Author on the Move! by Nikkea Smithers
I never expected…a feature at the Federal Pen would change and inspire me so much…
Take a trip with me…
I’ve had a busy week of spoken word performances. As I’ve posted what I’ve been up to all week many have asked how did things go. My week started off great as I hosted and performed at Virginia State Universities National Poetry Month Slam. The energy was great and flowed over into the next night as I had a wonderful time with my family over at Tuesday Verses. On Wed, I had no idea that my life would forever be changed with a feature at the Petersburg Federal Pen.
Now this had been a long time coming. I did a show about a year or so ago for a very good friend whose Adult Education Program uses my books Gold Diggin and Sweet Dreams as required reading to qaulify for the GED program (Thanks Denise). At that show I met a new friend who asked me if I do shows for the community, my repsonse? Of course I do! One of the reasons I do what I do is because I want to help change lives. I write books that have messages behind them because I believe that those stories can help someone in a need. I’ve performed at highschools, colleges and even juvinile detention centers. We haven’t seen each other until I performed at the Chocolate Dip and Sip in February where we revisited her request to have me perform at her job. I knew that it was a prison but when I got there it blew my mind!
As I got off of the highway and traveled down the road to get to the institution, it didn’t hit me that this was a Federal Prison until I read the sign as I entered the road to the facility. At that point it got real for me. I knew I was performing for men who were locked up but silly me flashed back to the only visions of a federal institution that I have seen on televison. I desperately fought the butterflies that began to swarm as I went through the various security procedures to enter the facility (you know, metal detectors, take off your shoes, etc.). The staff was friendly and exhibited pride in what they were doing. I loved that fact. When someone really has pride in what they do it shows and I felt very welcomed.
As we began to walk through the prison I was suprised because it was alot different than anything I had seen. Everyone was polite, the facility was extraordinarily immaculate and the inmates were alert, ready to recieve from not only me but also their own. The event was very orderly. They had programs made with images of my books along side of Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, I was grateful. There were about two hundred brothers sitting anxious to enjoy the poetry night.
They had a seven piece band setup that could easily back up any Neo-Soul artists flawlessly and played behind everyone as they performed. They were very professional and the the talent was amaing! One of the head Correctional Officers opened up with a poem about manhood and the perception of being a thug that was outstanding. He then introduced the M.C. for the evening which was one of the inmates. Everyone present was respectful and not one time did anyone have to make sure that the crowd was orderly. I loved the fact that the M.C. gave ettiquette to his peers letting them know that in open mics you snap when like what was said and then clap when the poet is finished. The inmates followed these instructions to the T and was gracious with the love and energy that they threw out into the enviornment.
Seven inmates performed and I must say, they made me laugh, cry and even stand to appluad the courage to speak out on many of the things that were ailing them. One guy had a poem where he talked about how all of his friends turned on him as soon as he was got locked up but ended it with how he found the love of Jesus and made him his bestfriend. The way he performed the poem was brilliant! Another guy talked about his friend who was denied health care while locked up and died of a heart attack before the start of the year. The poem from the inmate that brought me to tears however was entitled A Mothers Love for a Two Time Loser. This guy talked about how his 71 year old mother has been through brain tumors, two comas and everything else imaginiable and still visited him everytime she could. Her love for him despite his faults kept him going and I was taken aback.
This is the point that changed me personally alot. My personal views when I was growing up and loved ones got locked up was that I wasn’t going to be visiting, writing or putting money on my phone for anyone them. I had an ex-boyfriend who did something stupid like steal a watch or wallet and got locked up (in jail, not prison at that) and I meant that I wasn’t going to write him or visit him, etc. He always asked me why I was so cold to him during that time and I simply replied that if he loved me like he said he did he wouldn’t do something so stupid to get himself locked up and since I had no intentions of doing his time with him he had better get it together. Last night, as I sat in the back of that chapel with all of those men and listened to their poems about how they felt so alone when their loved ones didn’t even accept their phone calls made me really rethink somethings. I’m not as strict as I was back when my ex made his mistake but these revelations really made me think…what if? Then I thought of that Kirk Franklin song ‘It Could Have Been Me’. How would I feel if I made one bad choice in my life and everyone I loved turned their back on me?
By the time it was my turn to perform I knew I had to bring it. This crowd really deserved the best I had to give because I was placed there to bless them as much as they had blessed me. I was choked up as I stood infront of that room of attentive inmates, CO’s and federal prison workers. I started with my new concious poem entitled ‘Have We Forgotten’ then went on to perform ‘On The Flip Side’, ‘I’ve Got’, ‘Venus’, ‘In the Morning’ and ended with ‘Love Poems’. As I wasn’t sure what I could bring into the building to give to the inmates I had chapter excerpts from several of my novels and poetry books and flyers. Every single item I brought was well recieved and they even asked if I could send more. At then end I signed over a hundred (just from the top of my head) authographs and everyone was respectful.
I am so grateful for this experience because I got back as much as I gave. I’ve been inspired in many ways. I know this was a mouthful but if you took the time to read this note, thank you and I appreciate you.
Bookclubs who would like to connect to me simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nikkea Smithers, Essence Magazine Best Selling Author
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