To Say or Not to Say?- Afi Koffi

To Say or Not to Say

During my freshman year, I got into an altercation with a student during African American History. The topic was police brutality. A classmate of mine opened her mouth, I prepared for the worst, and said, “Black men are always getting shot because they are always up to something.”

As I pressed my teeth into my tongue, attempting to be less dominating as I was often called, I wondered how someone could sound so empty-headed. Nevertheless, I let her continue.

“So look, my family and I were in church one day and a black man came in who was intimidating so someone shot him.”

Now, how could I have been expected to keep calm and not respond to that?

Without even waiting to be called on, I said, “Do you think about things before you open your mouth? Firstly, you couldn’t give me an example of a black man who was unreasonably shot by the police. Instead, you told a story about how your people shot a man who walked into your church. How is that supporting your point? What was intimidating about him in church? Was he singing too loud? Praying to intensely? God, when are you people going to admit that you have an irrational fear of black people? When are you going to admit that you’re the problem? Like…”

I was interrupted by my history teacher, “That is enough Afi.” But it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t nearly done, but I let it go.

Later on, my teacher had the nerve to approach me and say, “Afi, what you did today was unacceptable. I didn’t appreciate it at all. The next occurrence of this will result in a progress note.” I was stunned. I was on the verge of getting a progress note for speaking my mind. While the other student, who basically confessed to being racist, or prejudiced at the least, and shooting a black man who came to her church, didn’t receive any backlash. It’s experiences like that that molded me into a less assertive, less honest version of myself because I felt that my words would bring my downfall.

To say or not to say? That has always been a question. Ever since I was young, I’ve gotten into trouble for saying too much. I was raised to always speak my mind, finding inspiration from my outspoken mother. I thought it was so cool how fearless she was. Because of her fearlessness when it came to speaking her mind, she became someone to rely on because of her honest--sometimes brutally honest--truths. But as life continued and after repeatedly being told to be less aggressive and less angry, I was made compromising, self-belittling, and conventional.  

Feeling constricted, I needed something to enlighten me. At the time, though, I didn’t know what it would be. Poetry was something that found me because the idea of poetry never even crossed my mind. To my surprise, it has worked, over the past few years, as an outlet for me to express my opinions without interruptions and get things off my chest. Shortly after my confrontation with my history teacher outside of room 307, a friend of mine approached me with a strange proposition.

“Hey Afi,” she said, “I need a favor.” A favor, of course, I thought. Could anyone give me a break? I was annoyed but a managed to utter, without sounding too irritated, a simple,

“What do you need, Bea?”

“I’ve been meaning to go to poetry club. I think it’d be fun and Mr. Kay is running it. Cool, right?” I was searching for a point as she continued, “I think it’d be nice for both of us.” I must’ve given her a face because she finished slowly asking, “They have a meeting tomorrow. Will you come with me?”

“Are you saying this because you really think it's nice for us or are you just afraid of going alone?”

“Both, I guess. Come on, please!” I figured it couldn’t hurt. Maybe a change of scenery was what I needed to get out of the horrible mood I was in.

“Sure, until tomorrow then.” The next day, I dragged my feet through the school day and when 3:05 hit on that Tuesday in January, I found Bea and we walked towards room 309. Mr. Kay’s room is, arguably, the coziest in the entire school. He has couches and blankets and tons of kids in there all the time. So when I walked in, I immediately felt loads better. After the first meeting, filled with ice-breakers, brainstorms, and talk of competition, I understood that poetry club was the place to be. There were times where I wasn’t sure of myself at all. I didn’t think I was as good of a writer or performer as everyone else. With encouragement, practice, and teamwork, I improved. In April of my freshmen year, with my best friend, Zoey Tweh, I wrote Corduroy. This piece pushed me beyond my boundaries. The piece was written from the perspective of a corduroy bear who loses his owner, Lisa, a little girl, to an incident of police brutality.

There are little girls like Lisa everywhere

In Philly

In Detroit

In the Southside of  Chicago

They are not America’s children

They trespassed in their own homes

Their melanin a badge of its own

A temptation for white men in blue uniforms to forget protocol

Their joy, their presence, their potential

Replaced with teddy bears like me

Yellow caution tape is just as common as jump ropes

They wrap around entire communities

until our breath buckles into submission


They have forgotten what it feels like to bury a child

To send their kids to school

praying that they will return home

To report them missing and never get an answer

To call the police and never receive justice

Because to have a black child is to be left in the dark

Avoiding the flashlights as best you can

They have taken too many childhoods

Leaving nothing

But the remnants of  lonely Corduroys

Like me

Corduroy was unlike any piece I had ever written. Police brutality and gun violence were always issues that I wanted to discuss but I never thought about writing it like that. Though that isn’t the first piece of my poetry career, it is the one that showed me the power of poetry.

Two years later, I am still a part of the poetry club and I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. Poetry and performing have changed my character for the better. Not only has poetry given me a way to talk about what I want to but it’s allowed me to bring awareness to the things that are important to me. Poetry has allowed me to unearth and expose topics like race relations in America, the ineffective combination of social media and protest, police brutality and the current romanizing and “trendiness” of the African Culture to the world. Poetry has challenged my writing in a way that allows me to craft different tones and personas at my leisure. Poetry has given me a way to find that balance between saying too much and saying too little. It’s been effective, but recently, I’ve been thinking about whether I really needed it. Maybe I wasn’t the problem. Maybe the world needed to change. I believe that we, as people, have found ways to censor people in ways that can be problematic. Everyone should feel that their opinions matter and should be allowed to introduce new ideas to groups. The self will generally change to fit into what the world demands of it. Sometimes, though, the self finds ways around what the world’s expectations like I did with poetry. The world should change for us, not the other way around.

Comments (3)

Naima DeBrest (Student 2019)
Naima DeBrest

I really enjoyed reading this piece and it really took me on a whole journey. You brought me back to the history class when the student made those comments and how angry we were. Then you brought right to Freedom Theater and I remember exactly where I was sitting and how proud I was of you and Zoey when you performed "Corduroy". Your techniques worked extremely well in this essay.

Weston Matthews (Student 2019)
Weston Matthews

This is a great piece! I love how you explain why poetry is meaningful to you in a way that uses a personal backstory. It's not like you're just lecturing or preaching about the good of poetry, the reader can tell that this actually means a lot to you. I learned about your passion for writing! Very nice

I think your essay techniques work very well. Good linear reflection. I think another one that works well is your dialogue. It is short and simple and the reader does not get lost in it. You keep it meaningful

Afi Koffi (Student 2019)
Afi Koffi

My personal techniques:

Framing- It's something I'd never down before and I thought it would add something to the piece. I added an excerpt from the poem I referenced in the piece, Corduroy.

TImeline- I always write chronologically. So I tried to avoid that by including flashbacks and reflection pieces that reference the past. My piece started in my freshmen year, then jumped to when I was a young child, then back to my freshman year, then present day.