I Can’t Breathe: A Poetic Anthology of Social Justice

Poets & Writers Can and Will Change the World: A Path towards Social Transformation.

In the mix of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement was propelled onto the global stage as a result of protests organized to denounce the murder of George Floyd, whose words, “I Can’t Breathe,” became the mantra to stop and criminalize police for murdering innocent African American women and men.

Founded in 2013 by  Patrisse CullorsAlicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, three amazing women, seeking justice for 17 year-old Travyon Martin, murdered  because he looked “suspicious,” Black Lives Matter has  captured the attention of people around the world  who believe in justice. It is within this context that this remarkable anthology, I Can’t Breathe: A Poetic Anthology of Social Justice edited by Christopher Okemwa has come about. With contributions from established and emerging writers from Kenya, Nigeria, Jamaica, Scotland, China, Indonesia, Bosnia, Portugal, Uganda, Antigua, Colombia, Malaysia, China, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Cameroon, India, Australia, Scotland, Mexico, Canada, the Middle East and from every corner of the world, poets and writers have raised their voices and joined forces with this global movement.

How, given the pandemic, did Christopher Okemwa manage to gather 550 poets and 15 writers from all over the world, in this 1000-plus page anthology? Christopher Okemwa is not new to organizing; he is the founder and director of the Kistrech International Poetry Festival and the Kistrech Children’s Literature Association in Kenya. He is also the World Poetry Movement’s coordinator of poetry events in Africa as well as a lecturer of Literature, at Kisii University in Kenya. Okemwa has published eight poetry collections, and when in 2015, I met him in Kenya as one of the invited poets to the Kistrech International poetry Festival, his zeal to promote poetry throughout Africa was evident. Hence, I am not surprised that he is able to pull off this impressive collection, which indicates a global concern for justice and a recognition of the lasting negative legacy of white supremacy and racism that has adversely impacted the social development of African Americans, and has cut their lives short.

Poetry as social commentary is not a new phenomenon, and various movements including the anti-apartheid movement which was finally abolished in 1990, garnered support from writers and activists worldwide as has  the Black Lives Matter movement. Once again poetry speaks to the impact and power of the global community coming together to protest social and historical injustices. I Can’t Breathe: A Poetic Anthology of  Social Justice provides a space for not just blacks, or  African-Americans, but gives voice to immigrants living in Europe and North America, as well as other people of colour who are faced with this daily barrier, to examine the conditions of their reality and write in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. This allows them to see the common denominator and speak their truth and their reality and how white supremacy and racism has impacted and continues to impact people of colour. It is this shared reality of oppression that has  galvanized the world.

I Can’t Breathe: A Poetic Anthology of Social Justice not only speaks eloquently to a global movement that is seeking to ensure that there is justice and equality for everyone and that each of us is mindful, playing an important role in bringing about social change for the benefit of the masses,   it provides us ample evidence of the collective sense of responsibility of poets and writers of the world and our understanding that our words, can and do change society. These pieces, largely personal narratives, articulate the devastating social and psychological damage of racism and how many people are hurt and tainted by it, regardless of gender, class, religion or ethnicity. One of its greatest contributions as far as I am concerned, is how it connects these diverse voices on a common theme, explored through multiple lenses.

I am confident you will find not just one or two, but many pieces that impact you in a profound way, that forces each of us to be vigilant to injustice, and to actively work to bring about change. Contained in this collection are ardent appeals and social protests calling for action.  Poets and writers are announcing that we can and will change the world every day with every word we put on paper. We share the responsibility and duty and commitment to be the voices of the voiceless, the voices of those who have been silenced. We are a village and you can find us in every city, town,  or unnamed province, using our words to bring about positive transformation for the benefit of the majority. Our words will allow others to breathe. This anthology raises the dead and  gives them to the world in the way that the Black Lives Matter movement has pulled them from invisibility, has illuminated their lives and their destruction, and has ensured that their names are written in the annals of history. Moreover, this anthology, following on the heels of the BLM movement, is insisting and demanding that black people, specifically African Americans in the USA, live free of fear of persecution and with dignity and the right to life.

But, what I hope this anthology will do is make people understand and reflect on our commonality and that collectively we can end racism, colourism, and classism, wherever injustice dwells, wherever poor people are disenfranchised and are given more severe punishment than rich and privileged. The BLM movement, and this anthology is a wake-up call to a much larger social consciousness and responsibility to eliminate the social and economic divide that pits people against each other.

I applaud Christopher Okemwa for putting together such a stupendous collection. I Can’t Breathe: A Poetic Anthology of Social Justice,  a historical, global inclusive collection, this is truly a keepsake that many decades from now will serve as a reminder of when the poets and writers of the world came together to say no to injustice, to cry out in a single place, to let George Floyd breathe, to allow all the oppressed to breathe, and let none be silent to oppression wherever in the world we witnessed it. Let  us keep our voices amplified so that any oppressor will know for sure if they put their knee on the neck of another, we will not turn a blind eye; we will march and protest, and we will be one strong voice for justice.

Opal Palmer Adisa, writer, cultural activist, is the University Director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, RCO at The University of the West Indies, Mona

Kingston, Jamaica

March 2021