Singing in Dark Times – # 4 in a Series – Today, a Voice That Might Have Been Banished – Emi Mahmoud

Sudanese American Spoken Word Poet Emitithal Mahmoud ( 1993 - )

Sudanese-American Spoken Word Poet Emitithal Mahmoud ( 1993 – ). Photo credit: Michael Marsland

Epigraph from Motto

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen, 1976

In November 2015 a young Sudanese/American woman, Emitithal (Emi) Mahmoud, rocked audiences at the individual world slam poetry championships, which she won,  with her poems that brought graphically to life stories of living in war-torn Dafur, Sudan, especially her poem Mama which brought the audience to her feet before she had finished.  To listen to her perform with her poem Mama  click here and to hear her interviewed about her win on CBC’s As It Happens, radio program, click here. What a singing about dark times!

And this, a different singing. A singing of joy and belief in the possibility of a loud and beautiful start to a new future. This poem she recited in May last year to her graduating class at Yale – the annual Yale Ivy Ode delivered by a graduating student! To see the video of her performance click here.

Something Loud and Beautiful

As the snow begins to kiss my skin
I notice how dark it is,
how it sings of midnight and forgotten histories,
and I am reminded of each and every
person who has strived an entire lifetime
so we may decorate the most vibrant years of our lives so far.
This school is our beginning. So here’s the start.
To always starting something, something loud and
beautiful and unapologetically ours.
Here’s to the others. Those with us and those we’ve lost.
Here’s to our loved ones, and the
strangers we have come to call family.
Here’s to one another. To this rolling sea
of faces that has come to mean my Yale.
Here’s to the songs we have written
together and the twilights we’ve shared.
As I stand here, all ebony and
woman and still breathing,
my memories of the genocide and
the many histories we come from
lead into images of a future brimming with
the people who have walked beside us,
like a door that only opens.

Emtithal (Emi) Mahmoud (1993 – ), from a video at a Yale Graduation ceremony, May 23rd, 2016.

Mahmoud seems to be a poster child for successful immigrants in the U.S. It seems especially poignant, her success, in light of recent moves by the new American president to ban people like her from coming to the US. She came to the US at seven and grew up in Philly as she calls it and won a prestigious full-pay scholarship to any U.S. university. She chose Yale! And in 2015 she not only was the individual poetry Slam champion but she was included in the BBC’s list of the 100 most influential women in the world. And in 2016 Mahmoud won a second Poetry Slam competition as co-champion of the Women’s Poetry Slam.Unpresidented (sic).

How the world has changed! Just a year ago Mahmoud was part of a day-long forum with President Obama at a mosque in Baltimore. She is not only an ardent critic of the violence and genocide in Sudan but also of  the treatment of black and Muslim minorities in the U.S. Hard to imagine her today in a sit-down with the new American president, after his on-going attempt to severely restrict immigration from seven Muslim countries, including her home country, Sudan, suspend all refugee admission for 120 days, and bar all Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Mahmoud’s spoken word poetry is not for the faint of heart. And supporters of the new American president might find her criticisms of the U.S. hard to swallow coming as they do from a naturalized citizen who is a woman, a Muslim and from Sudan. But what a richness, what a singing she has brought her new country. Part of how I see the greatness of the U.S. Allowing refugees to experience their potential in a way that they cannot at home! Imagine, how wonderful, how unlikely this young woman, born in Sudan, with a poem, capping off her graduation ceremony at Yale, one of the most respected institutions in the U.S.

Her poem, its irony, she might not have expected last May. The irony of its hopeful ending:

the many histories we come from
lead into images of a future brimming with
the people who have walked beside us,
like a door that only opens.

A poignant image: a door that only opens. But now, with its new regime, the door into the U.S. that for many appears to be closing, one way or another. Could it be the singing of poets like Mahmoud will make a difference in if, and how that door closes? I hope so. Even if it doesn’t, poets like Mahmoud will sing about the dark times as long as they are able to.






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