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LITERATURE

Meet the student who made powerful poetry from a weak statement on racism

AJ Addae (above) reading her work at a slam poetry competition
AJ Addae (above) reading her work at a slam poetry competitionAJ Addae

When the killing of George Floyd made international headlines in May, universities in the United States rushed to release statements of solidarity with the Black community and anti-racism protesters. Northeastern University senior AJ Addae thought her college’s message missed the mark.

“The closure of our campus does not mean the closure of our minds,” read the statement, issued on June 1. “And we can never close our hearts.”

In response, Addae created a blackout poem by crossing out much of the message (the results look like a heavily redacted government document). The words she left read: “The distress of our lives, our minds, our hearts has required a different kind of work / I grew up torn apart / America is homicide / lift our voices.”

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Prompted by student organizers like Addae, Northeastern quickly put out an amended statement on June 3. Her poem was released to the world (via Twitter) on June 4. The university’s original message “beat around the bush and did not call for support of the Black community,” Addae said via phone this week from her hometown of Frisco, Texas. “It was just mostly a [Martin Luther King Jr.] quote, and the president talking about how he believes in America ... They can do better for us.”

AJ Addae wrote a blackout poem (above) from the Northeastern University president's June 1 email statement.
AJ Addae wrote a blackout poem (above) from the Northeastern University president's June 1 email statement.AJ Addae

This was far from the first time Addae, 20, used visual poetry to represent her perspective and the Black experience more generally. She is part of a large cohort of artists of color using their work to advocate for racial justice, solidarity, and change in Boston and beyond.

Still, Addae’s graphic style stands out. She said the drawings, scribbles, and videos that accompany her words attract a wider audience. “People have this conception about poetry that it’s hard to understand, which it is,” Addae said. “I just feel like the visuals are a great way to make it accessible. And poems deserve that component in order to help tell the story in an interactive way. That’s how they come to life.”

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For example, Addae’s poem “black people only write about the moon” features a green background, a giant orange circle, and understated lines. A video piece called “google for black girls” compiles her own searches since age 8 (including “photos of black girls” and “famous historical black women”). And a recent piece called “triple conc.” explores her Ghanaian heritage with the help of powerful voiceover and a slideshow of her brother’s photography.

“I speak and sand falls from my mouth,” it begins. “My fingers wrinkle the same way my mother’s do, my tongue does not.”

"black people only write about the moon" by AJ Addae
"black people only write about the moon" by AJ AddaeAJ Addae

Poetry is Addae’s forte, but so is design, activism, and medicine.

Since high school, she has held leadership positions in Black student groups and helped organize demonstrations to push institutions for greater equity. High school is also when she started participating in slam poetry competitions and self-published a book, “Forget Me Knots,” at age 17. Now a college senior majoring in biology, Addae continues to stand as a voice for progress — all while applying to medical school.

Eventually, she plans to veer into dermatology. Addae said she wants to engineer skincare products and help repair healthcare disparities that affect the Black community.

Her artistic and scientific ambitions co-exist on separate paths. “They don’t intersect at all,” she said. “But I love science. I think science is very important, and I think it can be used in a way that can bring about social change.”

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At the same time, she is “extremely online,” as she put it, frequenting Instagram and Twitter to find her fill of inspiring activism and art. Social media is also an outlet for her humor, her fashion sense, and her indelible charm. Addae also uses her favorite platforms to promote two additional creative endeavors: a beauty-oriented newsletter and a podcast.

Thanks to her social media following, she had the clout to attend a meeting Wednesday with Northeastern president Joseph Aoun and upper administration. There, a contingent of Northeastern student leaders and activists sought reforms to mental health resources and the campus police department, as well as improvements to Black student life as a whole.

“We all look at our roles in the revolution, for lack of a better word. And we tend to be told that being on the front lines is the way to do it," she said. "But I feel like sharing art and sharing experiences and sharing voice ... is a way of organizing, a way of contributing.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.