‘Set a goal and go for it’: BSA Poetry Slam invites self-reflection

At the center of the main floor of the Center for Campus Ministry (CCM), three sets of chairs are placed in half-circles widening out. Highlighted in the final rays of sunlight, the Black Student Alliance (BSA) co-president Lavarius Thenthirath stands before the microphone. He opens the night with Kwame Dawes’ “Tornado Child;” he opens the night with an affirmation tempestuous and true that spirals out through the rings and sets the mood for the rest of the night. This is a night for bravery and honesty, and how better to open it as such than with a declaration mighty and commanding as a tornado?

February is Black History Month, and Maryville College’s BSA has a plethora of events planned to celebrate. On Wednesday, Feb. 9 BSA’s poetry slam, an annual favorite, was held in the CCM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Students, faculty and community members alike were invited to participate in and enjoy this renewing communal experience. 

Co-president Lavarius Thenthirath opens BSA’s annual poetry slam with “Tornado Child” by Kwame Dawes. 
Photo courtesy of Nataly Bennett

The night saw a variety of poetic voices from traditional classics, such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Harlem Renaissance favorites like Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” and Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” A particular hit in the latter category came from BSA advisor Larry Ervin’s reading of “Mother to Son,” a Langston Hughes piece he dedicated to his mother and the students at Maryville College. 

“I want them to recognize that and see the parallels with things that they face today. There are so many of the same truths that our students face today that our ancestors faced back in the day,” said Ervin. 

He went on to specify this specific poem as important for students, and especially for students in BSA, because of its themes: “not to give up and not to hold back and seeking your victory—to set a goal and to go for it.” 

The night was not just for the classics, however. BSA co-president Jean Miracle Raymond recited Beyoncé’s “Denial,” a modern piece that touches on many of the same themes of identity, self-reflection, isolation, love and desirability (both those stereotypes and expectations imposed personally and culturally) common to the Harlem Renaissance pieces which precede it. 

Multiple attendees chose also to recite original pieces which reflected upon related themes. Especially memorable was Christina Airington’s original “Walking Contradiction,” which touched on themes of intersectionality and isolation. Airington, who is still working out her place within the broader Maryville campus community, illustrated her struggles with self-identification and acceptance as “learning about all these boxes / and I’m trying to pull myself out of them.” The poem was met with a standing ovation from multiple attendees, which Airington later stated made her feel more excited for possible future events. 

“It was my first time speaking in front of a crowd like this,” said Airington. “I feel like [BSA] should do it more often!” 

BSA member Jason Nix showcases an international flair with a selection of Afro-Cuban poetics. 
Photo courtesy of Nataly Bennett

When asked about the possibility of more poetry readings in the future, Raymond said, “The poetry slam is one of the Black History month traditions…but if the students want more poetry slams, we’ll give you more! I hope that we can have more in the future and that we can get more readers to come out in the future and join us.

“There’s been a misconception about it just being for black students; BSA is for everyone,” Raymond added. “It’s about inclusion and diversity, but it’s also a safe space for students and people of color.” 

She hopes to see further campus engagement and involvement, especially with all the exciting Black History Month events BSA has planned. 

More information on the rest of BSA’s plans for celebrating Black History Month can be found on their Instagram page or the official Maryville College newsroom page, “Black History Month observations, celebrations, and events in full swing at Maryville College.” An archived version of the full poetry slam can also be found on BSA’s Instagram page.

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