Spoken Word: Painting Images Drawn from the Mouth


August 2011 marks very significant moments within American history, particularly black American history: the anniversaries of the March on Washington, the death of Emmett Till (who would have turned 70 last month), the launch of “Black August” to honor the memories of fallen freedom fighters, President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and will soon mark the unveiling of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s National Memorial. My decision to claim this as #ArtivistAugust was an effort to give attention to the role that art and cultural forms have and continue to play in activist and community organizing efforts.

If we do not take more seriously their role in shaping the way people think and engage their world, then we will allow ourselves to be deaf to the groanings of our time. In thinking about why Dr. King’s legacy is as alive today as it was half a century ago, I became increasingly convinced that Dr. King’s prophetic use of the “Spoken Word,” oral tradition, was one of his most prolific and radical contributions to the civil rights struggle. He has left this material world, but his words [written and spoken] and the images that they drew for us are living on. They rest in a place of progressive immortality. King may have been killed, but his words and spirit reign in the hearts and minds of generation upon generation. He is one example; there are many others but Dr.King reflected the magnitude of words in ways that we have yet to see again. It is undeniably what drew so many to Barack Obama’s campaign strategies; he evoked a tradition that many of us were familiar with and awed to see within mainstream dialogue. Obama, like King, possesses a command of words that has had the power to mobilize the masses, but the legacies of both teach us that progress is slow and painful and at times even intangible. While dichotomous in nature due to their respective roles as prophet and politician, they both have sought to evoke hope through a gift that only their Creator could have bestowed upon them.

In remembrance of this great tradition, I am sharing the following, which is my portion of a collaborative Spoken Word piece I collaborated with someone on while in graduate school. I chose it because the poem “The Word” was a reflection on how written, spoken and embodied words can have transformative powers, empowering the spirit within us and the world around us to cause a loving, liberating ripple effect. I share it with you in hopes that it may help you better understand why I believe that art – regardless of the form it takes – is one of the most powerful tools we hold in our hands.

If I Can Help Somebody With a Word


If I can help somebody with a word
Then what would that look like?
Could words go beyond a poem about poverty?
Is it possible for them to feed souls
And call the poor out of their hunger and misery?
Can I craft a vision of heaven on earth?
One that reaches them before death?
Using vivid, bloody, real-time imagery
Giving voice to their suffering and their pain
If I share that woman’s story with a powerful word
Then maybe
Her living won’t be in vain.

Perhaps I’ll paint a picture for oppressed peoples
With the images drawn from my mouth
Allow them to see the world in ways that transcend
Fear, evil, insecurity, and doubt
Remind them of the elders whose shoulders they stand on
Who they were before this world
Gave them their sad story and song
Point out the intricacies of their beauty
Tell them that God’s glory
Helped me find… the voice… within me
I’ll help them write speeches to inspire the next generation
Move young boys and girls to spark something new
Something innovative
Kind of – sort of – like
A spiritual resurrection
And cultural revolution

My words will bring healing in places of brokenness
Help those who are torn apart
Find purpose, meaning and wholeness
I’m talking about
That sister who has been rejected by a brother
That brother who has been rejected by a daughter
That daughter who has been slapped by her mother
That mother who has been given drugs by her son
That son who has been abandoned by a father
That father who never learned how to BE a father
I’ll tell them that I see in them
What they can’t see in themselves
That God loves them
In spite of and throughout themselves

If YOU could help somebody with a word
Then what would that look like?

I’m telling you that it’s about your words
The ones you bring forth from your mouth
You might speak alone
Or on stage before a crowd with a wireless mic
Trust that your words will be amplified by the Spirit within you
Who will speak through you, for you, on behalf of the God in you

My redemption rests in the Word
With a capital W incarnate within me and you

I trust our words can start a new world order
I believe in you
You have work to do
And even when we fall short
May our faith always bring us back full circle
To that which is living, breathing and true

(c) Rahiel Tesfamariam


Rahiel Tesfamariam is a public theologian, social activist, writer and speaker. She is also a former columnist for The Washington Post and founder/ publisher of UrbanCusp.com, a cutting-edge online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Visit Rahiel.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RahielT.