There is something about slam poetry that reaches deep inside you like few other performance arts can. Ebony Stewart was a shining example of that delicate, painful skill.
I went alone to her show, something I wouldn't normally do. As a general rule, I'm a hermit. I don't like to attend events with lots of strangers by myself. I found a seat on the end row, immediately two girls sat next to me and made me nervous. I had gotten up to get a cupcake and they were blocking my seat, so I waited very patiently until they moved from my chair which had my jacket on it, and was clearly saved. “I'm sorry,” I said when she finally turned and realized she was blocking my seat. She just nodded and finally sat down.
I had a giant chocolate cupcake with red lip frosting on top. It helped, and I ate it rapidly from being nervous.
One of the show organizers pointed out that Ebony was sitting up front on a couch and that the seat would be open during the show, that I was welcome to go and sit up there and meet her. I was way too nervous. Let's be candid for a moment: the number of African-American woman I've been within 10 feet of in my entire life? 3. 4, if I include the girl who now sat next to me. A little higher for the number of men I've met. Now, Anthropology has taught me that “race” isn't a thing, and in fact, it's quite an offensive concept. Scientifically speaking, we are all the same, 99.9% identical on a genetic level and that skin color and facial structure is simply the result of genetic adaptation to survive in various regions of the world. It's not her skin color that intimidates me; it's the cultural mystery about her. I knew nothing about her—except for what I knew about slam poets in general—and they are fearless.
So I kept my seat, awkwardly next to college students nearly half my age, and quietly ate my cupcake as I waited for Ebony to take stage. And the moment she did—I was no longer afraid of the differences between us, because she spoke art and it went straight to my heart.
Ebony was so funny and disarming; she introduced herself to the crowd, saying she was from Houston, Texas and was really glad that she came here at a time when it wasn't snowing. She said the weather in our area was “offensive,” to her and her body. I laughed, because I think the weather in Texas would probably kill me, but I can appreciate the need to not be around the snow. She asked the audience a few more questions and then she started with a poem. She explained that she was an English major (just like I'd like to be if I don't switch to Humanities!), that she taught 7th grade English for many years before switching over to 6th Grade Sex Education.
“If you've never talked to a 6th grade boy about sex—you've never lived.” - Ebony
She eventually realized that she wanted to be a slam poet full time but the one thing she missed most about being a Sex Education teacher was the “Blind Box” questions she allowed her students to ask. She'd get the best—and the worst—questions she'd ever heard. She made a poem about the questions, and it starts out very funny, very real questions, and then asks the one that breaks your heart:
That's what Ebony was to me—a beautiful, broken heart on the stage that wanted to let it all pour out. Something about slam poets lets them talk about subjects that no other artist can. No singer can say the words so fiercely as a slam poet, no writer can make the page bleed aloud. She spoke of a rough childhood, how she started journaling at age 8 to escape her reality, and how poetry saved her life. She took questions from a box passed around the audience and answered them in stride. “Your hair is so beautiful, can I touch it? Would you like to hang out some time?” She gave this wonderful, hard stare, explained that her hair is real, attached to her, and it's the same as coming up to someone and saying, “I really like your breasts. Can I touch them?” And that no, she didn't want to hang out, because she lives in Houston. She said it all jokingly, but I could feel the authenticity in her words, a glimmer of anger and truth behind that smile.
“How did you become so brave?”
“Aw, this is a sweet question. I don't think that I'm, um--I don't necessarily look at myself as brave. So, thank you. I don't know. I don't think of myself as brave. I talk from the heart, I'm a very confident person, I don't really have too many things that--mostly because I wake up, like when I wake up in the morning, I say 'thank you' to the Universe, and then I say 'rah rah rah I'm the shit!' because sometimes you gotta be your own cheerleader. Like, it just really gotta happen. If you haven't figured out what you wanna say to get yourself motivated, then, maybe you should, like, have a conversation with yourself, like, 'Self?' And Self say 'Huh?' What should we say to get ourselves motivated? 'Rah Rah Rah, you da shit!' That's what I needed Self, thank you!"
That was my blind box question, and I did consider her to be brave. Everything she was willing to talk to a group of strangers about without blinking: that is bravery to me. She addressed issues like feminism, sexuality, domestic violence—praised Maya Angeloa and Ororo Monroe (Storm!)--and kept everyone in good spirits. She had a fluid grace about her words and attitude that I'll always remember.
I won a little raffle from the school: a couple shirts, a mug, a sticker, a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book. Between the raffle and the cupcakes, it was a delightfully coordinated event.
I told Ebony after the show—after leaving once and then returning—I told her “Thank you.” What I meant was, “Thank you for being brave enough to stand in front of the college kids and speak your truth. It's painful, it's real, and it heals.” For those of us who shake, whose mouths slam shut and fear roots our feet in place: thank you for being brave enough to do it for me.
I very timidly asked her for a picture. I was so nervous I was sweating. You can tell how tense I am in my posture. By this time of the night, I was just so impressed with Ebony and her poetry and her power, she was more than human to me. She was something else now: someone to look up to, to strive to be like, to tell others about. Thank you Ebony.