The poet Mbembe Milton Smith wrote some provocative words about a Kansas City suburb:
“There are uncharted places like Overland Park, Kansas or Greenwich Connecticut where they lock their back door if they heard black power was coming cause black folk wouldn’t dare come round the front.”
For a person of color, those words might articulate a vague feeling of uneasiness that accompanies a visit to Johnson County even today. But they come from the poem "Allegory of the Bebop Walk," written decades ago.
Smith was the first African American to graduate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s master's program in creative writing. He wrote four books of poetry before he died in 1982, at the age of 36. Two of Smith's early books were published by UMKC's BkMk Press, which re-released a copy of his Selected Poems in 2006.
In archival interviews and readings on two New Letters on the Air programs, the first in 1978 and the second a memorial show in 1983, Smith delivers calm, intimate testimonials to urban and suburban life with extreme vulnerability. His voice is soft and detached as he describes vivid scenes of a life spent dealing with issues of assimilation, loss of identity, jazz music and strained relationships with family, his community, and himself.
Another Kansas City poet, Glenn North, says Mbembe’s work isn’t just still relevant — it can open up important and necessary community conversations today.
North, the director of public programs and education at the Black Archives of Mid-America, started a series of poetry readings named after Smith in 2015 and is now adding a book club.
“While I think some of these issues we are confronted with are universal, I thought it’d have particular resonance in that the setting for a lot of his poems is right here in Kansas City,” North says.
The purpose of the Mbembe Milton Smith Book Club is to “provide a safe space using poetry to examine issues of importance to people of color,” according to its event page. And while Smith serves as the club’s namesake, members will also discuss the work of other poets and authors, North says.
“Although he left us way too soon, he left an important body of work that is worthy of being studied and definitely should be celebrated here in Kansas City,” North says. “So that’s one of the reasons I gave the club that name and thought it would be important to start it off with one of his books.”
Smith committed suicide in 1982. He suffered from what “we would now refer to as bipolar disorder,” says North, who learned that information in a conversation with Smith’s mother, Samella Myers Gates, who died at the age of 94 in 2015.
“A lot of people who deal with mental health issues don’t want to be disenfranchised or treated as ‘other than,’ and he talks a lot about that in his work,” North says. “I think the inadvertent consequence of that may be that he isn’t as highly celebrated, because his story is a difficult one.”
But it’s the difficulty in Smith’s story and some of his work that makes it feel so real 35 years after his death.
As North notes, conversations about such topics can be uncomfortable to have, but the words Mbembe Milton Smith put on pages are part of a shared history.
Such truths, North says, “help us understand each other better so that we’re more effective in figuring out positive ways to move forward.”
Mbembe Milton Smith Black Poetry Book Club Launch, 6 p.m. Thursday, June 22 at the Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 E. 17th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.
Chad Onianwa is an arts intern at KCUR. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.