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18 Years Of Student Poetry And Prose On Race And Identity Compiled In CMU Anthology

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English and founder and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards, poses for a portrait near the posters made for the awards.

Carnegie Mellon University will publish an anthology of poetry and prose pieces in the fall, written by high school and college students. They're winners of the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards, which started in 1999. 

90.5 WESA's Sarah Schneider spoke to the CMU English professor and the director of the program, Jim Daniels, about compiling the pieces. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SARAH SCHNEIDER: What do you encourage students to write about?

JIM DANIELS: When we started the contest we wanted to distinguish it from an easy kind of response which is you know, "racism is bad, Martin Luther King was a great man," and focus more on the individual personal experiences of each student. Because it's our belief that we get to know each other and understand each other through our own stories. And sometimes there is a tendency to hide behind more abstract general language that isn't really risking anything in terms of revealing how you really feel about something.

SCHNEIDER: So the award is named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and there there were some really complex pieces in the anthology over 18 years from African-American students about their experience within their culture. One piece in particular about a light skinned person and their struggle with identity. But, there are also voices from different races including one student struggling with denying his Middle Eastern origin. Could you talk a little bit about making sure that you included those voices?

DANIELS: We're looking for the complexity, not the oversimplification. And so, for example, a light skinned African-American. That's that's a complication in their existence that they have to deal with. And there are other kinds of biases and discriminations against all kinds of people in our culture and society. This past year, we had a high school student write about being discriminated against after her suicide attempt just in terms of people treating her differently based on externals without really knowing the individual inside them. The award started as part of Carnegie Mellon's events on Martin Luther King Day and I think we wanted not to. We wanted to for everyone to see that we were trying to include everyone and everyone's experiences. 

A short film depicting CMU student and 2017 third place winner for College Prose in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards' poem by Javier Spivey. 

SCHNEIDER: So you have 18 years' worth of writing now. So why why now? Why in 2017 did you want to compile an anthology?

DANIELS: You know, every year it seems like we say well in light of recent events the words are more important than ever and that's unfortunate. We keep saying that because every year and this year with Charlottesville stuff, last year was the nightclub shootings in Orlando. All the police shootings of young African-Americans. So, there seems to be -- unfortunately it keeps coming up as a major problem in our culture and society. I guess I felt like we've been talking about it for years and it slowly kind of gained momentum. So, I guess 18 isn't exactly a round number, but it seemed like it was time to do this.

SCHNEIDER: I've had a few winners come in and record their pieces, but one from 2001 when he was going back through and reading his writing, he had a lot to say about reflecting on it now and how he doesn't necessarily agree with what he had to say. He said that prompted him to write a new piece now of how he's kind of evolved in his thinking. And so I was just wondering, you know, what has your experience been going back through these pieces?

Credit Carnegie Mellon University / provided
Nick Hall's, "Some Hip Hop Show," won first place for high school prose in 2001.

DANIELS: I think when we approached a number of the contributors they had similar feelings, like "I was 18 years old," or whatever and "my view of the world is more complex now" and you say, well you can't revise because that's going to be a different piece. And so the voices of young people I think really important are really important and can connect with them with current students who are going through their own struggles with issues of racism and discrimination and sometimes are maybe hesitant to speak up about it. And I think reading some of the brave pieces these young people, I'm hoping can inspire other people to reflect and to continue to reflect because obviously the problems continue to exist and sometimes feel like they're getting worse.