Personification: A Social Justice Prompt

Prompt Against Anxiety #21 | from Derrick Harriell, author of Stripper in Wonderland, Cotton, and Ropes. Originally from Milwaukee, Harriell directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Mississippi.


Hip hop-lyricism and poetry can be seen interchangeably. Meaning, both artistic forms of expression are grounded in the use of similar sonic, lyrical, metaphorical, and metric ethos. In 1996, the rapper Nas released the song “I gave you power” on his classic album It Was Written. In the song, a gun is personified and given voice. We, the listener, then embark on a journey in which we’re made privy to the nuances and emotional consequences associated with the misuse / abuse of a weapon (or gun). For example, at one point the gun states the following: 
I seen some cold nights and bloody days
They grab and me bullets spray
They use me wrong so I sing this song til this day
My body is cold steel for real
I was made to kill, that's why they keep me concealed
Under car seats they sneak me in clubs
Been in the hands of mad thugs
They feed me when they load me with mad slugs
Seventeen precisely, one in my head
In May 2020, civil unrest began after the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, MN, law enforcement. What subsequently transpired were national protests by citizens wanting justice and the prosecution of those responsible for Floyd’s murder. Not soon after, in August 2020, 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, WI, law enforcement. Like the aftermath of the Floyd murder, this extreme and brutal misuse of force ignited national protests and local (Kenosha) resistance.   
The struggle for equality and social justice is ongoing and as old as our country (the United States) itself. While the aforementioned song, “I gave you power,” is not directly in conversation with police brutality, it demonstrates how personification can be used to highlight difficult and delicate social / civil conversations. Nas is using the personification of the gun to speak to the horrors of street violence. This smartly offers a perspective that is both fresh and places us squarely in the scariest spaces within the conversation.

This is a social justice writing prompt. In thinking about our country’s history of civil unrest and protests for equal rights and civil liberties, write a poem in which the speaker is the personification of an object associated with this legacy. This personified object could range from a gun (as aforementioned) to handcuffs, bullhorn, squad car, marching shoes, fist, etc. The question you should first ask yourself is “what statement am I attempting to make through this poem or what conversation am I attempting to have.” The answer to this question should then inform which personification can best serve as a vehicle to make that statement / commentary. It might be productive to start listing the attributes of several objects whose voice you might be interested in incorporating. For example, if you are interested in giving a marching shoe a voice, you might ask: "What are the components of a shoe?”, “Shoes already have a tongue so how might that add to the personification?”, “How and why do shoes get worn and how might that relate to those who say they’re tired of injustice?” This poem can be as short or as long as you’d like. 
I hope you enjoy this prompt and that it allows you a space of catharsis while considering the nuances of social justice through an imaginative lens.  

Prompts Against Anxiety is sponsored by Milwaukee Public Library, an anchor institution that helps patrons read, learn, and connect—to our resources and our community. Now more than ever, stay connected, stay home, and stay safe. 

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