Born and raised on the East Side of Buffalo (eating chicken wings weekly), the city’s inaugural poet laureate Jillian Hanesworth grew up in a “very quiet and observant” neighborhood.
While something was always happening around her, she learned to be aware of everything through art.
“I will often spend my time reading and writing,” Hanesworth said of her childhood. “I started by writing songs. I will write songs for my mom, who is a beautiful singer and the worship leader at our family church.”
Hanesworth gave her lecture at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Six theme “Literature and Meaning-Making.” She was invited back to Chautauqua after her Interfaith Lecture on Aug. 12, 2022, was canceled following the attack on Salman Rushdie that morning on the grounds.
Hanesworth opened her talk with a “hoorah” chant special to the area. In remembering the May 14, 2022, mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo — what her talk last year was going to be about — she shared a poem, “Water,” currently on display in the supermarket.
“Let the hopeful healing waters flow / ushering in a rebirth of our sense of self,” she read from the poem. “Let the flowing waters remind us of time / Current yet fleeting, like itself / Large yet within reach.”
A lot of people “know about Buffalo, but they don’t really know Buffalo,” she said. The city has a 50% Black population, but 85% of the Black population lives on the East Side of Buffalo.
“The East Side has most of its residents at or below the poverty line,” Hanesworth said. “There has been no economic growth in 30 years.”
To put this in perspective, Hanesworth is 30 years old, so she has never seen her community grow economically. She said she felt stuck in her town; everything was within four to five blocks and everyone was living paycheck to paycheck and trying to “stay out of trouble.”
“I had cousins who learned about the Eiffel Tower and their parents took them to Paris,” she said. “I (said), ‘That’s insane.’ … My worldview could have been very limited. It could have been limited to what I had access to — the East Side of Buffalo.”
Reading books expanded her perspective and taught her acceptance, she said. Reading the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies taught her humanity.
“That taught me the importance of people taking ownership of their own stories, telling their own stories and their own voices,” she said. “When you submit your story to Chicken Soup, they don’t edit it. … Very often, people tell our stories for us, and that makes our stories lose their power.”
Hanesworth said only the people who write their stories can narrate them. She recalled reading Toni Morrison, and wanted to have her “energy.”
“(Morrison) was a Black woman who owned every single intersection of her identity,” she said. “She wrote those ways that she identified with herself and with other people into her stories. She threaded them into her words.”
Something about this style is comparable to “looking in a mirror,” Hanesworth said. Morrison’s work influenced her to “take charge” and allow herself to be the “messenger” of her own life.
“I wanted to write and I wanted my words to mean something,” Hanesworth said. “I wanted them to live longer than me.”
Along with Morrison, James Baldwin’s work “radicalized” Hanesworth and taught her there is “no such thing” as a homogeneous community.
“As soon as we start to be comfortable with the fact that we are very different — even from a twin sister — we start to say some things (and) we start to share our stories in ways that can reach beyond where we thought they could reach,” she said.
While attending SUNY Fredonia, Hanesworth switched her major from vocal performance to political science, and then to criminal justice, where she learned about organizing and advocacy — “not the meaning of the words, but how you show it through your actions (and) how you live it,” she said. “These are things that you have to be about it, if you say you’re about it.”
Even through her work as a counselor for survivors and kids who got out of juvenile centers, Hanesworth said she “felt like I was helping,” but still had a story in her she didn’t know how to tell.
She read The Diary of an Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae, and felt validated. Hanesworth described herself as someone “so awkward” it makes her doubt herself — like when she panics after someone says “good morning,” as she feels unpracticed in how to answer.
“Unless I’m on the news calling for a district attorney to resign, I don’t know how to talk,” she said. “Even these small interactions, I practice those, and so does (Rae). It made me feel seen and made me feel OK to be different — and made me feel like being different was being exceptional.”
Hanesworth then told a story “that deserves to be told” and said it was her responsibility to recall two of her “biggest flops.” In first grade, she wrote a 37-page book called The Princess Who Lost Her Crown.
“She’s looking everywhere for this crown and she finally finds it,” she said. “She’s like, ‘Great, now I won’t be late to a funeral.’ Why did I have to add this layer of depth? I thought it was depth, right? I was like, ‘This is going to be deep.’ ”
None of the other first-graders were able to “approach death in their writing the way I (could),” she said. Her teacher bound the book together and let her read it to the class, but the parents and children were confused as to who let her approach the topic of death this young.
Her second “flop” started when she learned about the death penalty in high school and decided it was morally wrong. The second 37-page book she decided to write was called Death to the Death Penalty.
“I sent it to every major publisher in the country,” Hanesworth said. “ ‘Listen, I got something to say. I want to publish this book.’ Again, it was 37 pages. They were like, ‘We’re not even going to read this.’ ”
This book garnered a different reaction from her peers and family than the first. Her family took it seriously, even though it “got nowhere.” Nonetheless, she continued writing.
“When I got out of college, I was at home and a lot started happening around that time Trayvon Martin was killed, Mike Brown was killed — it just seemed like so many people, my age and younger than me, were losing their lives for the sole reason of looking like me,” she said.
Hanesworth then asked: “How do you sleep at night, coming from a community where you learn about how to interact with the police before you know where babies come from?”
This segued into “I Wish That Little Black Boy Did Something,” a poem she wrote after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson — the officer responsible for Mike Brown’s death.
“I was devastated,” she said. “When you tell me that somebody who looks like me is losing their life solely because of the color of their skin, you got to tell me they did something wrong.”
She wished the “little Black boy did something wrong” and watched the leaked video of the incident on Facebook.
“It’s easier to explain what’s wrong and what’s right, what’s black and white and in between where gray lies,” Hanesworth recited from the poem. “It’s easier to mourn the loss of someone — a mother burying her son — when you can look at her and say, ‘I’m so sorry, mama.’ ”
The Black Lives Matter phrase and movement is not a “badge of honor” or “hate group,” it’s a “message to our youth.”
“It’s a reminder that they mean something in a world where if they do 10 miles over the speed limit (cops) might try to kill you,” she said. “I’m so sick of saying ‘Put the guns down.’ ”
In case people haven’t noticed she said, Black people are still “singing that same song.”
“We’ve always been chosen when it was time for the killing, the way you choose the tomato that’s right for the picking,” she read, returning to the poem. “I thought targets were red. When did they become Black? I thought the abuse of power was dead. When did it come back?”
This poem “put a fire in me,” she said, and she further realized she could use her words to “activate” people.
“We don’t have to normalize (the violence),” she said. “I can do it in a way that draws people in like Toni Morrison did and that’s intelligent like James Baldwin was. Even if I’m a little awkward like Issa Rae, that’s OK, too.”
Someone from the University of Buffalo’s Education Opportunity Center reached out to Hanesworth and asked her to read “I Wish That Little Black Boy Did Something” at a Black History Month program.
“I became the messenger,” she said. “I spent years advocating in my city for us to have a poet laureate because of the importance of having space that is recognized by our local government, that is first telling our stories.”
In a news interview with the council member who backed her resolution to begin the initiative, the reporter asked her what qualities she wanted in the Buffalo poet laureate. She said she didn’t plan on being the first poet laureate of Buffalo, but wanted it there when she was ready for it. The council member told her, on air, that the position was hers. She was shocked — not accepting wasn’t an option.
Now, after accepting the position, Hanesworth travels and talks to school groups.
She said she enjoyed following in the footsteps of those who “inspired me the most” such as Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, Maya Angelou, Fred Hampton, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Andre 3000.
“These MCs and rappers are known for telling stories, for illustrating the most painful things that we’ve experienced in our lives, but making it so palatable and digestible,” she said.
While there are people who try to reassure others it isn’t the end of the world, Hanesworth said it’s valid “other times we do” feel this way. Hanesworth said this reminds people of their role in this society.
“The powerful part about literature is how personal it is,” she said. “Everybody should write their story, even if it’s not going to become a New York Times bestseller. Even if you never reach that type of a platform, it doesn’t matter. Your words can change someone.”
At a reading in Baltimore, a girl asked Hanesworth why she was speaking if she wasn’t from there. It stung, but after the reading another woman physically chased her down to tell her she pulled over on a whim, with no prior intention of attending the event.
One of her final sentiments she shared with Chautauqua was to buy banned books, because these should be the “most” interesting.
“Always go for the banned books,” she said. “Write your own and tell everybody who will listen and give it away to the people who you feel need to hear it and charge people who should pay for it — and add tax.”