For poet, Barry Akins, poetry is more than talent; it is his magnificent gift. In just five hours, he penned a poem which unpacked centuries of the layered African American experience. As we sat down to speak to him about “The Chair of Negritude,” he shares his incredible vision and how he ultimately came to pair pride with outrage. It takes a bold soul to transform struggle and pain into a powerful work of art that both reveals and encourages; and it is our greatest pleasure to introduce to you Mr. Barry Akins.
Many poets can pinpoint when writing went from a pastime to something more. Can you shed some light on your journey with writing and poetry?
I’ve been writing poetry since the fifth grade. In the late 90s I began to write about everything that affected me deeply in every way imagined. There was this awakening about who I was and what I felt as a man of color. I began carrying a small binder and pen to write everything the universe brought to my heart. I wrote on the subway to work, at work, everywhere. I began copyrighting my poetry and did a little open mic here and there.
The response to my poetry was great. Compelled to create and to have what you create well received, to me, is a sign that you have a gift. Many said that my poems sound like songs. So, two poems became lyrics to songs I’ve co-written.
As a poet who hails from New York City, how did your environment shape your thought process and your writing?
The Big Apple has an atmosphere of exposure, openness and availability like nowhere else. New York City easily satisfies the inquisitive soul with an in-your-face reality that others read about or view on the internet. I believe these components helped shape me into becoming more accepting of a variety of things like different cultural backgrounds and keen to many kinds of social issues. Those components condition a New Yorker’s heart into better understanding the good, the bad and the ugly. Like others who create, I have my own style and use of imagination, but my experiences here make me write more about the social injustices I see firsthand.
How personal is your poetry? Is anything off limits?
Nothing is off limits. I write what I experience and the feelings that come to the surface as a result. When something, or someone, [sparks] an emotion, out comes the pen and book, or hands upon a keyboard and I create poetry. “Personal” can be the wounds of social injustice I experience to the euphoric feeling and taste of sex, true love, unrequited love and the ache of lost love. I’m probably not as graphic as some about sex, love and lack thereof. Still, I’ve written about them all.
How has the theme of your poetry shifted over time?
In my 20s and 30s, I wrote more about love and unrequited love because that was what I basically knew. I began to broaden and write more about the attitudes and the hypocrisy of people around me. Around the past fifteen years, most of what I’ve written has been about my experiences with social injustice and social issues. “The Chair of Negritude” is an example. Another example is a poem that became a song I co-wrote in 2012, “The Prayers” addressing social concerns. The current political climate moves me to write even more as people of color are again being pushed into second class citizenship under the current administration. I am on the pulse of it with pen and paper.
What goals do you aspire to reach within the world of poetry?
I realize I just want to be heard. I love to hear a great story. I love to tell a great story. I love to read or hear a great poem that emotes me and I am most appreciative when others are moved by something I’ve written. I wish to document the pulse of personal moments in my life as well as document the pulse of the political climate of this moment in time. Perhaps I aspire to be a modern-day griot.
In my relationship with God, I affirm that the gift of creating in any genre glorifies His love and puts a spotlight where He wants it. It would be an honor if my words touched the lives of many into feeling uplifted, empowered, understood, or moved to doing profound and awesome acts of giving. I’d be honored if my poetry could move a single person to acts of greatness.
In your opinion, what is the significance of poetry?
I believe it is one of the great arts through literature that evokes all kinds of emotions.
Rhythm, rhyme, symbolism, style, message… You know it when you see it. You know it when you hear it. It will never go away; it’s been woven into our culture forever. We know our favorite poets. Even if we don’t, we know their works – they resonate within us.
At the meal of literature, poetry is the ambrosia appetizer, the spicy, red velvet cake dessert and gourmet black coffee. All aesthetic, tasty, smell provoking, palate provoking. Each poetic artist has their own style, their own message like each cook has their own tasty recipe.
On The Chair of Negritude
You have recently launched the video for your brilliant poem, The Chair of Negritude. What prompted you to write this piece and how long did it take you to complete?
A person mentioned the word “negritude” in a conversation, which resonated within me. A year later, I sought to write and read an original poem at my place of employment’s Annual Black History Month program. I wanted to use the word ‘negritude,’ but kept thinking about African Americans’ endless struggle for entitlement. Then the idea hit me like a lightning rod! ‘We’ve been sitting in the Chair of Negritude at the American table begging for a piece of that American apple pie for centuries!’
“Negritude” took about five hours to write.
The auditions for the program took place at 6pm one evening on another floor at work. At work that day, I began writing the poem at about 10:30am. As soon as ideas and words came to me, I wrote them down on yellow sticky posts and stuck them on my cubicle wall. I did a little job-related work and then wrote a little more poem – back and forth throughout the day. By 5pm, I had stanzas on yellow posts stuck all over my cubicle. I pulled them down, put them in order and typed “The Chair of Negritude” on a legal sized sheet of paper. I hurried upstairs and auditioned it. They loved it!
Your 14-stanza poem covers so many aspects of the Black American experience—from enslavement to the influence on pop culture. At this point in time, when you consider the totality of your heritage, what emotion does it evoke?
I wrote most of the poem coming from a place of pride. Some of it was written from a place of outrage. I was, and still am, astounded and outraged by the institutionalized racism and bigotry still waged against African Americans in this country we helped to build and continue to love. I wrote this poem in 2003. Everything is still relevant today!
However, we’re still here, very aware of the environment, our history and pretty vocal about our experiences. Many whose ancestors were slaves brought over from Africa are doing relatively well, some even striving in spite of every injustice past and present. So, I feel a great sense of pride overall.
What part of the poem is the most personal to you?
“The soldier of many American wars in places far unknown
In battle fighting by your side, but at home I stand alone”
Blacks have been fighting for this country in every war since the Revolutionary War. Those Black soldiers were proud, patriotic and capable. They believed defending the country with their very lives would change things for the better regarding their treatment after each war. However, upon returning to American soil from all those wars, very few things changed for them. They all returned [to experience] institutionalized racism and still do. Two uncles, four cousins and my brother – all veterans.
Can you describe the filming process? How long did it take to conceptualize the project?
My original concept was to have me as two characters of color. I wanted to be a waiter and later as myself with tons of images in between to help tell the story. About four weeks before the shoot, I decided to add the characters of the soldier and a man in a hoodie with shackles. I thought the serious content, rhythm and pulse of the poem required more dimensions of black men.
A friend referred me to videographer Eric Alexander of “Document This”. We discussed my concept and the blocking I desired, as I was the narrator, actor and director. The evening before the shoot, a friend and I set up “the room of the patriotic red white and blue” in my apartment.
The day of the shoot, Eric brought a professional sound person, Mielle Ezra. In about forty-five minutes, cameras and lights were set up. I was in my first costume, wired with a microphone, and we began. Eric shot one to two stanzas at a time from several different angles. I had to remember the blocking and manner in which I delivered the lines from one angle shot to the next for each stanza. Later, I recited the entire poem for Mielle to cover the parts of the video where I’d be narrating during the showing of images. It took about seven hours to complete the shooting. We took about four breaks in between for costume changes, coffee, to eat and to confirm the blocking for the next costume change. They are marvelous professionals.
In about four weeks of time before and after the shoot, I carefully selected images, sound effects and music for the video. A third of the photos didn’t make the video; the spoken word gave plenty of imagery. Editor Yota Matsuo did an awesome job with those selected images. I’m grateful to God for Eric, Mielle and Yota. They are truly artists.
What was your favorite scene to film and why?
The favorite scene for me was the intimidating African American in the hoodie with shackles. I haven’t worn sweats or a hoodie in about fifteen years. I had to purchase a black one for the shoot.
I found it extremely powerful when I first watched that scene on video. I realize that’s who many Americans see seated at the American table. Dark and mysterious with only the mouth and shackled fists visible asking for what they believe they’re entitled to – that piece of the pie. I got to do a stanza down on one knee in my hoodie, holding our flag.
Why is it so important for you to share this piece with the world and who are you hoping to reach most?
The Chair of Negritude is telling our story from the time we arrived until now. It’s from my perspective as the descendant of slaves from Africa. I am acting as a griot on this.
I hope it reaches everyone. Anyone. I hope it sheds the light of truth for people who don’t understand “the why”. I know that it will bring self-esteem, pride and awakening to everyone who needs it.
How has the reception been thus far?
The reception has been fantastic! At my place of employment, people are communicating how they love it! People I don’t really know at work have approached me about the video! The word I hear most is “awesome” after they’ve seen it. The other words heard are “goosebumps,” “chills,” “good,” and “excellent.” I’m getting emails, phone calls and text messages from everywhere. All the YouTube comments have been positive. I’ve even gained new friends on Facebook. I am in awe of people’s reaction and their desire to share it. While It hasn’t gone “viral” (yet), it has gotten a great amount of attention – and this is the beginning. I am so very grateful.
In the perfect world, what would “a piece of the pie” look like to you?
In the perfect world, a piece of pie for Barry Akins would be to have enough time and resources to create a genre positively reaching the masses regularly. My piece of the pie would include great artistic and commercial successes – whatever is mine by divine right. This would also include opportunities to meet others with similar interests and goals.
YouTube: Barry Akins