Day celebrations typically involve the three Ps: parties, parades and
pyrotechnics. But during a year when Americans are navigating a global
pandemic and a national reckoning on racism, there’s much less
enthusiasm for breaking out the confetti poppers and inflatable bald eagles.
Instead, many craved a different, more reflective holiday this
Fourth of July, and one Blue Hen is coming through with an alternative
“The art form gives voice to the voiceless,” said Christian Wills,
who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2020 with a degree in English after completing UD's Associate in Arts Program. “No matter what happens, or what you’re dealing with, poetry can help you process it.”
On Friday, July 3, Wills hosted a virtual open mic
through the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage at the
Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington. Sponsored by a grant from
Delaware Humanities, the event took place in two parts, at 1 p.m.
and 7 p.m. During these hour-long sessions, open to the public via
Facebook Live, around a dozen poets and rappers were scheduled to address what the
Fourth of July has meant to them historically — and what it means today.
Among the participants was James Church, better known as Enoch the Poet, a Philadelphia artist who graduated from UD in 2013 with degrees in English and Africana studies.
A nationally ranked slam poet, he focuses on unpacking the link between
generational trauma and structural oppression within the Black
“We’re going to recontextualize the American story,” he said before the event. “If
people hear something that ruffles them, or surprises them or calls
their line of thinking into question, I would encourage them to sit with
that, rather than dismiss it. Poetry allows for vulnerability.”
Although the open mic has been planned since the beginning of the
year, it took on new meaning since recent events — specifically the
killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — have
forced the country to reexamine freedom in America and, importantly, who
gets to realize this freedom.
“This moment is a great opportunity for deep soul-searching as a
nation,” Wills said. “And poetry is one vehicle for that exploration.”
Wills discovered his passion for the spoken word as a high school
student in Temple Hills, Maryland, but it wasn’t until he enrolled at UD
that he found this passion nurtured by faculty mentors. With their
encouragement, he launched poetry slams and open mic nights at the UDairy Creamery Market
in Wilmington, where prior to COVID-19 he worked as a supervisor and
community engagement intern, and also honed his writing skills.
In one of his poems, “Homebound,” Wills explores complicated
feelings surrounding the color of his skin, which he said is a mix of
white and enslaved Black ancestry. An excerpt from the piece, about
finding a sense of belonging through his art, reads:
“So I'm too Black for the White
And too light for the brown
While society steady pushing my people on down
At the same time they never really want me around
But to my White and Black people
I'm putting heart in my sound
And I'm homebound.”
Today, Wills has two residency appointments teaching poetry and music
to children at Wilmington’s Thomas Edison Charter School and the
William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center. One lesson he relays to
pupils? Forget the poetry stereotypes. The medium is not just for the
lovelorn or beret-wearing set. Rather, it’s “multidimensional,” and can
be anything you need it to be — even patriotic.
“Whether you’re using the art form to call out injustice or speak up
for your community or hold your nation accountable, poetry can express
one’s love for country in a lot of different forms,” Wills said. “It is
one way to voice your patriotism.”
It is also one way to express hope for a better tomorrow, one worthy of all those confetti poppers.
“Speaking truth through artistry can open hearts and bring change,” Wills said. “Real, powerful change.”
Article by Diane Stopyra; photo by Evan Krape
Published July 4, 2020