The 19th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards
The 2018 Honorable Mentions
High School Poetry
High School Prose
You who descend with cries of injustice
Ablaze with your torches and “American pride”
You wave your flags, black, red, and jagged,
You will not replace us
Words tear open our age-old scars,
Jews will not replace us
Faith hangs overhead like guillotine blades.
You who ripped our people from the world
All the while laughing “Where is your God now?”
We had no answer, no explanation,
Shema Yisrael, Hashem Eloheinu
Left on our lips as we stared down your barrels,
Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God
Torn from our throats when you barred shower doors.
You who screamed about your legacy
I wonder if you understand mine
For we bear the pain of your past and your present,
The burden I carry is the legacy I inherited,
Blood and soil
The hatred you fester is the legacy you chose.
I Saw Two Girls Holding HandsNaviya Singla
I saw two girls holding hands
A curly haired, Brown girl in red hoodie
with a naked, grinning mole rat printed
A Chinese, straight haired girl with bangs,
in a white blouse that had diamonds with
chocolate centers on it
grasping fingers in a moment
that felt like raindrops balanced recklessly
dangerously, on the edges of petunias on
the sidewalk, bouncing
and I just wanted,
I wanted so much to
hold someone’s hand
like that Beatles’ song
I just wanted to feel the tips of their fingers
to their palm –to pulse –to all the skin in between
I wanted so much
to drink cups of chai with her in the rain
to sing Hindi love songs to her
and to live where I could hold her hand
without causing anyone pain
I wanted so much
that I doubled up, and vomited my heart
onto the sidewalk wrapped in a bow
and a note for someone to find
and take home, signed ‘Love, Naviya’
To The Boy Who Only Dates Asian GirlsBy Julia Hou
Yes, my eyes do disappear
when I laugh wide, and my hair
does have a bit of an exotic
glow. Yes, I am beautiful,
thank you for asking, I’d love
to be your sex toy and your fetish.
Yes, I sit when I’m told, I scare
easy, you could threaten me
with a carving knife and a story
about how you deported the last
girl you slept with and I’d fold, though
I’m not an immigrant but the daughter
of two, and sometimes my home
feels like a foreign language
tangled up in silence—misconstrued
every time. Yes. Yes. Cut me
open and you’ll find blood washed
clean of red. Tease out the mangled
Mandarin from my throat and replace
it with fluent English. Fluent
betrayal. Yes, I love the fresh
lies on your lips, the hunger
in your eyes—you’ve met
a lot of me, haven’t you? We
lost Asian girls, ready
to kneel before an emperor.
Are You a Fan of Dark Chocolate?By Anjana Murali
Brown. In the diverse community that I now live in, the color of my skin usually goes unnoticed. However, when I first came to the United States, my skin color gave me much more trouble than I bargained for. On September 4, 2001, I started my education in a new country as the first child of color to attend a public school in Helena, Montana. As a shy kid, my social skills were not the best for making new friends, but my classmates didn’t make it easy for me either. Most of them ran away from me as if I had a disease. One girl even asked if I was made of chocolate. Having not yet developed a palate for dark chocolate, I took that comment as the worst insult possible. That night, I asked my mother to buy me lotion to turn my skin white so I would fit in better with my classmates. As you can imagine, this request did not go over well with my mother. She couldn’t understand why I was ashamed of my brown skin. My mother didn’t have to wait long to find out why.
When the 9/11 attacks occurred a week later, the small Indian community in Montana became a scapegoat for the event—our car windshields were smashed, we couldn’t go grocery shopping without getting harassed, and people verbally threatened us to go back to, “where we came from.” To say it was a culture shock would be a bit of an understatement; fearing their lives, several of the Indian families quickly booked a one-way ticket back to India. After all, as immigrants, we were expecting America to greet us with new opportunities and a better life, not with death threats and broken glass.
To combat the discrimination, my mother decided to raise awareness about our culture through educational booths at the annual fair. This gave the Helena community an opportunity to reevaluate their impressions of us and experience traditional Indian food, clothing, music and dance. You could say the Indian community became quite famous after our first exposure at the annual fair, and at school, I had more friends than I could count. But my mother was adamant about us not remaining compliant with our new social positioning. Real change takes time and persistence. The importance of cultural diversity should never be forgotten; its message needs to be spread every year. As a result, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2002, my family started a new tradition of our own. We went to different school districts and community centers and sang peace songs. Over the years, we gathered a troupe to celebrate the day and spread our message of love and peace. One of my favorite songs from the repertoire was one that my mother penned in honor of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. The song, inspired by the “I Have a Dream Speech,” is called “Life is a Rainbow” and is set to the tune of “Ragupati Ragava Rajaram,” Gandhi’s favorite Indian devotional song. The words emboldened the community we lived in to not let the color of our skin prevent us from being friends. At the end of the day, we are all just one race; we are the human race.
After my experiences in Montana, I realized how hard it is for an immigrant child to adapt to a new country, and I didn’t want any other child to face the same hardships that I had to face. When my family later moved to Wisconsin, I was inspired by my mother’s activism to become a community leader. With a newfound realization of the difficulties of cultural assimilation and the importance of education in dissipating ignorance, I founded a homework help program for the neighborhood immigrant children. When these children came to my house, I helped them finish their school work and study for tests, and taught them the American way of life. For example, one of my students was getting bullied at school for being “smelly” and I taught her how to use deodorant and maintain personal hygiene. Another student didn’t know what a sleepover was and wanted to know if she should go to one. I was able to ease that student’s concern and convince her that a sleepover is a good social experience.
The impetus for my community leadership has been, and continues to be, my life experiences in Montana. Being exposed to discrimination at such a young age, I was motivated to enact change as a youth leader. To empower other youth to do the same, my sister and I co-founded a non-profit organization called Educate Engage Empower Inc. in 2015. After our Wisconsin community suffered a series of bullying-related suicides, my sister and I started conducting anti-bullying workshops for youth through this organization. By sharing our stories and life experiences with them, we were able to show that it is never too late to make a difference. The future lies in the hands of youth, and it is up to us to speak up and act if we see something wrong with society. Since then, we have conducted more than twelve camps in the United States and India to help people feel more confident about their appearance. I strive to create a future in which people celebrate one another not for their body size or color, but for their identities and beliefs that lie underneath the skin. A rainbow doesn’t just come out after rainstorms; if trained well, you see its beauty each and every day. Oh and by the way, it took sixteen years, but I’m a fan of dark chocolate these days.
High School Poetry
To My Mother Who Tells Me To Cover UpBy Madeline Figas
Under New York subways,
you and I wait
for empty trains with yellow
lights. You glance
at the man
who grins like littered
gum, the one
who leans against the tile
like a happy customer.
You look back at my bare arms
and trace the skin to my collar bones.
Mom, you teach me to turn a crop top
into a sheet,
like swapping skin for stone,
empty for hollow.
Tell me how to smile
at the interview, but
not at the men whose heads hang from car windows,
the ones with grainy whistles.
Mom, I want you to know,
you for not soaking the world
Because you grew up
in Miami, with sticky men,
and neighbor boys with red Jeeps
where the front seats leaned all the way back.
And yes Mom, sometimes
that my chest is public domain,
that to cat-callers,
and subway men,
I’m a swallowable
stretch of skin.
But I’ll always remember
when my friends teased,
my parents would kill me
if I wore what you do.
Your parents, I said,
should meet my mother.
White NoiseBy Nika Gill
Staccato murmurs in the T station
as her olive hands stroke mine, red and blue
polish has chipped over the week. We are numb,
we are blistered and flaking.
As the first snow of the month
melts our eyelids, we will take
these touches to our graves.
I know she will never come over—
I imagine my mother’s face—
the bare minimum. We keep an arm’s length
but stay close, out of selfish necessity,
the salt from her fingers erodes
my shivering. Flies make trails
of sound downtown, we have grown comforted
by disgust, assured that it will linger. Its essence is weightless.
When I think of my mother’s verbal sewage, it is senseless.
I have seen more density in her stare.
Shaking trees take residence
in our cratered brains, mistaken for white
noise, we keep an arm’s length
but hold on tightly,
as tightly as we can.
How I Became a MinoritySuhail Gharaibeh-Gonzalez
I didn’t notice I was shrinking
until, one morning, I could give my mami a kiss
without bending down. Then, a silver ring
jangled off my finger, fell into a grate on Liberty Avenue.
I woke up and my feet no longer dangled
over the edge of the bed. Screens thrummed,
a factory of speech—how crassly he spoke of us.
The Mexicans, the Mexicans. I watched the boorish debates.
(His hair was the color of corn;
it trembled with his own rage.)
I read every interview, I saw every tweet.
My shoes were suddenly two sizes too big.
After years of this, I became weary.
The damage became irreversible.
How I longed for the person I was before
the election, before the campaign,
before speeches and neckties
the color of fresh blood.
Before every day became a wake,
every night a funeral (we, the dearly deported.)
When that November turned on its spine
I was a monarch, homebound, floating
with the river’s southerly dust, into the flat red
of the border. I disappeared into the heady autumn!
And the people were silent. Gorged
on their own complacency. Bored of resistance,
they let America
be shorn of me. Was it left
better off without me? Tell me—
is it great again?
High School Prose
FootballBy Elijah Parks
October 7, 2016 was just supposed to be another normal out of conference game for the Allderdice Dragons…so we thought. At the time, I was starting free safety for the team and unfortunately I was hurt from a previous game where I received a high ankle sprain. Nonetheless, the team and I prepared for this game like we do every other game. We started off by having our team meal, then continued to wait for our buses. Once the buses arrived we loaded up, got a pre-ride speech from the coaches, then put our headphones on and endured the three hour long drive to Hollidaysburg.
We were scheduled to play them for their homecoming game and as we arrived that’s exactly what it seemed like. Streets were filled with residents waiting to get into the stadium to watch the game. Things weren’t really going well for us when we first arrived. We were booed for a short period of time as our bus backed into the parking lot, past the trucks with Confederate flags hanging in them. The fan theme they had planned was hunting gear, which immediately seemed sketchy to me and some of my teammates because it was unheard of to do that. However, we end up just letting it go and not thinking much of it.
Later on, as the team went out to stretch and warm up, I stayed back to let the team trainer look at my ankle some more. I walked out about five minutes late so I had to walk through a crowd of fans to get to the gate that lets you onto the field. As I maneuvered through the crowd I could hear the people whisper, saying, “Uh oh, you better hold onto your purse, it’s one of them again.” As a junior in high school at the time, I didn’t let it affect me much because I’ve learned to let petty comments such as that go. However, later on, as the team warmed up, a ball was overthrown and ended up near the other team’s crowd close to the student section, and as me and my teammate went to get the ball we could hear some of the students say: “Yeah get that ball, boy,” and others say “Way to fetch that ball.” My teammate began to scream at the crowd, but I calmly pulled him back to our side of the field.
Throughout the actual game, as I was standing on the sideline due to my injury, I was ball boy for the team, meaning I stood closer to the field than the rest of the team and handed the refs our footballs when we were on offense. Being this close I was able to overhear an argument between another of my teammates and a ref over a call which ended up with the ref telling my teammate to “get out my face, boy.” At this point I was appalled seeing that even the refs seemed to be racist and showing favoritism to Hollidaysburg. Further into the game, another of my teammates was complaining to our coaches of how a player for Hollidaysburg called him a nigger. Our coaches tried to calm him down and talk to the refs about what’s going on but all the refs said is “We didn’t hear any such things.”
The next play, we were punting the ball, and my teammate who complained about being called a nigger snapped the ball and rushed down the field to the person receiving the ball, who was the same kid who called him a nigger, but he called for a fair catch—meaning no one can touch him and once he catches the ball the play is dead. My teammate didn’t slow down or even think about it. He hit the kid with all his might knocking his helmet off. Although it’s illegal in football, my teammate said he didn’t care. However, he ended up getting ejected from the game and couldn’t play.
At the end of the game, as the clock wound down, and Hollidaysburg celebrated their victory over us, I heard a viewer scream out, “Way to send those niggers home packing, even that injured nigga.” I clearly knew the last statement was meant for me as I was the only injured player on my team at the time, and it was noticeable, as I was leaning on a crutch. As I turned to see if I could spot who said it, my coach wrapped his arm around me assisting me to the bus and said, “Don’t you listen to these cowards, it’s easy for them to say things at a safe distance, and you can’t let their meaningless words get to you because then you let them feel accomplished.”
This was one game I will never forget, even if I wanted to.
The Struggles of a HispanicBy Brayant Garcia
While I was taking a nap in my mom’s car, I jolted from the car’s suspension. Through the sudden jolt and confusion, I tried to figure out where I was. The GPS said that the car was currently in the middle of Pennsylvania, heading east to the lovely state of New Jersey. The map showed a bright red chevron surrounded by a sea of beige, following a blue line that seemingly stretched forever. I looked around and was amazed at the sheer beauty of the countryside. To my left stood a monstrous mountain, several hundred times larger than me. On it, the combination of orange and yellow trees during the fall turned this once-stone-gray mountain into what can be best described as a fluffy giant filled with life. To my right, a towering cliffside was covered with netting to prevent rocks from falling onto the highway, potentially posing a threat to any vehicle passing. While gazing towards the beauty of the outside, I felt the car suddenly begin to slow down to the exit. My mom said to me, “We are low on fuel. There’s a gas station over here.”
Inside, I became a bit nervous, not necessarily because I had to go help with filling the tank, but because of who my mother is. Born in the Dominican Republic, my mother came to the United States to achieve a better life than what was being offered back home. Her parents lived in the rural mountainside, living day by day in the fields of the small nation. Currently, she was picking up her son nearly 300 miles away from her home in New Jersey, possibly going to the most western area that her family has ever visited in the United States. Her English has improved with time, but she still uses the distinct Spanish dialect that is normal to me. With the current elections and the ensuing events, being a Hispanic out in the country made me slightly worried. Once in awhile, I saw such lovely things as a Confederate flag, or even a “Make America Great Again!” hat worn by a passerby. Across the internet I saw hatred blossom online; videos were spreading of people yelling at Hispanics out in public. At first I did not worry because I did not take such a threat that seriously; after all, I didn’t really like to believe the news and thought of those stories as just crazy examples in places that would not affect me. As the months came, however, I was proven wrong in my prediction. Such signs worry me, because I worry about what the person that expresses those opinions may do to my mother. Will they verbally berate her as though she is an animal? Will they even try to hit her? Most importantly, can I stand up for her in case something happens?
As I placed the hose into the gas tank and started refueling, she strutted inside. I started to become jittery, wondering why she went inside the gas station and what she was doing. A minute passed, and I became a bit nervous. What did she get? Why was it taking her so long? Who else was inside there? I grew more anxious second-by-second, until Click! The tank was full, but she still hadn’t come out. I took a step to try to see if anything had happened. Suddenly, she walked out, looking carefree. There was no one behind her, and I sighed in relief, knowing that I had worried for nothing. We hopped into the car and were finally on our way back home. While we were exiting the station, I turned around to catch a glimpse of the gas station one last time. It was deserted just as it had been when we entered; there was no movement outside, nor were there any cars. A breeze blew by, gently touching the blades of grass that surrounded the stone-grey concrete. It was a solemn building in the middle of nowhere. We entered the ramp, and the engine roaring as it gained speed. I closed my eyes and plugged in my headphones, wanting to rest before we arrived back home. We were safe now; all we needed to do was follow the GPS.
“Honey,” my mom said to me, “Do you want to sleep a little bit?”
“Sure, Ma,” I replied. “I’m just gonna nap for a little.”
With that, I dozed off into a deep slumber, finally resting in peace.
Love Isn't Skin ColorBy Aaliyah Thomas
Is there a correct way to tell someone you’re not adopted? A correct way to tell those nosy children on the playground who don’t understand why you’re calling a blonde white girl sister? Sometimes you think telling them you’re adopted would be easier. It’d save the trouble of telling them your mom had four kids with three guys.
I hate the looks they give me. Their hazel eyes gazing into my own. Bigotry hiding between closed lips, stinging their tongues with words yearning to spill. They hold back vulgar opinions and instead look at me with eyes that whisper the words they wish they could say.
Curled brown hair with creamy skin, a perfect person made out of the perfect skin, her name was Marissa. She had eyes that were knives, that often cut me. Every day, after school, she waited at Brookline playground for me. To cut down the courage I had built up, the feelings I managed to hide.
My mom would offer to take us to the park, her kindness radiating off her perfectly porcelain skin. My “No” was often muffled under my siblings’ “Yes.” She’d stay in the car, hiding from the soccer moms. I wanted to too, but wasn’t given the privilege.
My siblings never stayed with me in the park. Jimmy and Colby would run off to the baseball field and bum a bat off the local boys. Michele would cling to a group of girls wandering around, and they’d often sit in the orange tube, braiding each other’s hair.
I’d stand alone, leaning up against a frail maple tree, and count the seconds until we left. Sometimes, I swore Marissa had trackers on the heels of my shoes. She’d find me and invite me up to the basketball court with the rest of the cool kids. She’d pour acceptance into a cup with holes poked in it and drop cubes of friendship in. She’d lie right through her white teeth.
Michele’s eyes would find me across the court. She’d stray from her group of white mice and find me, the black rat sitting in the corner.
“How do you know her?” Marissa asked, playing with a strand of her hair.
“She’s my sister,” I said, wrapping my tan arm around Michele’s little figure.
Marissa’s eyes darted between Michele and I, mouth parting for a moment, rosy pink lips, her sharp tongue hiding behind them. I hated the laughter that followed. Michele tensed her shoulders, hating the look even more than I did.
“Are you adopted?”
Sometimes, when I’m in my room alone, wondering how I ended up being so different from my family, I question their love for me.
What’s it like for a white woman raising a black child? Wading through the feelings of love and hate? She hates the attention she gets from it and yet loves me unconditionally. What’s it like knowing people constantly judge you? My mom likes to say she doesn't care, but I know that glint in her eyes when people ask me questions. When I confess to her that I feel so alone, so lost in my color, in my roots.
When I met my father’s side of the family, I didn’t understand why I still felt different. I always pictured myself fitting in with a black household. I mean, I didn’t fit in with my white mom and my white siblings, so I had to fit in with my black side. But yet again, I was wrong and left wandering through fields of loneliness. I had to choose. Black or white.
A white man raising a black child doesn’t know how to comfort his daughter. My stepdad, who raised me since I was five, loves telling me the sun just likes to shine down on me a little longer—that I’m just a little darker because I suck in sunshine faster. He’d grab my forearm and put mine beside his and say, “Look! We’re the same color.” No matter how many times I’d disagree, he’d swear we were. It made my heart ache at how hard he was trying to make me feel accepted, how hard he was trying to make me feel like I belonged. He didn’t have to, but he did and I’ll always remember it.
It isn’t my parents’ fault they feel this way. It’s the bystanders, the people who play a role in this never-ending scene of prejudice.
I’m not adopted. I’m 80 pounds of white and 80 pounds of black. I have white-girl hair. The kind that never grows but is silk to the touch. I have full lips but not plump. My nose is skinny but I have large nostrils and my heart is torn between two colors because I can’t chose one. I have black friends and white ones. But my mixed self can’t find a place among both sides. So, I’m left with the ultimate question of who.
Due to the high number and quality of the overall submissions, we also recognize the following students for the best entries from their schools:
Fox Chapel High School: “Unapologetic” by Ilhaam Husain
Westinghouse High School: "Colorless Flurry" by Shane Reese
Woodland Hills High School: "From Birth" by Andre Hilliard
Cardinal Wuerl High School: “I am a Woman” by Isabella Iozzi
Andrew Street High School: “Shades of America” by Tiara Tabb
The Neighborhood Academy: “My Broken History” by Bryant Jordan
Perry High School: “The Absence Of Color-Driven Hatred” by Aniyah Horne
The Ellis School: “Chasm” by Lauren Jasper
Oakland Catholic High School: “The Tower of Babel” by Yueyi Gu
Shadyside Academy: “You Better Aim it at the Sky” by Elijah Roberts
University of Pittsburgh: “ To My Dad's Girlfriend” by Elsa Eckenrode
Seton Hill University: “Taboo” by Emma Steeg