Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Poetry Reading Calls Upon the History of Activism, Abolition in Oberlin

Abe Frato
Poets gather to honor the Underground Railroad.

On Saturday, an audience gathered underneath the Oberlin Gasholder Building’s dome to participate in the Ohio Underground Railroad Whistle-Stop Poetry Tour. With passionate voices, area poets Atlas, Jeremy Jusek, Raja Belle Freeman, and Associate Professor and Chair of Creative Writing Chanda Feldman read poetry that concerned themes of abolition and the Underground Railroad. As the four poets read their poems, history appeared revived. A painting of Harriet Tubman sat on the stage; her lantern seemed to creak in the wind.

In 1889, the Oberlin Gasholder Building was constructed to store manufactured coal gas to produce light and heat for Oberlin. However, as it lost its practicality, Oberlin residents fought hard to transform it into something new: the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center. With a basement full of outdated water filtration mechanisms, the building harbors deep-seated history underneath its paneling. This made it a fitting place for a poetry reading about America’s history of enslavement. 

Feldman read first. She contextualized her poetry, explaining that her poems relate to the legacy of enslavement ingrained in America’s history. Feldman’s writing is inspired by her upbringing in Tennessee, where her parents worked as sharecroppers along the Mississippi River. Feldman explained how she chose her poems, beginning by investigating the purpose of the Poetry Tour.

“What is this reading for? What are we remembering? What are we celebrating? What can we use this time and space to meditate on together?” she asked. “If we’re thinking about enslavement, the history of slavery, and the Underground Railroad and all the trajectories of freedom and the complexity of that, I wanted to read something that I could offer from my perspective and my interest as a poet about those topics.”

Poet Jeremy Jusek expressed similar thoughts on choosing his poems, explaining that the reading was meant to bring the poets and their audience closer to history. He read two poems of his own and one written by Audre Lorde called “Afterimages.” Jusek picked them for their form and essence.

Raja Belle Freeman, a performance poet and visual and teaching artist with Lake Erie Ink, considered similar questions when choosing her poems. Freeman explained that she does not usually share the poems she read but chose them to match the event’s theme. Freeman’s poetry explored the perspective of Harriet Tubman, commenting on how Tubman is often compared to Moses, stripping Tubman of her unique accomplishments. Freeman also read a poem by Langston Hughes and then shared an ode that she wrote to him. 

“Even though I almost never read any of them, it’s more of a choice for the readings that I’m doing,” Freeman said. “It just wouldn’t fit in with most of my other poems. I’m usually focusing on my own perspective rather than trying to imagine the perspective of other people.”

Atlas’ poems focused on his struggles with mental health, although some approached themes of racism. Generally, he uses writing as an outlet for emotion. He described his choice of pen name, Atlas.

“I believe that I’m able to take in the negative emotions from the people around me to unbelievable extents,” he said. “Like Atlas, the holder of the world, it’s not a prison for me, but a blessing.” 

Patricia Thrushart, poet and co-founder of Poets Against Racism and Hate USA, was inspired by allyship to organize the event.

“I’m a white, cis woman, but I have a tremendous amount of empathy and a tremendous amount of passion about righting the wrongs of social injustice,” Thrushart said. “Being a poet and having that desire, I joined with Debbie Allen, my colleague and co-founder, to form Poets Against Racism and Hate USA and to amplify the voices of both the insiders — people who have been the victims of social injustice — and the allies, the outsiders — the people who want to join with them to address those wrongs.” 

Thrushart greatly admired the poets and expressed positive feelings about the poetry reading. She has organized similar readings before and is constantly moved by spoken word. 

“My reaction to these events is almost spiritual, because the poets are so powerful,” she said. “I feel honored to be able to amplify their voices.” 

Feldman also felt that the event facilitated a warm and welcoming environment.

“I really felt like I had an audience that wanted to share an experience and come together to think about issues of social justice and anti-racism activism,” Feldman said. “You can feel that kind of energy when you’re on a stage and you’re looking at an audience.”

The poetry reading brought to question the power of poetry in a political world. How much can poetry bring about positive change? For Atlas, the answer can be personal.

“I got into poetry based on a depression spell that I was in, and I kind of wrote to get myself out of it,” he said.

Feldman carefully considered the question of poetry as a form of activism.

“Poetry is a form of activism,” Feldman said. “It has the opportunity to reach into people’s hearts, challenge them, and make them think further about some of the notions that we take for granted and push us to really ask ourselves, how else can we see this? What other questions can we ask that we haven’t asked before?”

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