In Tacoma, the observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day is typically marked by celebrations, workshops and performances across the city. But this year, civic-minded organizations are finding ways to engage participants from a distance. The Washington State Historical Society, in collaboration with literary arts organization Write253, is doing this through poetry.
“We felt like there are so many different ways to engage with content of the past as well as processing feelings of the present,” says Molly Wilmoth, the lead program manager at Washington State Historical Society, “and poetry is just one of those really unique ways to explore personal feelings and then kind of connectivity to the community.”
And there is a lot to process this year. MLK Day takes place on the heels of a disorienting insurrection and just days before the historic election of the first woman of color as vice president. Wilmoth hopes that writing poetry can serve as a way to process the emotions around these events while making connections to the past, including King’s legacy.
Gloria Muhammad, a 24-year-old literary teaching artist, created the prompts. She believes that poetry can be an avenue for self-reflection and community healing.
“Any time you're self-reflecting is a day on because doing inner work is fully participating in your life,” Muhammad says. “It's not always beautiful and roses and sunshine. Sometimes that's looking at yourself and looking at things you need to work on [including] looking at your privilege and how you impact society in the world.”
Muhammad’s writing prompts encourage celebration as well as liberation. In one prompt, she asks participants to reflect on “the heavy loads” they carry, connecting the exercise to historic examples of civil rights-era activists who took on the burden of standing up to injustice. She draws inspiration from King’s speech on self-emancipation, the poetry of Lucille Clifton and work by Tacoma artists.
You can find the prompts on the Washington State Historical Society’s event page for MLK Day on its website.
The poems will eventually be archived by the Washington State Historical Society as a record for future generations.
Note: Gloria Muhammad's age has been corrected in this story.