Bearing Witness through Poetry

January was a month of retrospection. Taking a course entitled, “Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement,” I encountered the past everyday as I heard for the first time about the numerous people who stood resilient and nonviolent in their demand for freedom. Before that class, the Civil Rights Movement had been a vague time period in my mind, yet three weeks later, I have a new list of heroes and heroines to emulate. In the midst of my admiration, I also grappled with the knowledge of just what those heroes and heroines had to face.

The figures from the Civil Rights Movement endured hostility, belittlement, abuse, and death. Somber tones mixed with perseverance, and it all came to rest on me as a newfound understanding of the work people did to make my existence easier. I wouldn’t say I’m late to the appreciation of history, but these past weeks of learning have renewed my desire to explore even more, and at the Center for Public Humanities, we had other opportunities to interact with the past.


At our first Poetry in Place event of the year, students journeyed through the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg before settling in for an afternoon of poetry. At the table where I sat, my peer fellow Brian Peters asked the kids what they saw that disturbed them and out flowed descriptive images. The students recounted the restrictive devices used on slaves or the gruesome medical operations on soldiers. In the course of an hour, history was reborn through their poetry, and transformed as it interacted with their experiences.

Attempting to understand past events will not often yield pure good nor bad, but facing it is necessary to the understanding of our own contexts. By acknowledging the pain of that time period through the witness of their poetry, the students also perhaps demonstrated a redemptive way of interacting with the excruciating parts of a country’s memory.


Resized ElisabethElisabeth Ivey is a senior at Messiah College, where she studies English and sociology & anthropology. Both fields reflect her desire to learn more about the diversity of humanity and God’s thread of redemption that runs through it. She believes that stories wield the power to change individuals and society, so they should be told often and told well. During her time at the Center for Public Humanities, she hopes to have opportunities to engage with people’s lives in story and to see the way that the humanities can address divisions and strengthen bonds that already exist.


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