CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) – While the world hunkered down at home in April from the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapel Hill Poet Laureate CJ Suitt relished the time to create.

He completed a month-long series of self-portraits and poems. He reflected on his art, and when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in May and June, he reflected again on being a Black man in America.

He had grown “tired of writing poems about black death and black pain,” Suitt said, and he was reminded that “something needs to be put out in the world that reminds us of how far we have come and that there are some things worth holding on to.”

That was the spark for his poem, “In the Aftermath”:

“In the aftermath of all this

’ll sing with you

In a choir stand

On street corners and at my favorite karaoke night

Stroll aimlessly around the mall

Even though I hated the mall.”

No one else was talking about that post-COVID world, Suitt said.

“When I wrote that, it was just like I want to envision, imagine what this world might look like, because I’m not hearing that, and I’m curious about what that looks like for myself, for the people who are connected to the world around me,” Suitt said.

“I believe so much in the power of the word that I think that if we put it out there, if I put it out there, we have a better chance of creating it, of manifesting it in the physical world,” he said.

ACTIVIST, ARTIST, COLLABORATOR

Suitt has been sharing his observations and experiences publicly since a 10th-grade English teacher at Chapel Hill High School asked him to perform at a Black History Month event nearly 20 years ago.

In 2005, he became a founding member of the Chapel Hill Slam Team, and in 2008, he co-founded Sacrificial Poets, a nonprofit group creating “safe spaces for young people to empower themselves through sharing their stories.”

He has performed for music festivals, poetry competitions, and wrote, co-produced and acted in a re-enactment of the 1947 Freedom Rides. He has become a teacher, taking his art to schools and colleges, correctional facilities and other places where people are trying to find their voice. And he has become a social justice activist.

“I consider myself an artivist – both an activist and an artist,” Suitt said. “I cannot separate my political walk through the world from my artist through the world or my personal walk, and particularly again, as a poet, that’s what poetry is, a vehicle for me.”

He has walked alone and with others, including former Sacrificial Poets members who are now nurses, teachers and music artists.

Nationally known hip-hop artist Kane Smego, a former Sacrificial Poet who played high school football with Suitt, joined him on his journey to “Aftermath.” Durham producer Brad Cook and Suitt recorded the audio in the studio, and Smego filmed the footage.

It was Smego’s idea to send the project to Cook’s brother, musician Phil Cook, Suitt said.

Phil Cook “did a layer of strings. He did some percussion, and then maybe a little horn or flute or keys in there,” Suitt said. “He sent it back, and I was like, yeah, we’re keeping it … turn it all the way up, this is great.”

GROWING UP CHAPEL HILL, CARRBORO

Suitt’s voice is founded in his native Chapel Hill and Carrboro, giving him a unique view of growing up in “third-world conditions in a first-world context.”

As a boy, he played in the woods and by the creek near his family’s modest home in “Councilville,” just west of Carrboro. They didn’t have a well until the mid-1990s, he said. It took a little longer to get hot water.

“We had to go get water in gallon jugs from the neighbors, and then we would come home and we would heat it up on a kerosene heater,” Suitt said. “We were taking baths in a tub essentially in the living room.”

His first realization that classmates lived a different life was a fourth-grade birthday party when he was amazed to find a pool in his friend’s backyard, he said.

In high school, Suitt was a student and a football player by day and worked with his family at night.

“We cleaned shopping center parking lots when I was in high school … so especially in the fall, I’d get home from football practice by 7 o’clock, have an hour to do homework and we would hop in a sweeper truck at 10 p.m. and go clean parking lots in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, all the way out to Thomasville and High Point,” he said.

Suitt is animated as he recounts the art and oral traditions of his family: an uncle laying down hip-hop beats, his dad rapping Grandmaster Flash lyrics or crooning a Luther Vandross ballad in the bathroom. The “adult” conversations that a “quiet kid” overheard.

“Being able to sit underneath my elders and just hear them talk without filters … I’ve always been fascinated with hearing people talk, particularly people who are older than me,” Suitt said. “Through that, and those ways, I think I just gained a love for the word, the spoken word, in particular, because I was a (poor) student.

On Sundays, Suitt’s mother made sure he was in the pew at St. John Holy Church, where the singsong cadence of Southern Pentecostal ministers and the congregation’s response infused a “soulful gospel energy” into his art, he said.

“Seeing every Sunday, our preacher getting in the pulpit, taking a 2,000-year-old story, wrap it in a metaphor and give it back to people, passionately, and in a way that they can apply it to their daily lives and walk out of that building saying, oh, yeah, the preacher said that today, that was the word,” he said.

There, he didn’t have to check himself, as he did in Chapel Hill’s and Carrboro’s public spaces, or make sure as a young Black man that he was above suspicion, Suitt said. The towns no longer limit where Black people can go and what they can do, and the Ku Klux Klan no longer roams Carrboro streets, he said, but the towns must acknowledge their history and where they still fall short.

That unique perspective led to one of his first locally acclaimed poems, “My Lovely Little College Town.”

“In this lovely little college town

Where armchair progressives are a dime a dozen and social consciousness is a verbal state of mind

That really only lies in revolutionary cotton tees, dreads and blowin’ trees

Che is great and we love and try our best to emulate Bob Marley and Gandhi

Chapel Hill”

INSPIRATION, HOPE COVID-19 LOSS

Suitt didn’t plan on being a poet, although he did consider being a rapper in a band. He was a struggling freshman at UNC-Pembroke when he decided to skip his final exams and attend the national Brave New Voices poetry competition in New York City.

“That was probably when I made my decision about what I was going to do with my life,” he said.

Poetry helped him reclaim his “power and relationship to the written word,” Suitt said. He started running open mics, and he and Smego coached other young poets, including nationally known Durham rapper G. Yamazawa, at poetry slam competitions.

Just over a year ago, he was asked to be Chapel Hill’s first poet laureate, which gave him new avenues to reach and teach others, and to be “canvas, artist and medium.”

“If I were a painter, I could paint a picture, a portrait, and people could see that picture on the wall, and maybe not know I did it, maybe not know what it took to do it, maybe not feel that energy,” he said. “But for me, it’s very true that when people … hear a piece of artwork from me, they are seeing me, the art and the way the art was made.”

This year, he has been inspired by music, meditation and dance. He launched a Patreon channel – patreon.com/suittsyouwrite – and began work on a new website and a coffee table book featuring his self-portraits.

He collaborated with friends and mentors, including Yamazawa and North Carolina Poet Laureaute Jaki Shelton Green, who praised Suitt’s ability to pay attention to the stories around him and to speak to older folks, as well as younger ones through social media.

You couldn’t find a seat when Suitt and the Sacrificial Poets held open mic events for teenagers in Chapel Hill, she said.

“I like to think of CJ as this incredible forager. He’s in this field, and he’s gleaning from the elders, and he’s putting it in his bag of medicine, and then he’s handing it off to the young person who’s handing it off to the younger person,” she said. “That’s what he does. He gleans his creative earth, and he finds what he needs and what he knows that others need.”

And, she noted, he does it in a way that is respectful and not selfish or arrogant.

“CJ understands that (others have come before him), and he gives that back through his renderings of his respect for the Earth, his respect for family, his respect for community, his respect for other writers, and his respect for elders,” she said. “He makes it very, very clear, and I think we need more young people like him.”

The day before Suitt’s interview with The News & Observer, he was counseling a student through a COVID mental health crisis. The past year also has brought him loss – friends and loved ones taken by COVID, substance abuse and suicide, he said – and by November, it was affecting his art. His second monthlong series of self-portraits and poems only covered the first 20 days, he said.

“When April came … I felt like it was a time when the universe was saying, ‘OK, artist, dig in the well, go deep,’ and I felt like I was pulling up buckets of water,” he said. “Now, I got to Nov. 10 or 12 in publishing self-portraits and poems, and it just felt like I was in the well, but every bucket was muddy water.”

In that time, Suitt held his “Aftermath” list close and the memory of things that gave him strength, he said. He encouraged others to do the same.

“I’ll remember the things that brought me strength

The ways I gave and was given to

How I learned to pause

And breathe in the day

How I made a feast of my feelings

And served it up

poem after poem.”

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