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Spoken Word Poet Helps to Ease Racial Strife

Michelle Myers
Assistant professor Michelle Myers, right, with Denice Frohman, the spoken word poet featured at the
Nov. 4 Writing OutLOUD workshop. Photo by Earni Young.

Michelle Myers does not hesitate to give you a piece of her mind, whether she is in or out of the classroom. On the job, assistant professor Myers is a reading and writing specialist in the College’s Learning Laboratory. But in her free time, she is a nationally known artist of the spoken worda visceral, in-your-face style of contemporary poetry.

Half Korean and half Caucasian, Myers believes that spoken word can help bridge racial division. She has volunteered her talent as a poet and spoken word artist to go into Philadelphia public schools and help diffuse racial strife between Asian and African-American students. That tension erupted in violence in December 2009 at South Philadelphia High School. It was no surprise to Myers.

Through her volunteer work at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, a community-based arts center, Myers had heard rumors of brewing antagonism between African-American and Asian students in some of Philadelphia’s public schools. Several months before the attacks against Asian students, she had started contacting other community organizers who work with youth. She had wanted to start a conversation about what was happening and work on how to prevent outbreaks of violence. No one responded.

Myers said she believes the people working with African-American youth in the schools probably were focused on what they considered to be more significant problems. But after the December incident, several nonprofits called to ask Myers for help. She volunteered to lead spoken word poetry workshops at South Philadelphia High, Olney High, John H. Taggart Elementary School and Fairhill Elementary School.

Myers has street credibility with young people, especially Asians. As half of the popular spoken word duo "Yellow Rage," she and Catzie Vilayphonh, a Laotian, first won national attention as a featured act on HBO’s "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" series in 2002. They are best known for their poems “Black Hair, Brown Eyes, Yellow Rage;” and “I’m a Woman Not a Flava.

When she met with the Asian students who had been assaulted at South Philadelphia High, they were so fascinated by her emotionally charged performance that they almost forgot why Myers was there. "From my experience, the root of this and many other social problems which involve conflicts between groups of color is cultural misunderstanding, ignorance and miscommunication," Myers said. "Spoken word poetry can help diffuse such tensions and offset such stereotypes and misunderstanding."

Myers said the art form allows students to express their emotions, no matter how volatile, in an accepting and safe space before an audience that ideally listens without judgment. This is a primary reason why young people find spoken word so attractive, she said. “As long as the language is not meant to be deliberately hateful, poets can render their feelings and point of view in as raw a way as they want,” she said.

Myers’ personal life gives her some insight into the feelings of youth on both sides of the racial divide. She is the offspring of a Korean mother and a Caucasian father, and her husband is African-American. They have three children, ages 5, 6 and 13.

Even as she reached out to help in the Philadelphia schools, Myers examined her personal motives for bias. “I made sure that I was committed to work within and across both communities. I wanted people to see and know that I’m sincere and want to work with all youth,” Myers said.

At the College, Myers is faculty advisor for the Spoken Word Poetry Club and the co-founder and organizer of the Writing OutLOUD poetry series, which offers performances by well-known spoken word artists. After shows, the artists facilitate writing workshops. Although she sees no evidence of a significant rift between Asian and African-American students at the College, Myers believes that racial stereotypes persist on both sides. "I’d like to do more here to raise awareness and generate dialogue around this issue, as well as about other topics," she said.

Most weekends, you will find Myers performing either with Vilayphonh as “Yellow Rage” or solo. Myers’ poems focus on issues like anti-Asian violence, cross-cultural conflict and misunderstanding, human trafficking, sexual slavery, police brutality and domestic violence.