By Amanda Fernandez
Sunday, July 29, 2007
New Mexico was going over her third poem one more time as I walked nervously out of the green room backstage at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium in May. Kentucky was busy gathering everyone's e-mail addresses so he could stay in touch. And Indiana absolutely would not stop pacing.
There we were, 51 state champions -- including me, the District of Columbia -- gathered at the national finals of the Poetry Out Loud contest, an annual poetry-reciting competition for high school students created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Many of us were aspiring actors, and our drama teachers were in the audience cheering us on.
We were each to interpret three poems, all different in tone and substance. I felt a deep connection to the three pieces I had selected. And my trio served me well, because at the end of the event, I was named national champion.
Some major media attention came my way afterward. I was featured in a segment on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" and in an article in Time magazine. I should have been thrilled by all the notice. But I've been saddened by it instead.
Even though all three poems I recited had something important to say, the media reduced me from the complex person I am to a one-dimensional figure by repeatedly discussing my reading of just one -- the poem about race.
Somehow, every article, interview and performance request has centered on "Ma Rainey," by Sterling A. Brown, a celebration of rural black culture that some interviewers have referred to as the "black" piece. Even the Poetry Out Loud Web site, announcing my championship, notes only "Ma Rainey" as the poem with which I "riveted audiences."
But I had recited three poems, each with its own theme. The first was "Dulce et Decorum Est," by the British poet Wilfred Owen, about a World War I soldier watching a comrade die before his eyes, a poem I picked as an echo of the war in Iraq.
"Ma Rainey" was my choice for the second round, and I offered it as an ode to the strength of black women, specifically my late grandmother.
My third reading, "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," by Anne Sexton, centers on a mother's conversation with the newborn she is about to give up to a state institution.
I needed the first two poems, in that order, to get to the final round, where my third piece would determine my ranking. If any poem should be considered the winning one, it should be Sexton's. Why didn't the interviewers focus on it?
Why weren't they interested in my political views about young men and women dying in war, as expressed in the first poem? Why didn't they see me as a woman -- not a black woman, but a woman -- as reflected in the third poem about the tough choices that women face?
Everyone overlooked those two poems. I've become known solely for the poem about race.
But that makes me feel stereotyped, typecast in one kind of role and viewed as a spokesperson for an entire race. It seems to me that this is happening more and more often to blacks in the media. And if they bring it up, they're made to seem ungrateful for their good fortune. But as an unknown young actor, it's not good for me to be categorized simply as the black performer. Am I only a black woman? Am I not a person apart from that? It feels as though in America's eyes, I'm only able -- or worse, expected -- to perform the black piece, as if that's all I can do and all I did do.
I'm not downplaying "Ma Rainey's" significance. And I appreciate all the attention the competition has received. It has been a major blessing in my life. But sometimes I cringe at the thought of another interview, because I'm sure it will focus on one thing only. But I am more than one poem, one idea, one aspect of myself.
I am an actor. I tell stories that cross the lines of race, gender and religion. My fellow competitors and I put our hearts and souls into three pieces of work that we selected with great care. It hurts me that my two other poems are never even mentioned. I feel deeply shortchanged by the notion that America seems comfortable with me only in the black spotlight.
I hope I'm wrong. I hope there's some good reason why the media narrows its lens. But if there is, it isn't yet clear to me. What is clear is that if the nation can only deal with African Americans in terms of our race, then as a country we have a long way to go.
Amanda Fernandez graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in June. She will enter New York University in the fall.