National Writing Project

Patricia Smith: “How Do We Lose Our Own Voices?”

Date: April 24, 2010

Summary: In recounting her mother's life story, famous poet Patricia Smith discussed how African American children can lose their valuable histories in order to learn to speak "right" in her keynote at the 2010 Urban Sites Network Conference.

 

Poet Patricia Smith, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, delivered the keynote at the 2010 Urban Sites Network Conference in Portland, Oregon, telling stirring stories about how she and other African American children grew up in households and schools where they were stripped of their stories and heritage in an effort to teach them to talk "right"—in other words, like white people.

Smith felt as if she would "become a clear, colorless slate scrubbed of my own history, a slate where people could write my life any way they wanted, with any beginning, any middle, any ending."

"We've got to teach that every utterance, every story is legitimate, that they exist to help you process your own life, to help you move your own life forward, not to complete anyone else's picture of you," she said. "Never relinquish control of your life, you must say, and the stories that have formed you."

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