
Each poem and girl is unique, but if there is one thing each has in common, it’s a newfound confidence in their words and themselves.