Freedom Knows Who We Are: Talking with Kelly Harris-DeBerry

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In the introduction of Kelly Harris-DeBerry’s debut poetry collection, Freedom Knows My Name, Kalamu ya Salaam says Harris-DeBerry’s poems “are as close as we humans can come to reaching the angelic state. Many of us can write, but only a few us can truly poet.”

As the nation reckons with political, racial, and socioeconomic unrest, the poems in Freedom Knows My Name, published in August by Xavier Review Press, serves as a biting commentary on the country. In the poem “American Junkie,” Harris-DeBerry proclaims, “America / needs a smoke / that lynched-body smoke / it’s addictive America / needs that hit / of brutality / it’s addictive / needs Whiteness / up its nose.”

Her poems act as a conduit, shining a light on the afflictions of our nation. In “What She Should Have Said,” Harris-DeBerry gives Anita Hill advice in response to a voicemail message Hill received from Virginia Thomas asking her to apologize for testifying against her husband Clarence during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In “I Still Believe,” the last poem in the collection, Judy Scott, whose unarmed son Walter was killed by a North Charleston police officer, is comforted for still believing in Jesus. Harris-DeBerry tackles the intricate nuances of what it means to be a Black woman in America. She explores the definition of freedom, collectively and individually, providing a searing social critique of our world, tailor-made for such a time as this.

Kelly Harris-DeBerry received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and Cave Canem. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Southern Review, Yale University’s Caduceus Journal, and 400 Years: The Story of Black people in Poems Written from Love 1619-2019. She is a community literary advocate and serves as the New Orleans Poet’s and Writers’ Literary Coordinator.

In early October we corresponded over email where Harris-DeBerry discussed the Midwest’s literary history, the perils of an MFA program, and her nontraditional approach to poetic forms.

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The Rumpus: Let’s talk about your origin story. You were born in Cleveland, OH. In the poem “Migration. My Family. My Cleveland,” you contemplate the costs of your grandparents moving from the south to the north (“I reckon it’s worth leaving the land / if heaven is up, away from cotton / away from the wrong white people / hoping to find the right ones”). A series of poems pay homage to East Cleveland, honoring such places as Shaw High School and the girls who grew up on Bender Ave. How has Cleveland and the Midwest informed your poetry?

Kelly Harris-DeBerry: My paternal grandparents migrated from Alabama to Ohio. My maternal grandparents never left the South. Never desired going North. They were sharecroppers. Eleven girls and four boys. The rule was if you went North, you had to go with a sibling. My mom left her family’s farm in Moro, AR at eighteen to live with her sister who had been permitted by their parents’ years prior to migrate to Cleveland to pursue teaching. My parents met at a church in Cleveland. The Midwest is considered the middle of the country. I’m a middle child; I’ve always been positioned between looking back and ahead.

I am the post-migration generation with enough distance and data to take inventory of my family’s quality of life in a city that was supposed to be better, safer, less racist than the South. The more I learn about their migration journey, the more I am able to understand myself through my family’s circumstances and choices.

Ohio has a rich literary history that I think is often overlooked. People sometimes forget Toni Morrison (Lorain), Rita Dove (Akron) and Nikki Giovanni (Cincinnati) were all born in the state. Even Langston Hughes spent time in Cleveland. I grew up always knowing their names were attached to where I lived. Their presence helped me believe being a Black woman writer was possible—even if I was from a city that people mocked. Black writers from the Midwest have been a major contribution to poetry—Gwendolyn Brooks, Broadside Press, Third World Press, Mari Evans, Gil Scott Heron, and so many more. Living in the Midwest as a Black writer with the backdrop of migration uniquely positioned me to revisit the past and ponder the future.

And finally, I can’t leave out New Orleans in my origin story because it’s where I began life as a wife and mother, and it is such a major part of who I am. Living here has been a type of return to the South. Although my immediate family is still in Ohio, I have reconnected with aunts, uncles, and cousins who never left the South—and in many cases they’ve outlived a lot of my family that moved North.

Rumpus: Several poems in the collection underscore negative perceptions of how Black women are often viewed. Everything from Black mamas being regarded as “the world’s piñata” to exploring the racist overtones of Serena Williams being a finalist for Sportsperson of the Year alongside a thoroughbred racehorse. In “It’s a Girl,” the belief that the birth of a girl matters less than a boy is stated (“they would have made you an asterisk / put me to work on my back again / just to see a boy win”). The poems metaphorically hint at the erasure of Black girls and women. Can you talk about the feminist themes and themes of Black women’s liberation in the book?

Harris-DeBerry: Black women are chronic caretakers. This book offered me the opportunity to take cultural care of myself, women, and my people/humanity. It’s not a perfect book, but I think it serves as a literary offering toward Black women’s liberation. I believe the truth and trauma written in Freedom Knows My Name echoes many Black feminists’ poets.

Freedom Knows My Name is a reminder to myself and other women who work diligently to support others at the expense of their own art, happiness, and dreams that freedom knows who we are and will not forget us.

Rumpus: Listening to you read your poems aloud feels like being at a concert, and your voice is the instrument. In combination with the book, you released an audio component reading the poems. You paid sophisticated detail to vernacular and voice. How do you approach incorporating and capturing rhythm in your poetry?

Harris-DeBerry: Honestly, I can’t really explain how I use my voice as an instrument. I just know that it is an instrument and not a narrator. It’s really a feeling—a Black knowing. You hear it in James Brown, Sarah Webster Fabio, Last Poets, Jayne Cortez, Wanda Coleman, and in more recent poets like avery r. young. It is our collective pain and fortitude that you hear orchestrating the sound and rhythm in my audio poems.

Honestly, getting an MFA almost educated all the sound out of me. For a while, I couldn’t tap into my natural/Black instincts. I remember being so focused on getting forms/line units right that I was no longer enjoying writing. Maybe writing shouldn’t be enjoyable. It’s work. All I know is I hated what pursuing an MFA was doing to me at that time (although I do think it became beneficial years later).

A few months after graduating with my MFA, I returned home to a reading where I was the featured poet, and read all the poems that had received good grades. Afterward, Scott Woods (an author and poet from Columbus) told me, “We invited you to be you—not them or some robot poet.” It was a rude awakening. I had been isolated in my MFA program—the only Black poet in the program my first year—and when I returned “home” or to community, I couldn’t connect. I was devastated, depressed, pissed that I spent money and endured racism—only to come back home and couldn’t land. Richard Pryor talked about a similar experience once. Early in his career he was in New York with Redd Foxx. He said all the white people knew who he was in downtown Manhattan, and nobody knew Redd Foxx. When they got Uptown to Harlem, it was the other way ‘round, and he was like, wtf am I doing wrong?

Rumpus: Speaking of innovation, you deviated from using traditional poetic forms in the book. In some poems there were marked contrasts of shorter and longer lines. You also wrote a poem in the form of a neighborhood. What is your relationship to form when writing poetry, and did you view your experimentation as risky?

Harris-DeBerry: Well, I don’t use any traditional forms in the entire book. To me that was risky as a poet with an MFA. I feel like there are expectations that come with being degreed that I refused to meet. I have another manuscript almost completely the opposite of Freedom Knows My Name—it’s probably more academically acceptable. However, poems like “Mama Say” and “Women Listening to Acclaimed Poet” are talking back to a certain style and time in Black poetry. In my mind they are wink-winks to writers like Langston Hughes and Eloise Greenfield.

I teach form, structure, grammar, and all the educated ways to write. I do believe form can help unlock paths in your writing you can’t always see. And it’s a good way to discipline yourself as a writer—force muscles you don’t always use on the page to do different work.

Philosophically, I believe first and foremost the poet is form. Aren’t we all living line breaks? Any wayward child is doing some form of enjambment, you know. Form is breathing—a way of being that can reside beyond the page. Michael “Air” Jordan was form and then he became a basketball standard. I think Lucille Clifton brought a certain form of herself to poetry. When people make distinctions between page and stage poets they are talking about form. It’s all about risks for me, whether there are rewards or not.

I can’t tell you how much extra work went into the audio album and embedding it on the book’s back cover. A big fear of mine was the technology not working. So along with edits, the technology components added another layer of stress and work. I also felt there was a risk that people wouldn’t take me as seriously as a writer because I was performing the poems. However, who knew we’d be in a pandemic? Because I took risks, my book has been able to thrive in this particular time because there is more than one way to experience it.

Rumpus: Can you talk about the poem about gentrification, “Strangers Looking to Buy My House (That’s Not For Sale)?” In it, you write, “erase what you had / make it brand new / upscale all the food / appropriate you.” How did the structure and style come about, and what was the impetus for writing it?

Harris-DeBerry: The poem is autobiographical about my New Orleans neighborhood being gentrified. It’s also a visual poem structured like a neighborhood with fictitious street names like Trust Fund Baby Way and Used to Be Black Blvd., with stanzas behaving as residents. Originally, the poem was going to be solely about New Orleans, but I decided the poem could apply to any gentrified neighborhood in the country. The response to this poem has been great. Some people have even pointed out to me where they live in the poem. At times, it’s funny; other times it’s sobering and humbling that people feel safe in a poem that is about disruption.

Rumpus: Keeping with the idea of appropriation, the poem “Mrs. Potato Head” is about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identified and passed as Black for years, even serving as president of her local NAACP chapter. Jessica Krug, author, and now ex-professor at George Washington University, recently made news for misrepresenting herself as having a Black identity. We discussed earlier some poems in the collection hinting at the erasure of Black women. “Mrs. Potato Head” is about white women pretending to be Black. On the one hand, how do you juxtapose the common erasure of Black women with the pilfering of our identities on the other?

Harris-DeBerry: Erasing Black women and stealing their identities are two sides of the same coin but they cause the same harm. For example, in my poem: “What Separates Us,” dedicated to Demetrie McLorn, the real-life family maid of the author of The Help, I imagine what it’s like to be her and invisible.

In an interview, author Kathryn Stockett said she never saw Ms. Demetrie out of her uniform until she was in a casket. Ms. Demetrie was only visible as long as she was in uniform. In the poem, “Mrs. Potato Head,” Rachel Dolezal (and now Jessica Krug) put on Black women as a kind of uniform. This thievery at the expense of Black women for professional, social, and financial gain is one of the ways white supremacy recycles over and over. And this knowing that white women, in particular, pretend not to know is what I often call destructive denial and is often justified when they feel threatened. We’ve seen this over and over in recent news.

If you’ve ever played with the toy Mr. or Ms. Potato Head, you know that the face changes based on the accessories a child selects. I thought this toy was an excellent template for writing this poem.

At one point there was some thought that the poem Mrs. Potato Head might be outdated and not a good selection for the book—then news broke about Jessica Krug, and I was like damn! And not like in the slot machine way where all the white women have lined up for me to hit some poetry jackpot. It’s kinda like if there’s one Dolezal, there’s probably another and another…

I do wonder if social media memes, hair tutorials, and other Black content unintentionally provide CliffsNotes for white people to pass as Black. I mean we tell people how to be invited to our barbecues—we’re constantly joking about what the Blackest this or that is, what we’re cooking for Verzuz—and all the while white people are watching from the sidelines looking for ways to get in (to) Blackness.

Back to form for a minute—Dolezal and Krug are forms trying to be written or live as Black.

Rumpus: A miscarriage, unwed pregnant church girls, and death are among the heavier subjects written about in the collection. However, I gleaned throughout the book the array of hope that you allude to. Some poems touch upon the resiliency of women. Poems that are an ode to the many ways in which women show up for one another. For example, in “For the Women Who Save Me,” you say, “The women come ready / washing loads of my business / folding me back into place.” Who are the storytellers who saved you?

Harris-DeBerry: Sonia Sanchez is really like a North Star for me. I admire her because she has not allowed her success to quell her righteous rage or her commitment to revolution and peace. No words fall flat from her mouth. She keeps them all in the air with a poetic music that is distinctly her own.

You asked me earlier about poetic form. Ntozake Shange brought the form of Black woman/folk talk to the page. The page had to conform to her spelling, her style, her tongue. I am deeply in debt to her for ensuring our everyday language was taken seriously. Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison perfected it in novels, but no one has done the same in poetry like Shange, I don’t think.

I learned to love language through the storytelling of my grandmothers. Their shorthand truth-telling was vibrant, funny, and cut you at your core. They could gather you in a short phrase. My paternal grandmother would always tell us, “get right or get left.” She was referring to Jesus but also there was a double meaning: if you don’t get your act together, you will be left behind. This is why I am constantly returning to Paule Marshall’s “From the Poets in the Kitchen” as a major influence on my approach to poetry. The language that comes from ordinary Black living should be studied and celebrated.

Rumpus: I’m curious to know how long you worked on the poems in this collection, and why did you title it Freedom Knows My Name?

Harris-DeBerry: There were several versions of manuscripts over the last four years. At one point I realized I had two books, and I couldn’t put everything and the kitchen sink in one. Ha! I think you have to resist believing that any book is your one shot in the world. I think it’s possible to achieve success and not have courage. I want to be courageous even if I fail. The original title of the book was Shame on Her. It was all about Black girl-to-womanhood shame. It was a very emotionally heavy manuscript. I was carrying the weight of the poems and personal things happening during this time. One day, I woke up and knew the book couldn’t live in that space exclusively. I just knew I had to change course. I couldn’t leave the reader with no hope.

Looking back, it was divine intuition. I delayed turning the manuscript into the press several times because I was trying to find more balance in the manuscript and in my life, and if I committed more to the publishing schedule than myself—I would not have produced an authentic book. For me, the title expresses my belief that freedom not only belongs to the collective but also to the individual. Too often, women in particular, sacrifice themselves for the whole. The better I care for my well-being, the better I can be a contribution to my community.

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Photograph of Kelly Harris-Deberry by Jarvis DeBerry.


Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing from The Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has been published in Blood Orange Review, Necessary Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.ericalwilliams.com and on Twitter at @ericalwilliams3. More from this author →