by Janny Castillo
Editor’s note: The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty has been observed since 1993, when the United Nations General Assembly designated this day to promote awareness of the need to eradicate poverty in all countries. Janny Castillo, Hope and Justice Coordinator for St. Mary’s Center, delivered these remarks at the Oakland observance of the International Day in October 2014.
In my work as an organizer, I share stories that have inspired me. I would like to share one of these stories now. I will speak in her words because her words are best.
1931 — Somewhere in America
When I was three and my brother was five, my mother and father separated. Neither of them wanted us. But my grandmother said, “send them to me.”
My grandmother was very smart and wise. She owned the only black-owned store in a really small town.
When I was seven, we were taken away from her. We were picked up and taken to St. Louis to my mother’s people. We tried to learn and become city kids but it was hard. When I was seven, something terrible happened. I was sexually attacked by my mother’s boyfriend.
I told my brother, even though the man said that he would kill him. But my brother was “kingdom come” to me, and he told me he wouldn’t let himself be killed. My brother told the family and the man was put in jail for one day and one night. Then he was released.
Then two huge policemen came into my mother’s house. My brother and I were playing a game on the living room carpet. The policemen looked like giants. They told my mother that the man who attacked me had been found dead. He had been kicked to death.
I thought my voice had killed him. That was my seven-year-old logic, so I stopped talking. My mother’s family did their best to help me, but they did not know what I knew, that my voice could kill.
Finally, they got tired of the presence of this mad, sullen, silent child so they sent me back to my grandma. That was the best thing that could have happened. My grandma bought me a five-cents tablet and tied a pencil on it. I kept the tablet tied to my waist band, so if anybody asked what I thought, I would write it.
Grandma’s friend, Ms. Flowers, knew that I didn’t speak. There was a library about one-tenth the size of the library in the city. Ms. Flowers said, “I want you to read all the books from a – cl, and make notes, I was eight years old. I read every book. There were many books I did not understand, but I found out that I loved poetry.
When I was about twelve-and-a-half years old, Ms. Flowers invited me to her house for tea cookies and lemonade. She talked about poetry and read to me. Then she said, “You do not like poetry.”
I furiously wrote in my tablet, and said, “yes, ma’am I do.” She kept shaking her finger at me, which I knew to be very rude. I was so upset I ran out the house.
Ms. Flowers didn’t stop there. She followed me back to my grandma’s house, yelling and following me around the room. “You will never love it until you speak it, until you feel it come across your tongue, over your teeth, through your lips, you will never love poetry, never!” She harassed me for many months.
Finally, one day I went under my house where only the chickens go, and I tried to recite a poem, and I found out that I had left my voice. My voice hadn’t left me.
The Child Who Became a Poet
This child went on to become a world-famous poet, who won three Grammys, published seven autobiographies and spoke six languages. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.
She had a fiery, fierce grace and abounding love for everyone. She spoke at the President Clinton inauguration. She was asked by the United Nations to write a poem for the world.
She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, but you may know her best as Maya Angelou. I will end with a few words from her poem, a brave and startling truth:
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
International Day to Eradicate Poverty
“On this International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, let us recognize that extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere. Let us recall that poverty is a denial of human rights. For the first time in history, in this age of unprecedented wealth and technical prowess, we have the power to save humanity from this shameful scourge. Let us summon the will to do it.” — Kofi Annan
IT IS I
by Janny Castillo
It is I, friends of St. Mary’s,
who stand here in this place.
It is I, who once lived head down and bent
Suffering on hard ground
and hard times.
So bent I could not,
dare to look up and see my light,
OR your light,
OR God’s Divine Light.
A Light whose only purpose was to lead me
from my dark night
into morning light.
See my wrinkles, from too much crying
And not enough laughing
see my feet
so as not to disturb the deep pains
in my knees
and in my back.
I tell you though, I ran for years
through poverty-rich streets,
rich with violence and despair.
for dignity, for food, for rest.
Those days are gone, friends of St. Mary’s.
It is I, who stands here in this place,
I stand here to tell you
that those days behind me,
are only that…
Despite what my history demands of me,
Despite what my circumstances demand of me,
I choose today to stand with you
To stand true, to tell you that
I am strong, capable and well.
I am dignity. I am courage.
I am loved by my Creator.
I am loved by my community.
I am loved by you, my St. Mary’s Friends
And you are loved by me.