‘It’s alarming, but I trust this is right where we’re supposed to be,” said poet and activist Thea Matthews last week while she was on the move from one public demonstration to the next in the name of protecting Black Lives.
The peaceful daytime protests against police violence were coordinated by Movement 4 Black Lives, a national coalition of black-led organizations, joined to create meaningful policy, cultural and political change in the wake of the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr. by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Too many subsequent (and prior) police murders, including George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, have given rise to the growing movement of young people demanding the defunding and abolition of law enforcement, mired in a history of racism, among other demands for defending black life.
“There’s anger, sadness, so much emotion,” said Matthews of how she’s been doing in these weeks of national mourning and uprising.
“Since 45 took office, said Matthews, “There has been an undercurrent of contentiousness. Pandemic or not, enough is enough.”
Even with 21st century militarized policing intended to dissuade protest while actually inspiring it, marches and civil disobedience are clearly alive and well throughout the country and across The City.
“There’s no business as usual,” she said of the movement’s intention, “but I’m writing.” She offered an excerpt from “Join US,” a new poem dated June 1.
…and join us fight with us be with us now
not against us your family calls your name
not your badge number and to the one with no badge
keep running to the one with the badge
you guilty of murder systemic lynching
whether you pulled the trigger used your weight or not
you killed you killed you killed black life
you took what was not yours and you stole
black life away from the sun from the soil from the hands
of their mothers you killed as if you were a monster
“I called on the ancestors, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde and even Bob Kaufman,” said Matthews, referring to a long line of internationally esteemed black poets including Kaufman, who lived much of his life in San Francisco, and served an inordinate amount of time in its jails, his words relevant today as they were some 60 years ago.
“I knew I was a poet when I wrote my first poem as an adolescent,” said Matthews, “It came out with a degree of unmerited divine assistance to express what I was experiencing internally, to convey that to whoever would then see it.” Poetry would become a way for her to transcend personal, cultural and community trauma.
She remembers seeing a documentary about the murder of Emmett Till, the teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955, the event a catalyst for the mid-century civil rights movement. “I saw the pictures of lynchings. I knew then, before I even knew the history of policing, they would not protect me, however you define protection,” she said.
Raised by her single mother in the Excelsior and Ingleside districts with her grandmother nearby, “My intersection was Mission and Persia as a kid,” she said. “Wild…Kids would get stabbed, we would run down with towels for them. It was rough, hard, and yet we had so much privilege. My mom sacrificed a lot, definitely the mama bear, doing the best she could with what she had.”
Matthews’s mother is Chicana/indigenous, her grandfather native to California and her grandmother has been here since the 1940s. Her biological dad, whom she has never met, has what she calls a classic African American migration story with roots in the Carolinas and Detroit ultimately reaching the Bay Area.
“Technically I come from a large family that’s very dispersed across the country,” said Matthews who identifies as “Black, Mexican, Indigenous, Queer…There’s more: Spanish and Portuguese.”
As a youth she appreciated the work of Shel Silverstein; as a teen she received poetry mentorship from Gloria Yamato and Mahru and Elahi through Writers Corp, a now defunct city program that brought professional writers into classrooms and libraries.
“That’s how I learned about the role of the artist,” said Matthews. By 16 she was a peer educator, active in the literary community, reading at open mics.
“Initially I got accepted on the spot with my portfolio to California College of the Arts to pursue a bachelor’s in creative writing in 2005. I stayed as long as I could,” finding the institution to be “Elitist, lacking diversity and definitely not interested in amplifying black voices.”
Her experience there and what she characterized as her own “internal turmoil,” led her away from school for seven years and into a writer’s block that lasted for five.
“It was really painful,” she said, ”In that way when an artist is not engaged in craft. It’s like a purgatorial death.“
Finding her way back as a student at City College of San Francisco, her interest in social organization, particularly deviance from societal structures as seen through a historical and political lens, led her to major in sociology. “It seemed like the intersection of all those points,” she said. It was at CCSF where she became politicized.
“I loved CCSF, how it’s been a portal to opportunity and education for the people, so when it was about to lose its accreditation, I asked, ‘What can I do?’”
The college’s crisis was her introduction to grassroots and student organizing. Participating in sit-ins, occupying City Hall, the students issued demands and fought against privatization of education as well as the police violence here and across the country. With several classmates and their faculty advisor, Matthews worked at reviving the Black Student Union on campus before completing her degree at UC Berkeley where she assisted in the African American Studies Department’s Poetry For The People, founded by the aforementioned June Jordan.
Consistently active as a performing and anthologized poet (full disclosure: we worked together on a chapbook series benefiting San Francisco booksellers), this month, Matthews celebrates her first collection, “UnEarth [The Flowers],” published by San Francisco’s Red Light Lit. Matthews’ words speak to trauma and transcendence through the taxonomy of flowers.
“I wanted my first book to be a testament to alchemy,” she said. “There is beauty in healing, the reclamation of body, power, self-worth.” Her personal poems and her relationship to nature have everything to do with her political motivation. “I’m seeking justice. On the micro and macro level.”
A series of launch events for the book are scheduled this month and next as the poet prepares herself for the journey to New York University’s MFA program, her first time relocating.
“New York has been calling my name for awhile and I decided to return the call,” she said.
“I love San Francisco,” though her relationship with The City is a complicated one. “We’ve broken up a few times, but we never really break up and then we’re back together. I was born here. I nearly died here and have been reborn here,” she said. “I can walk these streets with my eyes closed.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.