Joshua Bennett's Poetry Is Rooted in Celebrating Black Joy and Honoring Black History

Joshua Bennett
Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett told Inside Edition Digital poetry coming from the mind of a Black poet does not have to solely tell stories of children born into trauma. He also does not want to ignore the vulnerabilities that Black children uniquely face.

The first time Joshua Bennett performed his poetry, he was 12. His mother pushed him on stage at the Yonkers Public Library and told him, “a gift is something you share with the world.” So, he walked on the stage and performed a piece titled, “Hope and Love.”

Bennett quickly learned that he was utterly petrified of standing on stage. But in the same thought, he understood he not only loved to write, but he was good at it. 

Years later, Bennett is now a published poet and English professor at Dartmouth College, focusing on African American literature.

The poet was brought up by his mother, who was raised in a tenement in the South Bronx, and his father, who was born in Jim Crow Alabama. Black identity was rooted in his everyday life. As a child, he went to a grade school in Harlem founded by Mildred Johnson, the niece of James Welden Johnson, who wrote the Black National Anthem. 

“I remember singing the Black National Anthem at school. I never even heard The Star-Bangled Banner,” he told Inside Edition Digital in a video call. “Whenever I think about Black History Month, I think about how as a child, as far as I knew, the world was Black.”

He continued, “It would take a long time for me to meet people who thought the world wasn’t mostly Black and Brown people.”

Bennett credits his poetry to the Black church he was raised in; the sermons and songs they recited there. He remembers spending afternoons in his grandmother’s salon, listening to her stories and how could she magically recite poetry from memory.

Now a published author several times over, Bennett uses his poetry to pay homage to the community that raised him. His poetry are just pieces of the story he is trying to tell. 

“Black History Month isn’t just to celebrate really famous Black people,” he said.

“For me, Black History Month is just a way of saying that Black people are human beings, they've participated in world history in so many incredible ways.”

He continued, “They did things. They do things. They're alive.”

Bennett has discovered himself through literature. He says he grew as a poet by reading the work of both the living and the dead. 

By reading their works, he is “able to be in conversation with them. They had such beautiful ideas.”

In discovering poetry, a world of possibilities opened up. Bennett went on to earn his P.h.D. in English and has authored three books of poetry and literary criticism. 

Bennett says in his time in academia he has always been one of few Black scholars, but he embraces that.

“I never thought Blackness was something bad. I never didn't want to be Black,” he said. “And I never felt inferior in educational spaces around non-Black people.” 

Bennett has grappled with the trauma of the pandemic and the isolation that came with it, with a pen in hand.

At the start of last year, his grandmother passed away from COVID-19. And a month later, his son, August, was born. During that time, he cataloged the first year of his son’s life and published it into the three-part book, also partly novella, detail about his upcoming book which he says no one really knows about, into a series of what he coined "dad poems."

Bennett plays with the concept of dualities in his writing. He titled one of his books, "Owed," to play into the idea of denigration and the Black experience but on the other side of the coin, he considers the piece of work an, "Ode" to pay tribute to the things he once loved as a child. Similarly, he named his son August, after August Wilson, the poet and playwright, to commemorate Black August, a day that pays tribute to a previously incarcerated man named George Jackson who, in August 1974, was killed by prison guards and, finally, he is named after the month when the underground railroad during the Haitian Revolution was found. 

Bennett never fails to tie prose to his heritage.

He talks of his experience of becoming a father amidst the pandemic. Specifically one instance, when he was banned from the hospital room during his wife's first ultrasound. He says he couldn’t physically be present for the moment a father only hopes to witness. Bennett recalls standing in the hospital room with his wife, awaiting their first ultrasound but, due to the influx of COVID-19 patients coming in, he was forced to leave. He remembers waiting alone on the street until he could be reunited with his wife and at long last, see his son for the first time on a small printed image.

Wrestling with his isolation that day, Bennett was inspired to write his poem titled, "Dad Poem (Ultrasound #2)." 

Months into the plague now,

I am disallowed

entry even into the waiting

room with Mom, escorted outside

instead by men arms with guns and bottles

of hand sanitizer, their entire

countenance its own American

metaphor. So the first time

I see you in full force,

I am pacing maniacally

up and down the block outside,

FaceTiming the radiologist

and your mother too,

her arm angled like a cellist’s

to help me see.

“My poetry has grown up in a context of fear and witnessing,” he said. 

But Bennett says poetry coming from the mind of a Black poet does not have to solely tell stories of children born into trauma. He also does not want to ignore the vulnerabilities that Black children uniquely face. He hopes that, through his writing, he can celebrate his son’s life, without associating it with fear. 

“We have a tendency to talk about Black children primarily through the lens of trauma or devastation. I think that is so dehumanizing,” he said.

“I am someone’s Black son, and so is my boy.”