Writers think, produce, create, engage, converse, and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas, all while giving them life. A good writer does all of those things, and brings people along for the journey. That’s what Dr. Joshua Bennett does, and has done all his life. From giving his own in-home sermons following church at the age of 4-years-old, to performing at the 2014 NAACP Awards, to publishing 3 books within the next few years. Having to become his own role model in this field allowed him to create his own path.
“I knew since I was very young that I just believed in the power of both my writing and performance, and those two things are separate, but necessarily connected,” Bennett said. “We’re a complex people that have always went across genre, across time, and we supported each other and kept each other afloat.”
On July 26, Bennett gave a spoken word lecture/performance at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. While many people there didn’t remember Bennett, or his upbrining, he was met with applause, praise, and a standing ovation. His words transcended, and told stories that reached people in their hearts. While creating books, and doing spoken word, he still has the time to currently teach at Dartmouth College.
Going off from your highly successful and popular lecture, how do you feel ?
I feel incredible man. It was one of the best performance experiences I think I’ve ever had in my life. I had no real sense of how many people would be in the audience. It was nice to get out there, and see thousands of people, and to see the acceptance to the poems. But also stay for the Q&A, so many people bought books, at the time, wanted to share and talk to me about their lives, their loves, and their passions. It was a very transformative experience that I’m very thankful for.
Being unapologetically yourself, what has been your most challenging aspect in getting into a creative industry, or life in general?
I don’t know. I guess trying to balance between a moment that’s so deeply territorial. We live in the information age, right? Social media is a large part of the way people communicate with one another. But that’s a very curated an image of one’s life. I think trying to balance those struggles of the every day, with wanting to keep people updated on beautiful things that are happening in my life. The work that I’m doing.
That’s been a struggle for me. How to show up as your authentic self on stage, and also try to project that version of myself out into the world, via the Internet that also feels true. So I’m trying to do that now. My big sister is helping me. She’s very social media savvy, and I’m just learning, you know, trying to be brave. And I think that’s the work of the everyday, no matter what you do. How to be courageous? How to take care of yourself like I take care of people?
How hard would you say it’s been to be sort of your own role model in this field? What advice would you give other people, or something that you wished you knew when you had first got started?
It’s like the Toni Morrison says about writing. “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” If you don’t see yourself in books in the world, you have to write it, right? You have to write that book, and I think I’d never met anyone that had the kind of life that I actually wanted to live.
I didn’t know anyone that was sort of a performance poet, also a scholar, also someone publishing poetry off the summer that was actively teaching children, as well as audiences. So every day I had to sort of improvise the life I wanted, and that’s the advice that I would give artists getting started.To be unabashedly yourself as best you can, and to find your people because they’ll get you through those tough times.
Your White House performance, how did it come about?
At that time I was a junior in college. I just performed at the NAACP image awards earlier that year. And the same gentleman that produced that show, Stan Lathan, had also produced the HBO documentary I was in, Brave New Voices, and was also producing this White House event. So Stan reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in performing in the White House. I said, you know, absolutely. And then I sprinted a couple of laps around my dorm room cause I was so excited, A couple of weeks later, I was in the east room of the White House, performing a poem about by my older sister. The rest of my life changed after that. So many different ways.
It was surreal. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I mean, in part because Michelle was just so friendly, and charismatic. She spoke to my mom. Spike Lee was there, Saul Williams was there… We had a freestyle cypher in the back. James Earl Jones was there. We got him to say “ Luke, I am your father.” And there’s this like, beautiful moment, you know. Unlike anything I’d ever experience.
While your poetry is centered around culture and the black experience, there still seems to be an unfortunate stigma around black men in creative fields. How was it for you to have that support from your family, especially being raised in Yonkers?
I think the only way I’ve gotten through it is by having other friends that help model for me how to be a poet, and how to be true to myself …That helped me craft the vision of what our work is supposed to do in the world, how it could sound, how it could look. I’m thankful also that I had a father that raised me to believe that it’s okay to be vulnerable, sensitive, thoughtful, to make art, to appreciate music, to be able to dance, to dress the way I wanted to dress. I don’t take that for granted that I grew up with a very capacious masculinity, and with the sense that gentleness and strength were not opposites.
Strength require gentleness, requires nuance, it requires thoughtfulness and care, otherwise it was just tyranny. I never wanted it to be a tyrant. I never want it to be a bully. I didn’t grow up around people like that. None of the men that I grew up with were like that. So part of what I’ve always been trying to do too, I think subconsciously and otherwise, is tell that truth actually that the black men I grew up around were not patriarchs. They weren’t trying to dominate anyone, but it was actually like a community of men every day trying to teach me something about beauty and valor. So I appreciate it a great deal. And I still do today.
Over the past 10 years, how would you say you’ve seen yourself grow in terms of an artist in the industry, but also a man in general?
I don’t know, day by day. I would say very slowly, you know, like it’s just been a long process Largely through I think therapy, and study, and the grace of honest, loving friends. I’m starting to become the man I have wanted to be since I was younger. I’m figuring out what it means to live a life of integrity, and a life of courage, but also just to have real joy and investment in things and spaces that bring me joy.
Those are things I’m learning to do. I think a lot of my life too was just tied to aspiration for awards, and certain forms of social cachet. I wanted to be fly. I wanted to do well known. Eventually I had to realize that, fame is not an end on its own it’s not. If you’re just pursuing that, your work is going to be empty. It’s going to be corny. It’s not going to be transformative and do the work that we need to do in these terrifying times we live in. I’m thankful that I had that epiphany, and that people helped guide me there.
You mentioned therapy. People are starting to become more open about mental health and awareness in our community. What was like that process for you to kind of figure out that you may have needed a therapist, or somebody outside looking in to help you in any way? Considering for years, the notion of “pray it away” and other remarks have been passed down from generations.
And the stigma, just like broader social stigma I think in terms of race, gender, class and therapy. I just wanted to be a better friend. I wanted to be a better partner at the time. I wanted to be well. And it’s hard to want to be well… It took me a long time to want to be well, and to recognize that therapy was one of the instruments that I would have to put towards my journey. I started that maybe back in 2015. The therapist I work with now, I’ve been with for about a year cause you know I just moved to Boston, and she’s incredible.
It’s transformed my life. It’s given me language from my experiences, not just my trauma, but for my moments of celebration, you know. Therapy is helping me celebrate myself. It’s helping me celebrate my life. It’s helped me realize that I can forgive myself, and I can forgive other people, and that everyone’s a human being that’s trying really hard.
You know, it took me a long time. I don’t think I had that kind of great empathy, anything like that when I was a younger person. I saw a lot of enemies in my own mind. I saw people that were maybe hating on me, or trying to derail me. I mean of course there are people that are going to try to do me real harm, I’m not naive about that. I think what therapy allowed was for me to have a bit more nuanced in terms of how I move through the world. So, I would suggest that for anyone who has access to get therapy.
Going back into your author mode. Owed is a book that you described being about physical and cultural reparations. Have you been able to connect with African culture?
Oh, that’s so interesting. I mean, I’ve had a fair amount of time in South Africa in particular. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve done Johannesburg, and it gave something to me I can’t quite explain. I’ve seen people react to poems out there, but also eating the food, dancing to the music, teaching, and workshops. It was an absolute moment of transformation and a deepening of my understanding of what it meant to live as part of the African diaspora.
I’m a Black American, my great, great grandmother was born into slavery. So for me, the question of reparations is both intensely personnel and it’s political. It’s about what black people in the United States, who are the descendants of enslaved people, are owed in dollars and cents. But it’s also about the larger conversation about what chattle slavery was. It’s about the afterlife of slavery, and mass incarceration, and detention. It’s about being honest about how this country was built, and who it was built upon, and what was stolen, and what must be returned and repaired.
So Owed is in part about that. But it’s also about the aesthetics of the places I grew up. It’s about celebrating things I was taught to denigrate as a boy. It’s about durags, and hoop earrings, and high top fades, and ankle weights. It’s about in my mother’s kitchen. It’s about the ball court in the bodega. It’s about the beautiful, boisterous black life I’ve lived, and singing its beauty for the world as many different ways as I can.
What is it like for you to get on these stages and speak your truth, speak your story, and see yourself connecting with people that you’ve never met before, never seen before?
I mean, there’s nothing like this, you know. Nothing like this in the world. And to be honest, I think I’d almost forgotten that. Like I hadn’t, I’ve never performed for a crowd of that size in my life, but I also just hadn’t been on stage for a while. So during that reminder, and getting it in such a powerful, electrifying way; it really brought me back to my roots. The time I spent at Chautauqua, even given how short it was, that quick turnaround. It reminded me that this is part of what I’m on earth to do, is to share stories and maybe even to keep doing it in that format. So there’s nothing like it in the world, you know, complete, unfettered joy.
Being Property Once Myself: How you described it to me was “largely about animal figures in African American literature, and how black people have historically written about their relationship with the animal world in the midst of a world that starts to animalize them, and to dehumanize them.” How was it for you to be in that research process, but also to turn a dissertation into a book?
It was quite surreal being in the research process over the course of Grad school, and my postdoc at Harvard, and then my time at Dartmouth. In part because I felt like I was trying to recover an entire tradition. Right. I was trying to point to something I’ve been calling the ‘black environmental imagination,’ and this was just one piece of it, right? So this book on the animal kingdom, I hope is one of the series that I’m trying to write.
It’s really about how black people; not just about their relationship to animals, but to the sea, to the trees, to the stone, and the wood, and the air in the sky, and the stars. How have these people, that were kidnapped for the sake of cultivating plant and animal bodies. What ways have they cultivated a thinking about a human relationship with the earth from the position of being formally considered property?
I mean that opened a window in my mind that has just stayed open, and I’m really trying to pursue in both my poetry and my critical prose. So that’s been fantastic. The process of turning the dissertation into a book was complicated, but I’m thankful. You know, I had very generous readers. I have a great editor at Harvard University Press, and hopefully that cover art will be dropping soon and I can share it with you all. I’m excited about it though.
You stated that “we’re a complex people that have always went across genre, across time, and we supported each other and kept each other afloat.” That statement alone, what does that mean to you in all of your years of working in this field, and life in general? To see Black people that you don’t know, just uplift you, and want to see you stride and continue to succeed.
Oh wow, that turn at the end. I am who I am because someone looked after me, you know. Because people take care of me, not just because people thought I was smarter or talented, but because I was a little boy. I was vulnerable, and I needed a protection, and guidance in the world.
So, when I think about care, when I think about teaching, when I think about the trust that you have to have in an audience; it always comes back to that. We’re called to look after each other, right? It’s part of why we’re here on earth. It’s what it means to be an earthling I think. It’s one to understand that we all returned to the dust, right where we come from there… But I think we also have to understand that we’re all connected to one another. We all share atoms, we all share air, we all share the planet.
It was an incredible feeling to be at Chautauqua, in part because it was just a reminder that the work is a global. That the audiences that I spoken to have always been diverse audiences of all kinds. Across lines about race, class, age, ethnicity, disability, region, nation. And that’s the work I have to continue doing.
I have to go into every space that’s interested in this work, and I have to speak the truth of my life, of Black culture, Black Literature in heart, of my family, my neighborhood. I love my dreams by my deeply human vision of what I’m trying to accomplish. And of what we can be, you know, so that’s how I feel. I feel good. I felt like I just got a reminder of my calling, what I’m here to do, what I’m here to undertake, and what it might look like.