Imani J’lessa Wallace Wins Steinhardt’s MLK Oratorical Contest with Spoken Word Poem

Imani J’lessa Wallace at her 2016 graduation from Syracuse University

Imani J. Wallace, a master’s candidate in higher education and student affairs, won Steinhardt’s 2018 MLK Oratorical Contest with a spoken word poem which explored what it means to feel that the quality of Black life is devalued in the age of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Wallace began her speech by describing how the Black Lives Matter movement was founded by three Black women who organized as a response to the acquittal of Travon Martin’s murderer.  The recitation kicked into high gear as  Wallace spoke of the vulnerability of living under a president in an American culture where “hatred spreads like disease.”

She said:

It feels like a church in Mississippi exploding into flames.

Like the air in the morning after the election on a train

Like a cotton-gin fan hanging at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River for days

Like a welcome sign hanging at the border for slaves

Like a song, at a riot in Montgomery my ancestors sang

Like rage, at a riot in Union Square today

The poet asked her audience to take inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. who said in a March 1965 speech, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

Wallace added, “Simply spoken, this means our lives end the moment we become silent about the things that matter.”