Poet Oliver Colbert’s Social Justice
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Brooklyn born and based poet/writer Oliver Colbert gave a recitation of his work on March 2 in Girdwood’s Community Center. After each spoken-word poem, he led a discussion about its themes, particularly social justice, and fielded questions from the audience.
The lecture is the second of a series sponsored by Girdwood 2020, Girdwood, Inc., Girdwood Rotary Club and the Glacier City Gazette.
Colbert introduced himself to the audience by explaining his story, which he titled First:First. On the flight to Anchorage, he was writing down ideas to tell his story, which is not his typical technique for composing.
“I was making notes on how to do this First:First thing,” Colbert said. “I’m a writer, so I tried to write down as much as I could. I was on the plane thinking about what can I say because I never really put my story down on paper so much. Like many writers, a lot of what I have to write about is my experiences and what I’ve been through.”
Colbert grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn in a poorer part of the borough. His family went through a number of challenging circumstances.
“My father passed away when I was four years old,” Colbert said. “My mother raised me, my younger sister and my older brother by herself. I saw her struggle. I saw her give up her last dollar to my little sister. I saw her pass up a meal so me, my sister and my brother could eat. These are things that I’ve seen. I can’t understand why this is, but at the same time, I didn’t know anything else, so it was regular to me.”
Like his Brooklyn peers, Colbert was influenced by Hip Hop music, life on the streets and some negative things. He began hanging out with the wrong people and did some bad things, which led him to be the first of his mother’s children to be arrested.
At age 17, his mother picked him up from the precinct.
Colbert faced a pivotal moment deciding what his path in life would be. He said he was incorrectly seen as a bad seed, so people had no expectations for him. He had to set his own ambitions to find success. His mother was a large, positive influence in his life. He was also the first of his mother’s children to graduate from college and first to graduate with a master’s degree.
“My undergraduate degree is in journalism with a minor in writing because I write,” Colbert said. “I was really fascinated with sports journalism as an undergraduate. I switched majors three or four times because I didn’t know I could make a living out of writing. My second degree is in higher education administration because once I graduated college, I thought college was a scam, so I wanted to figure out how to fix colleges so they’re not a scam.”
Colbert works at the School of Visual Arts in New York City as an administrator, coordinator of student engagement and leadership, and works with student leadership, clubs and organizations.
Colbert compared his visit to Alaska, where everything is new to him, to when he was younger and thought the five boroughs of New York were the world.
“There was a point in time when I thought Brooklyn was the world,” Colbert said. “When I crossed the bridge into Manhattan I’m like, ‘What is this?’ And now I’m in Alaska? Mind blown!”
The poems recited were written at different times in Colbert’s life, showing various perspectives and his growth as a poet and a thinker. He explores a range of feelings such as maturity and anger about unjust events ending in death to the innocent.
His experiences growing up play an important role, especially with the theme of social justice. At the same time, he addresses universal themes that are also specific to his community and himself.
Colbert presented five poems. Before each one, he took time preparing himself to deliver the poem in the right frame of mind, speaking the lines with passion and feeling. After each poem, he asked for questions and discussion about the poem and the social topics involved.
“I really want to know what you guys think of it,” Colbert said. “Anything that stood out to you or things you didn’t agree with and stuff like that to have that conversation between the poems. Discourse is how we learn from each other.”
The first recitation was the powerful poem “Five.” Colbert uses the number five as a thematic device to make multiple connections between events and emotions. There is the constant peril of tragedy swooping down to cause death of people who have done nothing wrong in the ordinary actions of life.
Frequent, high-profile tragedies and daily vulnerability takes a psychological and physical toll through constant fear. “Five” uses vivid imagery of injustice and oppression told from the viewpoint of someone deeply aching for positive change in the face of senseless slaughter.
Colbert used strong vocals to deliver a spoken-word, Hip Hop cadence with New York speed. The directness and immediacy of live performance allowed the audience to feel the poet’s passion for a more positive vision of life rather than regularly confronting the raw emotions of injustice.
Oliver Colbert has generously given the Glacier City Gazette permission to transcribe and publish his spoken-word poem “Five.”
Editor’s Note – “Five” makes reference to Sean Bell’s murder in Queens, New York on Nov. 25, 2006. Three unarmed men, including the groom Bell, were having a bachelor party in a NYC strip club and were shot 50 times by plain clothes and undercover police officers.
By Oliver Colbert
Five fingers on a hand
Technically five days in a week
And in five minutes
A brother’s life can get changed on these streets
Five witnesses watch as police shot and killed Sean Bell
On a night on November 25th
Five brothers chilling on the block
Will cause cops not to think five minutes before they stop
Just search and seize every right that we got just to chill
And as they kill, they point glocks at our tops
And we hold our five fingers up as shields
To say stop, don’t shoot
Malcolm, Martin, Mahatma, Marcus, and Marley
Are five leaders who served as voices for our streets
They were able to shake government buildings
We have artists who probably make five million this week
And whenever we need them, protests, rallies
We can use them giving speeches
But content in their position with riches
They leave us to fend for ourselves
With nothing but these five fingers
Confused in our mission, our morals go missing
Which leads to the judge sentencing 2 to 5 just for possession
And this becomes the system
With five pulls of the blunt
my brothers get high above their worries
And since I don’t smoke
I don’t have five brothers here on earth to fight with me
And like 95% of brothers
No father figure to fight for me
My mother’s home
Hoping she don’t see me on that 5 o’clock news
‘Cause she knows those bullets don’t have names on them
And when one blow
You better believe that there are five more in the chamber for him
We need to discontinue using our five fingers
As shields against guns and unite them like fists
That symbolize our fight and our will as one
“I was 22 when I wrote this,” Colbert said. “I wrote this when I was visiting my friend for Thanksgiving in Florida at his grandma’s house. Florida was where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed around that same time. I’m like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ I started writing it, and that’s what came out of it.”
It is through tragedies cited in the poem that Colbert yearns for American culture to understand the importance of social sustainability and how all cultures in America can benefit from it. Colbert said that compared to environmental sustainability, social sustainability receives little attention before giving a definition for success.
“It’s the idea of building a society that’s fair and equal for everybody and also taking the time to understand where the flaws lie in society,” Colbert said. “Who has been forgotten about?”
“Make an effort to sustain our society because we all share it.”