“These little ones here are inspiring all of us, and they deserve to be seen and not just seen as a statistic. They’re universes. They are constellations, all on their own each and every one of them. They deserve a chance to be included in that sky too.” – Azure Antoinette on spending a year as a poet in residence at Global Scholars Academy
Azure Antoinette knows language. As a child, her mom bought her and her sister every volume of Encyclopedia Brittanica and made them read it “for fun.”
A commissioned poet who is called the “Maya Angelou of the Millennial generation,” Antoinette will work with students this year as a poet in residence at Global Scholars Academy, a charter school serving 100 percent students of color in Durham.
A global connection
Antoinette and Global Scholars Academy (GSA) connected through a former colleague, now GSA’s Managing Director, Brittany Curry. Antoinette and Curry met years earlier while both were working with Johnson & Johnson. Antoinette describes her connection with Curry as, “Regardless of whether or not you work together, spirit-wise, it feels good.”
Social media brought Curry and Antoinette back together after being out of touch for a few years. Antoinette has strong feelings about social media — see her poems — but a few months ago, she saw Curry posting about taking a new job at GSA. Intrigued, she reached out to Curry, and two months and a 24-hour flight later, Antoinette arrived at GSA from Australia.
Antoinette advocates for equity and art in education
From August 21st to the 25th, GSA hosted Antoinette for a “weeklong discussion on equity of opportunity in education and arts in education advocacy.”
The visit began with a special presentation by students to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in, a significant event for GSA because the school is located on the site of the protest.
At an all-school assembly, students role-played the court case where the seven protestors were found guilty of trespassing and fined $10. They then greeted Antoinette with a whole school recitation of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”
Following the presentation, Antoinette greeted students and spoke with parents who were there for the ceremony. Throughout the week, Antoinette met with students, teachers, board members, and other local community stakeholders to learn more about GSA and shape her role as a poet in residence this year.
On Thursday, August 24, GSA students, parents, and board members joined UNC students and faculty for a spoken word performance by Antoinette at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC Chapel Hill. Antoinette spoke about her background and performed her poem, “Humanity.”
Antoinette closed the visit by teaching a class on poetry for select UNC, NC Central University, and GSA students. GSA students Zakiyah Parker-Williams and Walter Banneman participated in the poetry class and loved every minute. As part of the class, Antoinette asked the students describe their lives in six words.
Parker-Williams described her life as exciting because, “If you were to step into my life for a Saturday, I would never be at home. I would probably be with my aunt or my grandma or my friends.” Banneman described himself as “funny, weird, and caring.”
Poet in residence
Over the past 10 years, Antoinette has worked with a number of schools across the country through a program she created called Poet Inside. She works with teachers and administrators to customize a program anywhere from six weeks to six months where she teaches students to express themselves through poetry and spoken word. Learning to express yourself and tell your own story is critical, she says:
“There’s very little that I can say makes me feel the way I feel about watching or witnessing a young person find their own voice. To be forearmed is to be forewarned, so when you’re given the tools and the resources to actually express yourself, that’s when the world changes.”
As for the staff and students at GSA, they are equally excited to have Antoinette as a poet in residence this year. Curry believes the partnership with Antoinette will accomplish two things: raise awareness of the great work being done by GSA students and staff and expose the students to someone like Antoinette. Access to Antoinette is important because to the students at GSA, Antoinette is “someone who looks like you, feels like you, is authentic, and understands what you’re going through and wants to communicate with you,” Curry said.
Miya Brown, assistant head of school at GSA, is excited to have Antoinette introduce the students to new forms of literature. GSA is working on improving literacy this year, so integrating non-narrative nonfiction like poetry will help build students’ literacy skills. She also said, “I’m excited that our kids are going to be able to speak with her, get to know her, and see that authors are real. They don’t get to see many authors.”
The head of school, Jason Jowers, said, “The biggest thing for me is I think it’s an excellent opportunity to expose our kids to some things — opportunities and careers — outside of what they would see in inner city Durham every day.” The staff has been working on integrating arts into their instruction, so he is also excited for the professional development his teachers will get working with Antoinette.
As for the students, they wish Antoinette could be there every day. When asked what she was most excited about for Antoinette’s year at the school, Parker-Williams said, “learning how to write a decent poem because I’m tired of having to write a poem starting with ‘roses are red.'” She likes writing poems because she can write whatever she wants. Bannerman said he is excited to learn how to write poems that are not “childish.” After hearing Antoinette’s poems, he decided he wanted to be a poet when he grows up.
“Do not let this universe regret you”
Antoinette graduated high school at 16 and college at 19. At the age of 24, she quit her job in human resources to pursue a career in poetry.
The turning point for her, she says, came while watching Def Poetry Jam with a box of wine on her couch after a long day at work. After hearing the words, “do not let this universe regret you,” she went in to her manager’s office the next day and quit.
Antoinette spent several years working multiple jobs, barely managing to get by while pursuing her poetry. She created the concept of a commissioned poet after presenting her first commissioned poem to the Tuskegee Airmen for President Obama’s inauguration.
Since then, she has combined her creative side with her business background and developed a niche for herself. She has worked with several Fortune 500 companies, taught poetry in schools, and performed for Maria Shriver, Oprah Winfrey, and the Obamas, among others.