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July Fourth poetry

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CAS graduate facilitates a different type of Independence Day celebration

​Christian Wills, a 2020 UD graduate, prepares for the virtual, Independence Day-themed open mic for poets, which he hosted  through the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington.

Independence 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 P: poetry.

“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 community.

“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

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