Portrait of an Artist: Najya A. Williams

Najya Williams
Courtesy of Ashley Harriott

The Harvard Crimson: Talk to me about turning your poetry into an actual book. What was it like to make that decision, and how did you go about choosing your poetry and your themes?

Najya A. Williams: So I’ve always been a little nervous about putting my work completely out there, because it opens you up not only to praise, but to criticism. And I knew that I had some pretty radical ideas in here. With the time that we’re living in, especially now, it can not only be very vulnerable, but very dangerous—just putting yourself out there as someone who is stepping out against society’s norms.

In the new year, January of this year, I thought, “You know what? Before 2017 is done and over with, I’m going to put this out there.” And so I went back through the poetry that I wrote over the course of high school, mostly my junior and senior year, and I just handpicked different poems that really resonated with me and other people. I wrote new poems as well, to put in here. Once I looked up from compiling, I had 30 poems, and I was like, “Oh my gosh! How did this happen? How did I, like, have 10,000 words’ worth of poetry just all compiled and ready to go?”

THC: Do you feel a social obligation to reach out to people with poetry? Or is this about making art? Is it both? Talk to me about the tension between the two.

NAW: I think it very much started as healing. That was my way to work through grief. And after a while I was like, even if I can’t be on the front lines in Missouri, in New York, in California, in Florida, in all of these different places where really high-profile cases of police brutality and racial discrimination are taking place … even if I can’t be on the front lines, it’s my responsibility to make sure that I’m getting the message across to people.

I was always told that there’s going to come a point in time, where if you work hard enough, your words will reach places that you may not ever visit. And I think that this will give me the perfect avenue to make sure that the message gets disseminated to people across the world and not just where I’m living. It’s hard because a part of me is like, this is really private, these are my thoughts, this is super vulnerable and personal. At the same time, I don’t have the privilege of just sitting and letting certain things happen—as a black woman, as a woman of color—and not speaking out about it. I think I’m doing not only a disservice to the other black women who are facing similar prejudices and discrimination but also a disservice to myself, as someone who hopes to get married someday and have kids. I’d have to explain to them “Oh, I had the opportunity to do something, but I didn’t do it.”

THC: You’re writing about some really heavy things here! How do you deal with that emotionally? Is it ever psychologically hard for you to write?

NAW: Absolutely. Most of my poems come to me very spontaneously. I don’t use prompts; I’ve only used prompts maybe once or twice, and I didn’t end up very satisfied with it. Most of my poems come to me around 11:00, 12:00 at night and I can’t sleep. Literally, even if I am dog tired, I can’t sleep until I have written it out. And then sometimes, something will happen in the media, something will happen where it hits really close to home, and I’m like, I can’t write about this right now. I can’t talk about it right now. Specifically, I wrote a poem called “Tongue” and it’s talking about my feelings after the election. I wrote it over the summer, which was at least six months after the election. I did not talk about it, I did not write about the election, I did not want to acknowledge who was in the office. I still have trouble acknowledging who’s in the office right now. I think that drawing the line between, “Yes, this can be self care,” and also recognizing that the things I’m venting about can be toxic, is the key to making sure that I’m not psychologically and emotionally burnt out by the work that I’m doing.

THC: So going back to social activism for a moment, what do you want people to do? How do we change things right now?

NAW: That’s a wonderful question. I think number one, acknowledge that there are problems that exist in this society. I think one of the biggest things that I take issue with right now is the fact that a lot of people think that we live in a post-racial society. It’s only because of who we have in office that we’re realizing, “Wait a minute. We’re not in a post-racial society!” And so many activists like myself and others have said we were never in a post-racial society.

The second thing would just be to listen, instead of coming into the space saying, “Oh, I’m just going to fix it by doing what I think would be okay”—listening to the communities that are oppressed. I would say personally, what I would ask of you is just to tap into your network. Educate others, and tell them to support organizations that are championing women’s causes, African American causes, immigrant causes. Think of all the people you know and then tell them, and then they think of all the people they know and tell them—you can imagine it keeps going. The small impact that you made directly can blossom into something monumental.

It could also be being on the front lines, holding a picket sign, or holding a banner in front of a march and saying, “I stand in solidarity.” Or staging a protest—or you know, it doesn’t even have to be as radical as that. It could be writing an op-ed about what you think. There are a lot of different things that can be done, there’s a lot of things that you can do specifically, and that readers can do specifically on this campus. Anyone in the world—anyone who doesn’t necessarily identify as a member of an oppressed community—can do a lot of different things, whether it’s tapping into their network, or putting in their time and money and resources. Or any mixture of the above!