Last Wednesday, a number of students, faculty, and staff members filed into the Scheuer room for an evening with Dr. Amanda Kemp, renowned artist, educator, and activist. The event, titled “#SayHerName: Making Black Women’s Lives Matter,” was presented by both the Women’s Resource Center and Black Cultural Center as part of the campus’ celebration of Women’s Heritage Month. Throughout the evening, Kemp read her poetry, screened a recording of one of her plays, and discussed her work with the audience — all of which were centered around the experiences of black women.
Kemp’s life mission is “to heal the planet,” as she outlines on her website. A lifelong poet, performer, and racial justice advocate, she received her BA from Stanford University where she was also granted the John Gardner Fellowship for Public Service. Her organizing work has included a 10,000 strong March on Sacramento, California for educational rights, for which she has received many awards. Kemp later left politics to pursue a degree in performance studies at Northwestern University. During her time at Northwestern, she travelled to South Africa and witnessed the historic elections of 1994. There, she also debuted her play “Sister Outsider” and formed a trio of performance poets called “Intimate Dread.” She has since taught at various colleges and universities, all while continuing this mission “to heal the planet.”
“So obviously the woman has done a lot!” said Karina Beras, Residential Communities Coordinator, who warmly introduced Kemp to the audience.
Julius Miller ’19, programming intern at the BCC, discussed why Kemp was invited to speak at Swarthmore.
“We wanted to bring a speaker who’s brought forth a lot of progress,” said Miller. “We thought that Dr. Kemp, given her life’s work and what we’ve witnessed in the media, would be especially appropriate.”
After Beras’ introduction, Kemp rose to the podium and asked the audience to engage in a sort of warm-up exercise by celebrating the black women they love or admire in honor of Women’s Heritage Month. Members of the audience raised their hands to give quick shout-outs to black women — mostly friends or family, though some cultural icons were also mentioned. Kemp then shifted her discussion to women and poetry, noting that National Poetry Month, April, was approaching. She went on to share one of her own poems, titled “Say Her Name.”
“This poem came as a way for me to heal and deal with the onslaught on black women’s lives,” she said, introducing her poem. “I found that each new story of a black woman or man lost at the hands of the police reverberated through my system. The killing of Sandra Bland … it just really hit home. There’s the one thing, but then it can trigger all those other losses and hurts.”
After a powerful, high-energy reading of her poem that left her and others in the room in tears, Kemp screened a filmed version of her play, “To Cross an Ocean Four Centuries Long.” In the play, Kemp shared the stories of three black women who were enslaved in the 1750s-1780s — Fanti, who would later become famed poet Phillis Wheatley; Hannah, who influenced Quaker preacher and abolitionist John Woolman; and Abby Jay, owned by Declaration of Independence signer John Jay.
“Phillis Wheatley is someone I’ve come back to multiple times,” Kemp later explained. “I’m kind of obsessed with her … but her story is always told from her arrival in Boston; no one talks about before she got here. The documentation does not exist, so this [play] took me out of my comfort zone in exploring her story.”
Similarly, Kemp wanted to give voice to the experiences of Hannah and Abby Jay in visceral ways that challenge traditional narratives of history. In the play, Kemp plays the role of the Captain, calling the audience to wake up and address the wounds of slavery, so that a process of healing may begin. Throughout the play, many of the actors were visibly in tears during their performance. Audience members in the Scheuer room were completely silent during the video, save the occasional sniffle.
Once the video was finished, Kemp asked the audience to stand up and “wiggle it out.” After sitting for nearly an hour, the audience was happy to stretch their limbs for a moment. Kemp then introduced Matthew Armstead ’08 and their collaborative project, Inspira, which focuses on the power of the spirituals. Armstead helped moderate the discussion, beginning by opening the floor for initial thoughts or questions about the play, Kemp’s poem, or the very experience of coming to the talk. A number of individuals asked about the powerful and painful experience of reading her poems or performing her plays, and how Kemp sustained herself in her work. At one point, Armstead asked that audience members turn to the person next to them and reflect on the talk.
“I felt like that was very positive for me,” said Miller about the discussion pairs. “It gave me some time to process what I just witnessed.”
In general, students felt that Kemp’s performances — both in the recording of her play and the live poetry reading — warranted time to reflect. These moments of reflection and education are another part of why Kemp was brought to Swarthmore to speak, and why many students who do not identify as Black women attended the talk. Irene Kwon ’17, who worked under the WRC to coordinate the talk, spoke to the importance of having and attending such events at Swarthmore.
“It becomes very, very political,” said Kwon. “I wanted to intentionally go to this thing that was explicitly about black women … that’s not an experience I have access to, but then this was an opportunity for me to be at a place where that kind of education was happening.”
Towards the end of her discussion, Kemp asked the audience how they “[Make] Black Women’s Lives Matter,” quoting the title, to which she received insightful responses on recognizing black women.
Kemp has her own website, dramandakemp.com, where she publishes informational blog posts on social justice and records inspirational videos. You can also like her on Facebook or subscribe to her email list for shorter, informational posts.