Moving Forward: Conversation with poet laureate Jacki Shelton Green

Moving Forward

Jacki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s first African-American poet laureate, is a force in the state’s literary world. With so many issued impacting life — from the fight for social justice and equality to surviving the pandemic — Shelton Green has a lot to talk about.

“I’ve been writing a lot lately. I’ve been writing a lot of speeches, which is writing, which is creative writing,” Shelton Green said. “So, I’m writing a lot of speeches about the power of our stories and how creativity is healing, creativity is medicine.

Creativity, Shelton Green said, is especially important during these trying times.

“It’s a troubling time, and yet I really see these wonderful slants of light that represent hope inside this tremendously sorrowful time and challenging time,” she said. “Right now, what we need more than ever, we need the storytellers. We need the people who are willing to tell the truth, to sing, to dance, to sculpt, to paint the truth.

“Art has always been at the core of every revolution.”

Jacki Shelton Green

Shelton Green said she’s been searching for hope, which has been a challenging endeavor.

“It’s very challenging. As we look to our left or right, and loved ones are moving on, becoming ancestors, we’re hearing about friends who are losing their lives to the virus,” she said. “It’s that time of reckoning. I believe that this is a supreme time where (we) really understand the power of witness. What it means to witness; what it means to be witnessed and what happens to us as a result of what we witness.

“That’s where my hope germinates. That’s where my hope is fertile and where I hope it thrives and I can continue to make it thrive. It’s just bearing witness, not looking away.”

Shelton Green also spoke of influences she has leaned on.

“I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin. And actually, (I) just finished teaching a year of James Baldwin. And one of the questions James Baldwin asked many years ago is what does it mean to be an American?” she said.

Baldwin also talked about what it means to be African-American. Those words seem to ring true today. Shelton Green talked about the protests and the marches that have now become a new movement.

“I have to be respectful and I have to validate the work, the advocacy of young people who (are) just like me in the 50s, 60s, 70s. But, the 60s, 70s, I was in the streets, too. I marched. I protested. The Civil Rights Movement. Vietnam. Cambodia. The war on poverty,” she said.

Those issues became her “truths.” That said, Shelton Green said compassion is the key to understanding the “truths” of others.

“I think when we compassionately listen, we’re vulnerable. To hear things that might not feel good, but to hear truth. You know, we’re a culture that’s emotionally bankrupt right now,” she said. “All of them wrap back around to what does it mean to have a code of decency as a human being?”

Shelton Green questioned and then added: “I can’t be a good oppressor because part of being an oppressor is I have to stand all day with my foot on your neck. So, I don’t get to move either.”

Despite seeing society as “emotionally bankrupt,” Shelton Green remains hopeful.

“I don’t think we’re totally lost. The path is always there because the path is here. It’s not out there. So, you know what I mean?” she asked. “It’s not an artificial road.

“You know we’ve always been waiting for whoever is going to come and save us. It’s us. But, how do we go through this new portal that the universe has given to us? Lighter. Lighter in our hearts, in our spirits, and in our physical being.”

Education and respect, according to Shelton Green, are key to moving forward.

“I think we move forward by first taking ourselves to task. I also believe, as citizens, we have to become more literate and educated about politics. It’s one thing to be at the table, but its to be at the table armored with information and knowledge. That is the supreme weapon,” Shelton Green said. “We first have to be accountable to ourselves about respectability because, if I can respect myself, then I can respect you. If I disrespect you, then I’m also disrespecting myself.

“I know that, as southerners, our histories, our ‘her-stories,’ we are tied to the bone. There are more things that connect us than disconnect us. We can be truthful, tell the truth. We don’t have (to) destroy someone else’s humanity,” she said.

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