Art Community

The Harlem Renaissance lives on-in Flint!

Featured photo: Semaj Brown, Flint’s first poet laureate and Karen Utsey, president of the Zeta Beta Zeta Flint Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

Written by Tanya Terry

It was anything but ordinary for those who witnessed the recent launch and unveiling of Flint Reads Poetry: Poetry Voices of Flint virtual poetry gallery.

Yes, it was everyday people reading poetry and having a conversation about it, according to Karen Utsey, president of the Zeta Beta Zeta Flint Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

But the enrichment it provided and will continue to provide the residents of Flint is incredible.

The theme was the Harlem Renaissance.

“It was a time of great creativity and power for African Americans, and it was the time of intellectual birthing of great writings and of intellectual thought, poetry, also dance-and fashion.” said Semaj Brown, Flint’s first poet laureate.

Brown curated the virtual poetry gallery, and she consulted a literary consultant, Darolyn Brown.

“It’s such a new concept,” Brown said. “I’ve never heard of it ever before-the term poetry gallery. What it means is that this was the first installment. Just like an art gallery-when you go to an art gallery and they have installments of art that run for a period of time. The same thing will happen with the poetry gallery.”

In the waiting room, before actual presentation of the poetry gallery began, music from the Harlem Renaissance era played while figures and places associated with the era, such as the famous Cotton Club, “danced” across the screen. This set the tone for rest of the approximate 1 hour and 10 minute presentation that was all magnificently put together.

“I wanted the audience to feel the Harlem Renaissance! The music that was in the ‘waiting room’ and photographs that accompanied Renea Rubin, who is the president of the Flint Zeta Foundation. They are the entity that received the Community Partners Award.”

Brown selected the foundation to receive the award. They collaborate with Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Chapter Zeta Beta Zeta, the local chapter in Flint. They are helping Brown to fulfill her poetry programming awarded by the Academy of American Poets when she received the Poets Laureate Fellowship Award for 2021.

Lynese Thomas, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Michigan state director, recited quotes by Zoroastrian Neale Hurston. Hurston was a member of ZΦΒ. Though not a poet, Hurton’s work was undeniably poetic.

Other recitations were performed by members of ZΦΒ Zeta Beta Zeta Chapter members, who dazzled in outfits with Harlem Renaissance flair or which proudly displayed their logos and colors.

Jannora Lauderdale recited “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay. Cheryl Briwn-Cornelius recited another poem by McKay: “The Tropics in New York.” McKay was born in Jamaica and first traveled to the United States to attend college. The poems recited illustrated the wide range McKay’s work comes in-ranging from poems that put those whose ears who are blessed to hear the words in a festive mood, to poems that invoked thought on social and political concerns.

Trishanda Williams recited “Ma Rainey” by Sterling A. Brown, which was about Gertrude “Ma” Rainey,” an influential blues singer.  Although Brown himself was a scholar, it is written in the language of concert goers. The poem and language represents southern, rural blacks and respects their culture.

Doris Clarke recited “Saturday’s Child” by Countee Cullen, and Kimberly Robbins recited “Yet Do I Marvel” by Cullen. In addition, Utsey recited “Incident” by the same fascinating poet. One of the reasons Cullen’s poetry may stand out as unique is he did not want to be considered a “Negro” poet, but instead simply a poet.

Dr. Linda Itson recited “Common Dust” by Georgia Douglas Johnson.

She recites: “The high, the low, the poor. The Black, the white, the red,” acknowledging we are all mortal.

Dr. Maria Boyd-Springer recited “I Want to Die While You Love Me” by Johnson, which is about a love that can outlast death! Wow!

Teresa Lucas recited “Translation” by Ann Spencer and describes the connection undertaken by the speaker and her companion during a moment of silence.

Renea Rubin-Shelton recited “Georgia Dusk” by Jean Toomer, which had a strikingly dark tone.

Semaj Brown recited “Dream Boogie” by Langston Hughes, and Davina Whitaker recited “I Too” by Hughes. Brown said everyone should have the opportunity to experience the writing of Hughes, and I agree.

Towards the program’s conclusion, Dr. Ladle Lewis recited “Mother to Son” by Hughes-dramatic words almost like a motivational speech, but more powerful, spoken from a mother to a son.

“…People were increased and respected during the process,” Brown said. “Love and appreciation swelled while working. Women listened to one another, cooperated using Sisterly love as a tool.

All points of view were valid and encouraged, celebrated. Individual creativity was honored. Participation spread over many levels lifting, eradicating the prospect of burden for one person. Yes, it was work intensive…”

The Academy of American Poet Laureates Fellowship 2021 award Brown received will assist with Brown’s civic programming, Poetry Letters,   which is an initiative of her Poetry Pod Project (P3) designed with the literacy needs of her Flint community in mind.

 “As the poet laureate, my duty, from the Poetry Pod Project is to create programming that will enhance literacy through poetry that will create an atmosphere of poetry appreciation in the city of Flint.”

The Flint Reads Poetry/ Poetry Voices Virtual Poetry Gallery allows for a myriad of different types of poetry to occupy the poetry space, according to Brown. Different groups will be reciting various styles of poetry in the days to come.

Future installments at the poetry gallery will include Civil Rights movement poetry, poetry of the transcendentalists (who wrote often about nature) and the poetry of Romantics poetry period.

The poems will contribute to an expanding poetry listening list, a catalog of videos poems to be utilized by schools, students, after school programming, churches, institutions and the community at large.

To view the Harlem Renaissance Gallery, visit





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