by Amelia Dogan
Yolanda Wisher, 2016 Philadelphia Poet Laureate, among other accomplishments, hosts and curates quarterly rent parties at the Rosenbach Museum. The rent parties originated in Harlem during the 1920s when musicians and writers would get together. I went to her latest party on January 18. The night’s theme was black girl magic, inspired by the One Book One Philadelphia book selection, “Another Brooklyn” by Jacqueline Woodson. There were nods to the past like Phillis Wheatley and the future, like Husnaa Hashim.
The first act of the night was Gabrielle Civil. Civil is from Detroit and describes herself as a black feminist performing artist. She performed several pieces from her 2017 book, “Swallow the Fish,” mainly focusing on the limitations of black performance art. Her most powerful piece drew on the 2014 kidnapping of 112 girls by Boko Haram in Borno State, Nigeria. Civil asked a volunteer to keep five minutes and walked around the audience reading the girl’s names, noting how they were girls lost. Each phrase or name was printed on a single page, in about eleven point font, which she dropped after reading them. After the five minutes, she stood at the front, demanding the audience members return the pieces of paper. The symbolism was powerful as many of the girls are still being held captive.
Shifting the mood, Yoland Wisher, fostered a light and conversational vibe with the small audience and played a set with her band, The Afroeaters. The Afroeaters include a percussionist, bass player, another poet, and harmonica. I had never heard a blues set with a harmonica before, but the harmonica fit well with the deep hum of the bass. Wisher’s work merges song and poetry as she remembers the double-dutch of her youth and the problems of marriage. She swayed back and forth in a loose dress, making me want to dream of the distant songs.
The last act of the night was Husnaa Hashim, the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate and current STAMP Teen Council member. Hashim engages in traditional spoken word poetry without the flair of Wisher’s band or Civil’s demand. Her work is just as powerful, though coming from an intimate first person perspective. She speaks of female infanticide and how rain is the tears of those girls in heaven as angels. Hashim’s intersectional feminism is discussed in one piece as foundational to her work and view, while playing with inter-line repeats and rhyme.
The night was about an hour-and-a-half of black girl poetry magic, by some of the most talented women in Philadelphia. I’m glad I experienced the emotions of the performers as I confronted my own ancestors and dreams.