Martin Luther King Essay Contest Cmu

College PROSE


By Brian Broome

There have been times in moments of solitude and silence that I have literally taken my right hand, placed it over my left shoulder, and patted myself on the back for surviving small town Ohio. I deserve it. And, if you are a black person from small town Ohio, you deserve it too. Go ahead. Do it now. Pat yourself on the back and be proud that you are still standing upright because, I may be biased, but I am fully convinced that the entire state of Ohio is nothing but a racist cesspool. You can see this fact much more clearly when you’ve put the Buckeye State deep into your rearview mirror, after you’ve vowed never, ever to go back no matter what. When you're on a Greyhound bus with all your belongings packed, speeding away from it all, you consult the murky blue depths of the Magic 8 Ball you've had since sixth grade and ask if it's a good idea to leave.

          It says...

         "Yes. Definitely."

       Of course, you don’t know that you’re living in a racist purgatory when you’re growing up in Ohio. When you’re a child, your immediate surroundings are your whole world and you just accept, over time, that your blackness makes you less. Less smart. Less capable. Less worthy. It seems that every election season, we as a country are shocked simply because of Ohio’s geographical placement, that it always goes red as a baboon’s ass. But I am never surprised. The entire state is the long-lost child of Jim Crow aching to get back into its father’s loving arms. The state of Ohio wears on the black psyche until you either move or get good at football. But, again, perhaps I’m biased.

       I couldn’t wait to get out, and when I was old enough, I moved to Pittsburgh. It’s not far. But, it was a city, and I knew from television shows that cities were sanctuary for black people. No more would I have to deal with small-minded, racist, white attitudes. I moved here. I reveled in my newfound freedom from racism, ignoring what I didn’t want to see. I made friends both white and black. And then, Pittsburgh slowly revealed itself to me.

* **

Back in Ohio, I disobeyed my mother once and left the house while she was at work. We lived just outside the small, basically rural city of Newton Falls and I needed to go into “town,” so I set off on foot forgetting the fact that, even when I was in Newton Falls with my mother, she never let me out of her sight. There were rural roads leading into the city limits, no sidewalks. So, I took off on foot the way you do when you think you're a grownup and certain that nothing in this world can harm you. I don’t remember why I was going to Newton Falls. That knowledge has been deleted from my memory. But I do know that it was the most important thing that had ever been up to that point, and I remember that my mother just didn’t “get it.” So, I walked down a dusty road, the trees so high on both sides that they created a ubiquitous shade and I could hear the sounds of wildlife, crickets in the daytime. It was a road that my mother had driven me down several times on our way to the Sparkle Market to buy our groceries. My feet had never touched it before. It seemed vastly different on foot. Unrecognizable. Longer. Spooky. Dark green and ominous.

         Cars whipped by me so fast that I hugged the side of the road almost in the ditch and, whenever I would hear one approaching from behind, every muscle in my body would tense. And, as the road laid itself out before me, I was helplessly exposed, and the road got longer and longer. So long I began to wonder if I had even gone the right way. And then I heard the slow crunching of rocks beneath tires behind me. Not the scattering of them under the wheels of a car that was driving sixty miles an hour. But the slow crunch of gravel signaling that the vehicle behind me was slowing down. I hoped that it was someone I knew. Maybe one of my mother’s friends who would scold me and then force me into the car with the promise to tell my mother on me immediately. I prayed for this. But my prayer went unanswered.

* **

My first friends in Pittsburgh were Todd, a white, red-headed, and a muscular fireplug of a dude; Melissa, a white brunette with cat-eye glasses and a political bent; and Antoinette, a tiny black lesbian with a shaved head and a progressive attitude toward sex. We were liberals in the city, and everything was lit up. We loved to go out like you do in your twenties and had managed to become part of the scene. I met people with pet rats and learned how to do drugs off nightclub toilets and order martinis. We wore leather pants and danced until dawn. Nothing like my sleepy life back home, and, when we went out that night, we were prepared to have the time of our lives even better than the time of our lives we had the previous night. This was the kind of urban existence that I had dreamed of with the whole city lit up like a jukebox and all that endless freedom to do what I wanted. There was no mother here to tell me that I’d better not leave the house. There were clubs, hip coffee shops, and cabs as far as the eye could see, and I loved it.

       We were headed bar hopping when Todd remembered that he needed cash. The hustle and bustle of downtown Saturday night was all around us with people laying on horns and shouting at one another. Those who had already been out for the evening were stumbling down the sidewalk leaning against each other for support. I looked good. I had done my best to tie a necktie in a way that I have since learned is dead wrong. It hung around my neck like a noose. Melissa wore her usual ensemble of all black head to toe with big clunky boots. But Antoinette had gone all out. She wore a giant afro wig and big hoop earrings. Black patent leather go-go boots and a half shirt decorated with roses. She wore false eyelashes and makeup. “Femming it up,” she called it. We all looked gorgeous. Todd wore overalls with no shirt underneath and army boots. But he needed cash. You can’t get drunk without cash. So, we ducked off onto a side street to an out-of-the-way ATM and watched him pat himself down for his cash card. He knew he’d brought it, but couldn’t remember in which pocket he’d tucked it away. So, we stood there lined up. Him at the cash machine frantically patting his own body down, Melissa behind him having decided that she could use some extra cash too, and me and Antoinette standing behind them both on the sidewalk. We laughed at Todd, telling him maybe he’d left his cash card in his ass, in which case, he would never find it. We laughed and never once thought how this arrangement might look to someone on the outside.

* **

670 County Highway 114, Newton Falls, Ohio, leads to the epicenter of Newton Falls which, back then, boasted one supermarket, a laundromat, and a variety store. The urban core. Newton Falls was all white people, and I wish I could remember what it was that I wanted so badly at that variety store that I’d disobeyed my mother. I dismissed every cautionary tale she’d ever told me about white people and took off on foot directly into enemy territory. Whatever that thing was, I have blocked it from memory. But, I do know that it most definitely wasn’t worth the trip.


       The sound of gravel crunching slowly under tires had given way to a human voice—a man’s voice. He trailed behind me slowly, chastising me for being what he called “in the middle of the road.”

         “Hey, monkey! What the fuck you doin’ out here, monkey? You almost made me wreck! Hey! Nigger! You hear me?”

       Your body becomes over-all clammy when you’re confronted by a racist. Your skin feels heavy and numb at the same time. You shut down, but you can feel the rage you’re trying to suppress boiling like a hot cauldron deep inside, and a cold blast of fear commences to howl within you. Your stomach becomes a black hole that you wish you could disappear into, and the sweat bursts out of every pore on your body. But something tells you not to run. Something in your black DNA tells you that running will only make things worse. You bite your tongue when you’re alone because there is not a doubt in your mind that these people think your humanity so non-existent that they would suffer no moral conflict in killing you and dumping your body into the Mahoning River. The man’s voice behind me continued to taunt. Only now he’s not talking to me. He is now just talking loud enough for me to hear. There is someone else in the car.

* **

On Seventh Avenue downtown Pittsburgh, Todd is still frantically searching for his money card. He’s starting to look a little panicked that maybe he’s left it on the bus we took down here. The rest of us are becoming impatient. We’re anxious to get to the bar, and we all breathe a little sigh of relief when he finally finds it tucked inside his boot for safe keeping. The city is electric with noise as we stand there waiting for him to now insert the card, remember his pin number, and snatch out his drinking papers for the evening. But, even though there is noise all around, I can still hear the telltale sounds of tires slowing down behind me. I now know it better than I know the taste of the inside of my own mouth. A car has slowed down. Its occupant has been watching us the entire time.

* **

On County Hwy 114 Newton Falls, Ohio, the man behind me is telling his passenger what’s happening. He’s narrating like a tour guide on a safari would.

          “Look at this nigger taking up the entire road. I should just run him over. I don’t know why he didn’t just steal a car!”

         Then he laughs loud. His passenger says nothing. I hear the vehicle coming around to the side of me, and my blood is ice water and my head is full of static. I wish I’d never left home. I wish I’d listened to my mother. I wonder how cold the Mahoning River is this time of year, and it is at this moment that what I was looking for at the heart of Newton Falls is permanently wiped from my mind. But here is where I want to get at least a glance at my murderer. This man who hates me for no reason but feels he’s come up with a good excuse to. I look up and he is sneer-grinning at me with pure malevolence in his eyes. He is driving a pickup truck, of course, and personifying everything I’d ever learned about white trash. Blonde as piss. Teeth caked in butter. He mouths silently the word “nigger” and shows me his middle finger and just over his shoulder, I can see his two passengers. Two little toe-headed girls with big blue eyes both in the front seat. They look confused by the driver’s behavior, but they’ll soon learn what he’s trying to teach them. They will soon help to make America great again. They stare at me as if I am a wild animal with their mouths hanging open. We lock eyes before the driver yells “Fuck you! Stay out of the road!” and speeds off leaving me in a spray of rocks and dust.

* **

“Hey! Leave them alone!”

         Nobody on Seventh Avenue notices the man initially except for me who heard his tires from two blocks away. “Leave them alone!” he shouts again, louder this time. I’m looking at him with bewilderment and, as he keeps shouting, Antoinette has now noticed him too. He is hollering at us and pointing his finger at the two of us, and we crane our necks toward him trying to make out what the problem could be. He is in a four-door sedan on his own. It’s a royal blue color and shines like new money. “Leave them alone! Leave them alone!” Todd and Melissa have not yet noticed. His shouts blended into the street noise for them. But, Antoinette and I now have a familiar feeling inching up our spines. “Leave them alone! Leave them alone!”

       There are moments in life when your situation becomes clear. I imagine that there’s a moment of realization for people who are drowning just before they start to kick, flail, and panic. There is a calm inside that is disrupted when your entire system begins to realize that everything is not going to be alright. There are moments like this when something real happens and awakens something real within you. The man has been watching us from his place in traffic. He has seen two white people and two black people approach an ATM and he has seen the white man frantically patting himself down for money. He then sees the two black people, one with his hand tucked firmly in his pocket and assumed that a nice white couple is being held up by two animals. One in a mis-tied tie and the other in a giant afro wig. He assumes the responsibility of hero. He will save the day by calling attention to this crime. He is shouting loud enough so that people on the street turn to look at us. He is pointing an accusatory finger at me and Antoinette from the safety of his vehicle. We are urban crime personified. He has seen it on the nightly news, no doubt— how predatory black people are holding up whites at ATMs across the city. He is doing a good thing.

       When it becomes clear to me what he is doing, a rage builds up within me. But it’s the wrong kind of rage. It’s the kind of black rage wherein you need white people to validate you, and I spit at him words to this effect.

“These are our friends! We are with them!”

         I regret these words to this very day. They were said by a boy who never learned that he doesn’t need white people to prove anything to anyone. But I used Todd and Melissa as a shield. A glowing white shield against the dismissal of my humanity. I go over what I should have said in my mind a thousand times over, even today. I should have just told him to go to hell; to mind his own business; to fuck right off. But, I chose to have Todd and Melissa’s whiteness take the place of my self-respect. Ohio had taught me well.

       When Todd and Melissa finally noticed what was happening, they did nothing. They said nothing. I imagine this kind of thing had never happened to them before. But Antoinette and I unloaded for every time we’d been followed around in a store, every time we had been falsely accused. When the man in the car realized he’d made a mistake, he offered no apology, just a middle finger as a defense against Antoinette’s fuck you’s and my apoplectic babbling. I thought I had escaped, but I’ve been learning ever since that I have escaped nothing.

       When I look around the city in which I still live, I see a bigger version of what I’d thought I left back in Ohio. A shinier, busier version. A version that has a Civic Light Opera and all-night diners and beautiful museums. There is no difference. The neighborhoods are shockingly segregated, and black people who live here are among the worst off in the country economically. I see an island surrounded and infiltrated by invaders who bring their racist ideology to bear on everything this city produces or touches. There is no safe place in Pittsburgh for black people. The illusion of multicultural city life. But to be fair, I don’t believe that there’s any city in America where black people can exhale. But Pittsburgh is one of the worst. I suffer no delusions about this. But, I stay on. I stay here because I’ve found love here. But I never forget that I live in the citified shadow of Appalachia. We, as a city, have much work to do, and sometimes I doubt that this work will ever get done.

       I don’t visit my family in Ohio as often as I should. I vowed that I would never go back there for any reason. I don’t know how they do it. Todd and Antoinette are still my friends although only via social media. I often want to ask them if they even remember that night. Antoinette probably does. Todd probably doesn’t. Antoinette had the good sense to leave the city. She tells me stories of racism from the West Coast now.

          I don’t hate Pittsburgh. But like every other city in America, as a black person, I know I don’t belong here, which immediately begs the question “Where do I belong in America?” I shake up the murky waters of the Magic 8-Ball for insight. It answers…

          “Reply Unclear: Try Again Later.”


How I Became a Cup of Hoodsie Ice Cream

By Brielle Marie Stovall

The star of every birthday party was always the grocery store sheet cake accompanied by Hoodsie ice cream cups: the paper ice cream cups that couldn’t hold up as soon as the sun met the ice cream, causing it to melt, and the wooden spoon that was bound to slice the inside of your mouth as you hastily downed the mediocre ice cream. It was a tradition of mine to mix the chocolate and vanilla ice cream together, as I regarded the vanilla ice cream as being generally more boring than the chocolate. By the time the two were mixed, I could only see and taste the chocolate. For the majority of my life, I assumed no one saw my whiteness—just as I didn’t see the vanilla ice cream—because my dark brown ringlets surround my caramel-colored face. I recently realized that I could not have had it more backwards. In fact, more people saw my whiteness than they did my blackness. This isn’t about “Hashtag: Mixed Girl Problems,” though there are plenty. This is about how I came to realize that, despite the fact that I have to shop in the “Textured Hair” part of the hair aisle and my skin has more melanin than my pasty mother’s, I have white privilege.

Privilege. There hasn’t been a day in the last few months when I didn’t hear the topic come up with as much ease and regularity as we discuss dinner plans. A black man is seen walking down the street and is shot and killed because he seemed like a threat. But a white man opens fire at a concert, hundreds injured and 58 people killed, and he’s labeled a lone wolf. “White privilege,” we exclaim. Privilege extends far beyond race, though: education, socioeconomic status, gender, etc. In a country that was founded upon the backs of people that were deemed less worthy than those who founded it, the existence of privilege is something that has been ingrained in us, like words on a gravestone. It’s almost unavoidable. So much so that it’s not uncommon to be unaware of one’s own privilege.

I grew up in a city in central Massachusetts where diversity was celebrated. The entryway to my high school proudly adorned over 70 flags—one from each country represented by the student body—and each year we put on an International Show, which occurred after a week of celebrating and learning about various cultures and peoples. Friday afternoon classes were cancelled so that the entire student body could engage in this celebration, in which students performed traditional dances and songs from their respective countries. It wasn’t uncommon for people to learn and partake in performances from other countries as well. During my sophomore year, for example, my classmates and I learned a French song and performed it for the International Show. It’s taken years for me to appreciate and understand the importance of that experience, as it gave me the opportunity to learn about and appreciate a cultural aspect of a country that wasn’t my own.

It wasn’t until I left Worcester that I realized how lucky I was to grow up in such a diverse city. I started hearing stories about things that were said to other people of color in my life and how they were treated: microaggressions and blatant racism alike. To say I was horrified would be an understatement. I couldn’t believe the injustice that people in my life were experiencing on a day-to-day basis, and I admittedly—and selfishly—felt incredibly lucky to have never really experienced it to the degree of so many people whom I hold near and dear. This most recent summer rolled around, and I decided it was time for a hair change, so I decided to have extensions braided into my hair. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, though. I contemplated this decision for quite some time, as I worried that I wasn’t “black enough” to pull them off. This hesitation alone was enough to make me start questioning how I viewed myself and the role I play in society as a biracial woman. What does it even mean to be “black enough”? And why do I feel like I’m not? I ultimately did it anyway, and found the answers to those questions.

I waitress part-time at my neighborhood Applebee’s back in Massachusetts. It’s slow over the summer, and most nights I make less than $80 in tips. It’s far from the ideal summer job, but I find myself enjoying my time there, nonetheless. I went into work the day I had my hair done and was immediately met with a multitude of varying reactions, which was to be expected. My manager, a large, middle-aged white man, immediately made it clear that he wasn’t fond of my hair. He told me it didn’t fit my personality and made me “look like a gangster.” I had hoped his reaction would be the worst of it, but instead, it only primed me for the next two weeks. I noticed a shocking shift in the way people spoke to me and treated me at work.

Customers seemed to be surprised when they found out I was a college student, not to mention a student studying opera at Carnegie Mellon. Microaggressions kept flying at me from all angles, whether they were comments made in line at the grocery store or by classmates in daily conversation. I immediately found myself wearing my reading glasses more regularly because I realized that when I wore my glasses, people seemed less surprised by my level of education. The most shocking and blatant change I experienced was the amount of money I was making at work. My sales remained approximately the same, but I went from making around $65-$70 in tips per night to averaging somewhere between $40 and $50. This remained true for the entire two weeks I had braids.

When I talked to my mom about these changes I was noticing, she said to me, “You see Brielle, for much of your life, people always saw White Brielle, and even though you’re the same person, you look more like Black Brielle.” She didn’t say this to excuse the way people were behaving. It was merely an observation, and she wasn’t wrong. It was in that moment that I realized that I had become the Hoodsie ice cream cup at every elementary school birthday party. My vanilla had been completely masked by my chocolate, to the point where people didn’t even remember I’m half vanilla to begin with.

That experience made me dreadfully aware of a lot of things I hadn’t considered before. It made me reflect on my own identity and what it means to me to be black, but beyond that, it made me think twice about my own immediate reactions to people. Too often, I find myself making assumptions about people based off of shallow judgements. Having now been on both sides of the judgement coin, I can’t be angry towards the people that treated me the way they did. The assumptions I find myself making are, more often than not, societally driven, and I believe that to be true of most people. The hard part is learning not to act or speak upon those Judgements.

That experience also taught me about something huge: the privilege that I possess simply because I’m half white. It isn’t something I ever thought about until I had it taken away from me, but having had that experience made me reflect on what it means to have white privilege. I immediately felt guilty and, in some ways, dirty, as white privilege is seen as the enemy in this world. That said, privilege isn’t something we can avoid in today’s society, nor is it something we can control. There are ways, however, to channel one’s privilege into something not evil. People whose voices are inherently heard louder than others need to step up. It’s a tough balancing act, though, because having privilege doesn’t mean you can speak for those whose voices have been silenced. It’s my job, as a person with privilege, to get the attention of those who speak too loudly for others to be heard, and redirect their attention to the voices of the silenced. In a world where we’re constantly threatening to build walls, it’s my job to be a bridge.

I Feel Most Colored When

By Yazmin Bennett-Kelly

How could I be so optimistic yet so naive? I was ready to study and learn. I was looking forward to personal growth, long-lasting friendships, and learning about my ancestors. I had no idea what else I would encounter on this journey. Some of my friends and family feared me traveling to Africa. They got some of us so bad we’re scared to travel and trace our roots. They got us so bad, we’re believing everything we see on TV. Well, the Africans weren’t dangerous at all. They didn’t make me feel unsafe. Of course, on the first night I was a little uneasy because I was sleeping alone in a room in a foreign country. However, of all the things that made me feel unsafe, it was not the locals around me. In fact, it was the white Americans I traveled with to Ghana. When did I almost lose my mind? Was it when they constantly asked the African-Americans if we were okay just because we weren’t speaking at the moment? Or, was it when they repeatedly used microaggressions such as, “Are you allowed to wet your hair in the pool?” Or when they met the only male within our group and in just hours of knowing him assumed he smoked marijuana and was related to Snoop Dogg? Or when the white American professor told a Black girl her hair was unusual. Or maybe it was when the traveling professor from the United States told me my dream of opening an all-girl charter school that caters to the needs of African-American girls is unrealistic. Or maybe when she pet another Black girl’s skin while telling her, “Oh, I get just as dark as you in the summertime.” Or you know what? Maybe it was when my friend got box braids and the professor made an announcement to the class about how long her hair had gotten. Actually, no, I think it was when one girl who was constantly making subtle racist remarks put on Kente cloth and called herself the “queen mother.” Wait, no, I think it was when another girl said our African male student helper looked like one of the monkeys we were feeding. And then after all of this, having the nerve to take photos with/of Ghanaian babies. Wait, I forgot something, maybe it was when we left the Cape Coast slave dungeon and they laughed. But I think I really almost lost it when we were on the bus and they played and sang along to Big Sean’s “I Don’t F*%# With You” on a Sunday in Ghana, a country where the language is formal, and informal language is hardly used, especially on a Sunday. So here I am in West Africa, Ghana, living a dream come true, but I am still being reminded of white privilege and racism in America. I was so uncomfortable, and some moments I just wanted to cry because I couldn’t understand why these things were happening. Of course, me being the strong-minded young woman I am, I spoke up and attempted to educate my peers on these microaggressions and why they were problematic. They apologized and many said they understood, however things did not change. One girl even thanked us for coming to them and addressing the issues. I appreciated this until the same girl told me, “I completely understand you because my grandparents were Native American.”

Although most of the microaggressions weren’t directed at me, I treated them as if they were. The other Black students and I became family. I even met two wonderful friends who became my sisters. We stuck together like glue, and one reason is because we genuinely bonded immediately, and also because we had to stick together to stay sane. We would come together every night and share thoughts/experiences, which I cherished. A psychologist named Beverly Tatum has an article titled “The Complexity of Identity” in which she constructs research and writes about how Blacks are seen as subordinate to whites and how that impacts their daily lives. Tatum mentions how much of our daily lives is tied to survival versus satisfaction. Think about driving, walking in certain areas, or just going to a store. I mean just the way my friends and I gravitated to one another is a prime example. We just want to feel safe and comfortable. Think about what we as Black Americans go through on a daily basis whether directly or indirectly. Systematic racism is affecting us daily! So, imagine how five brown women felt when they left America and traveled to the Motherlands. Imagine the warmth in our hearts that was almost frozen by our peers who lack culture awareness.

I say all of this to say, it was hard. I was called racist when I addressed the racial comments, and I was also called a bully. When one of the girls went to my program director crying, upset, and informing her of what was going on, my director then wanted to speak with all of the students. When it was my turn to speak, I informed her of everything that had taken place and let her know about the microaggressions. When I gave her an example of how the girl singled out my friend by questioning her on whether she was “allowed” to go swimming and wet her NATURAL hair—she responded, saying “Don’t take it to heart ...they are curious.” I expressed to her how that is probably not the case because these students are from various states in America and they have had to have been around Black people at some point in their lives. But she really didn’t get it. She told me to go check on the girl who came to her office crying. At this point, tears are running down my face because I’m sitting across from a woman who looks like me, actually darker than me, and she has not a clue on what I go through as Black person in America and she couldn’t even empathize for us. It was a harsh reality to face, the reality that Africans and Black Americans often view racism and America completely different. Now that was a hard pill to swallow—you would have thought I was speaking something other than English the way she genuinely did not understand. And I don’t mean this in a way that is belittling, but in a realistic way. African Americans and Africans see many things very differently because we are different. This is one reason why it is important to step outside of yourself and do something extraordinary like visiting another country.

This was the only “negative” aspect of my global experience, however I have taught myself to see the value in all things, or to at least try. So, when I got past my angry stage, I started to think critically. I thought about the systems placed to keep Blacks below and whites above, I thought about my white professor who taught me what white privilege really means. I thought of the divisions within the Black community. I thought of the representation of people who look like me. I thought of the white people I know and love who have never made me feel anything such as the feelings described in this essay. What this did teach me was to always love myself and my Blackness—also to always stand up for what I believe in/what is right. I honestly felt like I was being tested. Now more than ever, I love myself and everyone who looks like me. Imagine being called names for standing up for your family—that’s how I felt. Then I realized, “You can call me every name in the book but I will stand up for my brothers and sisters until the day I die.” See, my experience in Ghana was absolutely amazing…the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned something valuable that I will carry with me for the rest of my days, something I will teach my students and children: your voice is important and should be heard. People may not like the message you are giving with your voice and they may not like you period, but one thing for certain is that you grow through the people you meet and the places you go. So, maybe those girls consider me a bully and a racist, but I truly believe that one day maybe far from now they will look back and reminisce on the words we exchanged and they will have learned something.  

At times it gets exhausting being Black. I really start to feel what Malcolm X was trying to do, but I have some ounce of faith in humanity. I may be an optimist, but I truly believe we can do better and we will. We all are one race, the human race. If I’m not mistaken Black and White bodies decompose the same. Let’s love not hate. Let’s teach not degrade. Let’s uncover biases and remove stereotypes. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, I too had a dream. I dreamt of visiting Africa someday. I dreamt of a world where the standard of beauty was people who looked like me. I experienced that. My dream came true. Now we shall wait for the same for Dr. King's.

January 04, 2018

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Award Winners Address Contemporary Social Issues

By Stefanie Johndrow

For the nineteenth year, high school and college students from across western Pennsylvania have addressed topics of difference and diversity in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. This year’s winners touched on topics ranging from racial and sexual identity to the current political climate and more.

The student winners will receive cash prizes, have their pieces published in a booklet and will read their poems and essays at an awards ceremony on Monday, Jan. 15, at 4:30 p.m. in CMU’s Cohon University Center Rangos Ballroom. Campus music groups will also perform, and the event is free and open to the public.

“We were particularly pleased to receive entries from a number of new schools this year, and the quality of the entries overall was exceptionally high,” said Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English who founded and directs the awards program. 

Emma Steckline, aged 15 and a student at CAPA, won first place in the high school prose category for “Where’s Waldo,” an analysis of LGBTQ representation in the media. Last year, Steckline won an honorable mention in the high school prose category.

“Last year I finally came to terms with the fact that I am gay, one of ‘those people.’ ‘Those people’ who every single day are reminded of our minority status. When we see our world powers we are looking in a misprinted ‘Where’s Waldo’ book except the stripes on Waldo’s shirt are rainbow colored and they forgot to print his picture on any of the pages. And there are different versions of the book: ‘Where’s Waldo Book Two: Can You Find Any Queer Singers?’ ‘Where’s Waldo Book Three: Can You Find Any Queer CEO’s?’ ‘Where’s Waldo Book Four: Can You Find Any Queer People in Government?’ The list goes on and on. America sits on copies upon copies of books with no representation for centuries, and I know it isn’t just us.”

Placing first for college poetry, Marina Lopez’s “Penance After DACA” reacts to the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Lopez is a graduate student in CMU’s School of Music.

Your silence is deafening.
Who’s to blame you;
it’s hard to relate to people who you don’t know and who don’t look like you.

But your silence is deafening.
And the world seems so strange in its normalcy;
and the continual chug of the gears of the daily business-as-usual grinds my bones to dust.

And I know that I also ignore those who suffer in far away lands
so I can have all these daily comforts, trinkets, small treats of emptiness…

I understand how it goes: out of sight, out of mind.

But we are right here.
Can’t you see us?
We’re forced to stay low, tumbling from shadow to shadow,
but I really thought you’d noticed us by now.

And I’m sorry for feeling personally aggravated by this
even though it doesn't directly impact me

I feel it encroaching upon me, like a many-fold roach;
strong and dark and nuclear-resistant,
drowning my morning sun.

Your silence is deafening.
And it’s hard to keep on loving you
when you stripped all hope from my brothers
for no good reason.

Your silence is deafening.
Normalcy burns.
And I guess the rest of the world will keep on hating you
and I’ll have less and less arms with which to defend you.

You’ll keep believing you’re a beacon of hope, when you’re not.
And you’ll keep going about your days.

And I’m sorry I resent you;
Life is tragedy.
And you’re probably just trying to get on by.

I’m sorry I’m so self centered
and keep focusing so much on the heart
you shred to pieces. 

And I’m sorry that I came here
(there is nowhere else to go).
And I’m sorry that I left my homeland to rot and fester in its own sins.

Your silence is deafening.

In addition to the annual writing awards, an anthology, “Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University,” was published by CMU Press in the fall. The book features 91 pieces by 83 writers from the first 18 years of the awards program. 

Tracy K. Smith poet laureate of the United States and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, called the anthology, “the mortar that will mend our nation’s spirit.”

“It is consoling beyond words to witness these young writers wrestling with the realities of race, bringing solid thought and well-wrought language to bear upon that process,” Smith said.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards are sponsored by CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Department of English, the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion and UPMC.

The 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards Winners

High School Prose 

First Place: “Where’s Waldo?”
Emma Steckline, 15

Second Place: “A Curious Retention of Despicable Victimization”
Eva Boeglin, 16

Third Place: “Letter to A”

Honorable Mention: “Football”
Eliyah Parks, 17
Taylor Allderdice High School

Honorable Mention: “The Struggles of a Hispanic”
Brayant Garcia, 16
The Kiski School

Honorable Mention: “Love Isn’t Skin Color”
Aaliyah Thomas, 16

High School Poetry

First Place: “Still Black”
Chelsea Lewis, 17

Second Place (tie): “I Want A Dog/Blue Tears”

Second Place (tie): “brave & true // the red, white, and blue”
Brenda Theresa Hayes, 17
Winchester Thurston

Honorable Mention: “To My Mother Who Tells Me To Cover Up”
Madeline Figas, 15

Honorable Mention: “White Noise”
Nika Gill, 17

Honorable Mention: “How I Became a Minority”
Suhail Gharaibeh-Gonzalez, 17

College Prose 

First Place: “Gravel”
Brian Broome, 47
Chatham University

Second Place:“How I Became a Cup of Hoodsie Ice Cream”
Brielle Marie Stovall, 20

Third Place:“I Feel Most Colored When”
Yazmin Bennett-Kelly, 20
Carlow University

Honorable Mention: “Are You a Fan of Dark Chocolate?”
Anjana Murali, 21
University of Pittsburgh

College Poetry 

First Place: “Penance After DACA”
Marina Lopez, 26

Second Place: “At P. F. Chang’s”
Julie Heming, 21

Third Place: “Oreo Skin”
Mariah Barnes, 21

Honorable Mention: “Charlottesville”
Sydney Roslin, 20

Honorable Mention: “I Saw Two Girls Holding Hands”
Naviya Singla, 20

Honorable Mention: “To The Boy Who Only Dates Asian Girls”
Julia Hou, 15

Read all of the winning entries here

A previous version of this story listed "brave & true // the red, white, and blue" as the third place winner for high school poetry.

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