By Allison Carvalho ‘22
Toi Derricotte, an American poet known for her intimate pieces on African-American women, visited Rehm Library on Tuesday, October 24th to read multiple pieces of her original work and speak to students about her life’s events and challenges. Derricotte is the successful author of six poetry collections and is the cofounder of the Cave Canem Foundation, a national poetry organization dedicated to helping Afican-American poets grow professionally and artistically. She is also the author of literary memoir, The Black Notebooks. The reading was co-sponsored by the English, Africana Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies departments.
Derricotte began the event by reading the lyrics of Deep Song by Billie Holiday. She explained that as a young woman, this song brought forth the realization that there were others that understood her feelings and knew her problems, thus “speaking [her] language.” Born the daughter to two African-Americans, Derricotte’s life has always been defined by race. After reading aloud directly off of her birth certificate that the color of each of her parents was categorized as B1, Derricotte explored the implications of these categorizations. What differences arise in the lives of those categorized as B1 and those as B10? What differences arise in the lives of those categorized as B and those as W? It is questions like these that have inspired Derricotte’s poems since she first got the feeling, at a mere seven years old, that she wanted to write poetry.
Derricotte read multiple pieces from her collections. These pieces represented a variety of tones. Though most were serious and emotional, some were light-hearted and comical. Proof of this fell with the audience, either silent and intense, or laughing and lively. Topics varied from racism and women’s struggles to her pet Betta fish, Telly. Through listening to these pieces, spoken by Derricotte herself, audience members were allowed an inside glimpse into what the author feels passionately for. Derricotte encouraged audience members, saying “writing about the things you love is very important, and they can be small things, like a goldfish!”
Derricotte explained her feelings of representing a defiance. She has consistently broken the norm of not revealing too much about oneself in poetry, and has instead chosen to rawly express herself, vulnerabilities included. She left the audience with one overarching question of purpose: What are you doing with language to make it do what you want it to do? Toi Derricotte’s poetry reading was heartfelt, inspiring, and will not soon be forgotten by those privileged to be in attendance.
Derricotte’s reading took place as part of the Working Writers Series and was sponsored by the Creative Writing Program, Africana Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.