As soon as Alex “PoeticSoul” Johnson began to speak, the whole crowd fell silent. With passion in her voice, she recited what she considers to be her magnum opus, “Power of Black Woman.” Midway through her poem, however, she stopped reciting and began to speak directly to police across America.
“How is it that someone can scream to you that he cannot move, he has a spinal injury, and you cannot recognize a medical emergency? Someone is screaming, ‘I cannot breathe,’ and you do not consider their lives for you to be valuable enough to for you to stand up and lift him up. I do not need to finish this poem,” Johnson said.
Although she didn’t finish the poem she planned to deliver, her impromptu speech left the crowd at the police brutality protest, which was held at the corner of University Avenue and Johnston Street on May 31, roaring in support. This reaction was nothing new. Over the years, Johnson has touched countless lives with her use of spoken word poetry as a tool to take a stand against systemic racism.
Patrice Melnick, the founder of the literary arts organization Festival of Words, said she first met Johnson at an open mic in Lafayette about 15 years ago and was blown away by her performance.
“I heard her perform, and it was powerful, so powerful, and I always remembered her from that,” Melnick said. “She was really a warrior against wrongs in the community and also a very loving person, and so it's an interesting combination: that fierceness and that love.”
Johnson has participated in the Festival of Words teaching students in St. Landry Parish about poetry, Melnick said.
In addition, Johnson started the Eyes of the Sun, a project in which she helped youth incarcerated in the Lafayette Parish Juvenile Detention Home create a spoken word poem titled “Eyes of the Sun.” They are also working on producing a mural at the Martin Luther King Center in Lafayette based on the poem, according to the Eyes of the Sun website.
As soon as she could understand racial injustice, Johnson knew she was meant to use her voice to fight for equality.
Johnson grew up on a farm in Lafayette, so she had experience projecting her voice from a young age, she said. This became a valuable asset to her spoken word poetry career. Her mother, who is a writer as well, helped inspire Johnson’s interest in African and African American history and raised her to take a stand against racial injustice, Johnson said.
“My mother always made sure that I wasn't allowed to get lost in the deceit,” she said.
Johnson hopes to use her knowledge to help educate people about many lesser-known injustices against African Americans, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was a study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute in 1932 to observe the effect of untreated syphilis on the human body.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers used African American men with syphilis as test subjects for this and pretended to provide treatment for their disease. In reality, these men were all given placebos so the researchers could observe the effects of untreated syphilis. The men still weren’t treated after penicillin was proven to be an effective treatment for the disease. They were never even told they had syphilis, but were instead told they were being treated for “bad blood.”
Johnson said she wants the public to become more knowledgeable about racism on a global scale as well. One such example she mentioned had to do with Sarah Baartman, an African woman who was brought to Europe, most likely under false pretenses, by a British doctor to perform in freak shows. She died on December 29, 1815, but her sexual organs, brain and skeleton were left on display in a Paris museum until 1974, according to the BBC.
“People refuse to acknowledge the history that is well documented,” she said.
Johnson first discovered spoken word poetry when she heard Baton Rouge Spoken Word Poet Don “Ascension the Artist” Mitchell, perform at a poetry slam in Lafayette, and over time, Mitchell became her mentor, he said.
“At the end of the show she talked to me and kept coming around,” he said. “She started performing and instantly she grew by leaps and bounds.”
While Mitchell still performs spoken word on occasion, he’s much less active than he used to be, as he is much less concerned with winning spoken word competitions and now views spoken word as a form of therapy. However, he’s been more than happy with his decision to pass the torch onto Johnson.
“She has done a wonderful job,” Mitchell said.