[Cheers and applause] ♪ Are you happy to be here?
Get your hands up.
Let's make some noise.
Let's make some noise!
Let's make some noise!
♪ Cheer to what I say ♪ Chorus: ♪ Hey!
♪ ♪ [Indistinct] what I say ♪ ♪ Hey!
♪ ♪ [Indistinct] what I say ♪ ♪ Hey!
♪ ♪ Every single word I say ♪ ♪ Everybody say ♪ ♪ You want it ♪ ♪ Do you want it?
♪ ♪ You want it?
♪ ♪ Everybody scream ♪ Give it up!
Children of the Gospel.
[Cheers and applause] Hi.
How about that choir?
I mean...they should just keep singing forever, right?
So there are teachers, the people that we appreciate once a year with a little apple on the corner of the desk, and then there are teachers who kick open the door and hold it while a whole generation passes through.
And I always wonder, are they giving back what was given to them, or are they somehow conjuring from whole cloth this experience of nurture and guidance that they could only dream of?
And if you ask the greats, they'll tell you teaching takes skill and patience and grit.
But there's also like a farmer's intuition that this soil will yield, that we could plant a generational garden right here.
You know Mahogany L. Browne.
She is the Poet in Residence at Lincoln Center.
She's the author of multiple young adult novels.
She's a poet who always delivers.
She cares deeply about putting grace at the center of learning and relearning.
And she is determined that girls might find their own Black girl magic.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More," and here is teacher and poet and force of nature, Mahogany L. Browne.
[Cheers and applause] Thank you.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me.
Thank y'all for being beautiful.
When I think of Black girl magic, I'm reminded that I'm able to say that because of Ntozake Shange, rest in peace, who said, "Where there is women, there is magic."
So yeah, this is for us, for Justice Ketanji Brown, for your mama, your mama's mama, your auntie, and them.
They say you ain't 'posed to be here, Black girl.
You ain't 'posed to wear red lipstick.
You ain't 'posed to wear high heels.
You ain't 'posed to smile in public.
You ain't 'posed to smile nowhere, Black girl.
You ain't supposed to be no more than a girlfriend.
You ain't supposed to get married.
You ain't supposed to want no dream that big.
You ain't supposed to dream at all.
You ain't supposed to do nothing but carry babies and carry felons and carry weaves and carry silence and carry families and carry confusion.
and carry a nation, but never an opinion.
'Cause you ain't supposed to have nothing to say, Black girl, not unless it's a joke.
'Cause you ain't supposed to love yourself, Black girl.
You ain't supposed to find nothing worth saving in all that brown.
You ain't supposed to know that Tina, Beyonce, Cecily, Shonda Rhimes, shine, shine, shine, Black girl.
You ain't supposed to love your mind.
You ain't supposed to love.
You ain't supposed to be loved up on.
You only supposed to pose voodoo child, vixen style.
You supposed to pop out babies and hide the stretch marks.
You supposed to be still.
So still they think you statue.
So still they think you chalked outline.
So still they keep thinking you stone.
Until you look more Medusa than Viola Davis.
Until you sound more Shenaynay than Kerry Washington.
Until you're more side eyed than Michelle Obama on a Tuesday.
But you tell them you are more than a hot comb and a wash and set, you are Kunta Kinte's kin.
You are a Black girl worth remembering.
And you are a threat knowing yourself.
You are a threat loving yourself.
You are a threat loving your kin.
You are a threat loving your children.
You Black girl magic, you Black girl fly, you Black girl brilliant, you Black girl wonder, you Black girl shine, you Black girl bloom, you Black girl, Black girl.
And you turning into a beautiful Black woman right before our eyes.
♪ [Cheers and applause] Hi, Mahogany.
Just like that?
This is where we are?
This is it.
What did your mom and dad named you?
My mother and father named me after my father, and so the "L" in in Mahogany L. Browne is his name, and I love him, but that is not my name.
My name is Mahogany.
And whose name is Browne?
That's a great question.
I don't know.
I named myself Browne after Rakim.
He had a rap song called "Mahogany."
"Her name is Mahogany.
Sister named Ebony."
I changed my name, quite honestly-- at first, it was for safety reasons.
I was doing poems.
My daughter was under the age of two.
And someone followed me home and came to the block that I lived on with my grandparents and just started asking for me by name, first and last name, because that's how I signed up on the open mic.
That was the moment of, "Oh, this is something different.
Like, I should probably protect myself, my kid."
So I asked my friends.
I need a name, a poetry name.
Give me something.
And someone said Sexual Chocolate.
I was like, funny.
Someone said Chocolate Thunder.
I was like, funny.
And then my girlfriend Marlene said Mahogany.
It was like, "Oh, like the movie and the wood and the poison."
Yes, I like this.
And so Mahogany was born.
And then you had a job, and you would write after work when you were a teenager.
What did you think you were doing when you were writing?
Were you processing the day, or were you preparing to be this person?
So I didn't start writing my own poems until after high school.
So I tried in high school AP Lit.
My English teacher said, "That kind of language is unacceptable, and you will not pass."
I was asked to remix a classic, and I said, "Remix?
Like with anything?"
She said, "Yeah."
I was like, "OK." So NWA remixed "Dante's Inferno."
Dude, I-- You want to see it.
I feel you, I do.
That's all I'm saying.
She was not playing with me that day.
And so that was the end of my time with poetry for about 5 years.
I came back at 21 at an open mic by a dare.
And I got a standing ovation for one of the worst poems I've ever written, and it changed my life.
To have folks stand up in the middle of a bar and applaud me and say, "Me, too" and, you know, and say, "I see you," that was enough, but I'd never had people stand up and like more of your story, please share.
And so that was, I think, the moment that crystallized that this is what I need to do, maybe not for a living because I don't know what that looks like-- I'd never known a poet in my lifetime at that point-- but I wanted to do it.
And so I worked two jobs.
And all the while, writing those poems.
I feel like some of your poems have started in like the most quotidian places, like the cost to get to Staten Island or the way a woman pulls a cigarette out of a cigarette case.
Do you think of it as like the art of noticing?
How do you describe what you're doing and why you're able to do it?
So what's funny is I only came to writing poetry through anger, sadness.
And after year 6, I was exhausted.
I was like, I'm not mad anymore.
I have a good life.
My daughter likes me.
You know, I have a partner, I like this writing thing.
How do I access the joy, how do I access the love?
And it was going to Cave Canem, this writing residency for Black poets, and studying under Nikky Finney and Terrance Hayes and Kwame Dawes and Eric Roberson, Toi Derricotte, where I realized the poem is in witness.
Just you're witnessing, observing.
And so I came back and I sat on my porch in Brooklyn next to the cigarette lady who sold loosies.
So she sells one cigarette at a time.
And I just sat next to her.
And I watched people who walked by.
And I just wrote a poem about her selling loosies.
And so then I'm into it.
I'm finding poets who have been archiving our joys and our woes and our loves all along.
And I decided this is-- this is the way.
I can't keep moving through the exhaustion and the fear and the anger.
I need it to be buoyant in some joy and some love and some life.
Can I ask what you were angry about?
Um, same things I'm angry about now, like Roe vs. Wade being overturned, being gentrified out of my neighborhood, not being able to afford to live in an apartment in Brooklyn and having to figure it out all over again, my father being incarcerated for the majority of my life.
That is still such a sore point.
The last time I saw him my daughter was one.
She's 24 now.
How was it?
Yeah, it's kind of--it's still surreal thinking about it.
I'm just--it's so far gone, and there's no movies that will ever encapsulate the last time you see someone.
There's not one film, there's not one book.
It happens new every single time.
And I think I'm still processing that.
Is that what poetry's for?
Is it to try to help us share things that are so difficult to put words on and then maybe connect with someone else over it?
The purpose is--is connection, but the purpose is also self-exploration, archiving.
We need to tell the truth.
The one thing we know about wars is the first people they take are the artists, right?
Because we're the ones that have a clear line of vision on what is happening.
We're gonna tell it like it is and not like it might be.
And you have folks who are, like, whoa, whoa, whoa, we can't rewrite this in the history books, which they do.
But, you know, the poem doesn't allow that, the art doesn't allow-- the art doesn't allow you to change it to benefit your position or your political stance.
More times than not, the art is there to remind us of where we-- what we survived.
It's like a document.
And so poetry feels like it's a part of that documentation.
Who I am today is not who I will be tomorrow.
It is a capsule at this moment right now, but also it's freeing being able to teach it with young people, being able to show them that their words and their stories and every dialect and all the slang is necessary.
When I was walking into these spaces as a teaching artist and these young people were like, "Oh I can say that?"
You can say whatever you want.
You can curse if you need to, but just be mindful.
If you're cursing, are you going to curse like that in front of your grandmother?
Like, I want that poem to be honest, not abusive, but I also don't want you to be fixed and muffled from whatever your truth requires to be told.
I'm thinking about that document thing and the truth that can be buried or preserved in poetry and art more broadly and book banning.
Make me a meme.
Two of my books ended up on the book banned list, but like I have friends whose books are being banned and not because they're not telling the truth, but because they're--because they're telling the truth.
The disrespect is because you don't like me speaking about what is actually happening, maybe you're benefiting from it, probably, but because you don't like that, now my book has to be banned to keep up this mirage.
Like, that's wild to me.
What I actually see when you say there's a banned book list is you're trying to censor and further marginalize the voices that have finally found their way to the sun.
So shame on you.
[Applause] So you published Amanda Gorman.
Yes, yes, I did.
Her first chapbook.
It was a part of the prize, as she was the inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles.
What did you see in Amanda Gorman that made you want to publish her?
Oh, her work is quite hopeful.
Like most young people, Amanda requires the reader to look within themselves and really deal with the parts of us that are silent when we see oppression.
But also offered us a glimpse of hope.
So, what they're talking about and what's moving me the most, I think, is a fearlessness.
I think adults are more concerned with how we'll be perceived, who will like, who will hire us.
And the young people, not only do they want to be heard, but they want to be remembered too.
We have a little speed round on "Tell Me More."
Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation.
Best live performance you've ever seen.
What was the last book that blew you away?
"Salvage the Bones," Jesmyn Ward.
If you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
To my daughter, love you, thank you.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Oh, "I'm Proud of My Daughter Because She Sustained."
What kind of woman was your mom?
I love my mom so much.
That woman, she... married very young.
And she left an abusive relationship.
Then she found another relationship in which I was a product of that relationship, which in turn became another abusive relationship.
And she loves PBS.
I promised her I'd tell.
My mom's a boss.
So all of these abusive relationships that she survived, she then turned to addiction because she was just trying to, I think, quiet the ghost.
And so after maybe 15, 16 years of addiction, she was reborn again, got clean.
She's living in San Diego.
She wasn't able to follow all of her dreams.
She had dreams of being a chef.
And I decided through her inability to follow her dreams that I must.
And so even though she's, you know, survived addiction, she survived these domestic abusive relationships, she raised 3 kids, she had to lose all of her things, her house, several cars, almost her life several times.
And now she's OK. She's in a great space where she gets to see her grandkids and me, and she gets to see these poems.
So she was fraught.
She was very sad.
But she still held so much love for her kids that I'm certain that's the only reason I survived.
[Applause] It's interesting how good you are at holding a complex version of this central person in your life.
And maybe that's part of what makes you a great poet is that you can include seemingly conflicting details in a single place.
It took time.
I wasn't always happy, because my mother fell into the addiction, a real slump, when I was 16, and I was kicked out.
She kicked me out the house because I was one of those kids-- All right, I watched a lot of Nickelodeon, Nick at Night, you know, after-school specials.
I thought I could save the world, right.
I was like, this is all gonna be OK. Just watch this dance move.
[Humming] Didn't work.
But what I kept moving through when I when I lost contact with her for a couple of years was a lot of anger.
So those were the poems that, you know, surfaced.
And when she got clean, there was hope.
And then, you know, as addictions go, it's a couple of times before someone, you know, really gets their bearings.
So my relationship with my mother did not really solidify again until I was in my thirties.
So I lost about 15 years, 16 years with her.
I got it now.
Yes, I do.
Yes, I do.
I'm very lucky.
And in that time of us being apart, I started to write "Redbone," which was the poetry collection I wrote, nominated for NAACP, and that was all about her and my father, because I was like, I'm so mad.
I love this woman, but I can't really deal because I feel like I'm being abused, right?
Like, it just is what it is.
She's not ready.
I can't help her.
I'm not a social worker.
She's going to need more help than I can offer.
How do I do this?
And it was through poems that I was able to, like, give her voice, because I couldn't listen, I couldn't hear anymore, and I don't even think she could hear herself at that point.
And so "Redbone" became this family investigation.
I was--I call it the Red Wine Chronicles on the low because I would give everybody drinks and then turn my recorder on and just be like, "So what happened then?"
[Laughter] So, I did that for about two years.
And then the poems came out.
And that was when I was able to humanize my mom.
I was able to forgive her for whoever I thought she should have been.
I was able to forgive her for who she was in those really rough moments because they weren't her, right?
They were the addiction, and it changed both of our lives dramatically.
You know, very far from writing from your own life, at the back of this beautiful book of poems called "I Remember Death By Its Proximity to What I Love," there's a list of resources, and it's the Bureau of Statistics, the Business Model of Private Persons, California Innocence Project, the Crime Report, Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Studies, "Inside the World's Toughest Prisons," and the "Orange County Register."
Why were those your sources?
Right before the pandemic, I received this amazing opportunity from the Art for Justice Fund to think about mass incarceration and its impact on my life.
And what I decided to do, because I had still not spoken to my father all these years, was investigate that rupture that the prison promised, right?
So instead of me just looking at "Redbone" and my mom's story and the abuse that was inflicted on her by my father, I wanted to look at the ways in which that was possible.
A lot of it had to do with him being locked up for the majority of his life.
A lot of it had to do with the way in which we incarcerate the people in their minds before we incarcerate their bodies.
This book itself, all of the poems are bordered by acronyms of prisons in California.
And so that was to remind us that, you know, even these words are detained.
Like, there's nothing that I'm able to speak that didn't need permission to be spoken, that may not see the light of day.
And those resources were the only ones that were available.
So we have a thing at "Tell Me More," it's called Plus One.
OK. And we ask people to-- it's almost like giving a toast to someone special that has really informed your thinking or filled you with joy.
Who is your plus one?
So, Nicole Sealey is a phenomenal writer.
She is the former Executive Director of Cave Canem, a poet, a professor, edited my last book of poems, which was 176 pages.
To which she said, "Mahogany, absolutely not.
"You cannot do this to the readers.
It's too much."
Give me a little more.
Like, you when you have a circle of folks that love you enough to tell you the truth, like, "I want you to do the best you can do," I think of her absolutely.
And she's one of those folks who is-- who she gives more than she ever receives.
So in one of your poems, you talk about how Black women are expected to carry a nation, but not have an opinion.
What I'mma say?
That's the truth.
We treat our women, specifically Black women, we treat them as if they have one role, and that's just to entertain.
Don't have a thought.
Don't have an opinion.
Don't push back.
You get to be here, and that's enough.
We're there to entertain and support, but as soon as we say, "I don't like this treatment.
"I don't like being spoken to this way.
"You can't touch my hair.
I won't vote for this," then it's like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up, little lady."
I do believe that more times than not we just assign roles to voices and marginalized bodies as support cast members and nothing else.
And if you decide, I want to be the main character in my life, then you are a threat and you're no longer a comrade.
And it's probably one of the worst attributes that this country has shown us.
We loved Dorothy Dandridge, we loved Billie Holiday as entertainment, but we mistreated them as Black women.
We mistreated them as human beings.
I think a little bit about fear and how it plays with oppression.
The oppressor, I mean, that's--that's one of their favorite tools is fear.
What I'll take from you, who I'll take from you.
I understand how fear can make us scared, small, sad beings.
And some of us have the power to withstand it, to stand up against it.
We even have communities, right, that have already been set up so that we are not working alone.
You feel like you're working in vacuum.
You feel like it's just me by myself so no one else would be affected and no one will care if I'm gone.
It's happening outside of the body, it's happening inside of the body, it's happened in our history.
So there are various ways in which we have to look through this lens of fear to even see ourselves clearly, which is nearly impossible.
And so I just, I continue to return to our elders who made it possible.
There was no less fear when Audre Lorde was here and writing about it.
There was no less fear when Harriet Tubman was here and marching and moving us forward.
No less fear when Fannie Lou Hamer was here and starting community banks.
So why now do I find myself being OK in this-- in this really beautiful cage.
It's an impossible life.
So I say to my young people often, walk through the fear.
So we have to step through it, name it, and step through it, because if we step through it, then we'll realize, "Oh, that's right.
I can get through this too."
[Applause] Mahogany Browne.
Corrigan: If you enjoyed this conversation, you'll love our episodes with Kevin Young, W. Kamau Bell, and Anna Deavere Smith.
They're all on PBS.org/kelly, or you can listen to them on my podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders.
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