‘I’m gonna show us the way forward’: Philly names Oyewumi Oyeniyi its new Youth Poet Laureate

Oyeniyi writes poems about what it feels like to be young and Black in Philadelphia.

Oyewumi Oyeniyi posing for a photo

Oyewumi Oyeniyi is Philadelphia’s new Youth Poet Laureate. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Oyewumi Oyeniyi is ready to be Philadelphia’s new Youth Poet Laureate. At the announcement of her appointment on Monday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, she wore a tiara.

“My name means royalty. Oyewumi in Yoruba means royalty,” she said. “I wanted to represent.”

She’s been writing poetry “since she can remember” and believes poetry can help the city overcome its problems.

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Oyewumi Oyeniyi at a podium
Oyewumi Oyeniyi is Philadelphia’s new Youth Poet Laureate. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

“Every time I walk outside or go on the news it’s, like, gun violence, and there’s homeless people all over who are not given common dignity,” said Oyeniyi, 17, who lives in the Lawncrest neighborhood. “Gunshots do not define us. This homelessness epidemic does not define us. We’re gonna help each other get out of it. I want us to be more in tune with our communities and not be so quick to judge.”

Born in New York of Liberian and Nigerian descent, Oyeniyi grew up in Philadelphia where she is now a senior at Cristo Rey High School in North Philadelphia. As a freshman, she took a class with the city’s former poet laureate, Trapeta Mayson, who teaches a poetry workshop at Cristo Rey as an artist in residence.

Even though the class was three years ago and held virtually due to the pandemic, Oyeniyi stood out to Mayson.

“First of all, I can never forget her name,” said Mayson, who is on the Free Library of Philadelphia’s poet laureate selection committee. “Second of all, her writing was just exquisite and her commitment level was really mature for a ninth grader.”

Oyeniyi selected two poems to read on the announcement of her position, both addressing feelings of low self-esteem that she says are common among many young Black people in Philadelphia.

Her poem “Dear Oyewumi” is a letter to herself listing the forces that hold her back.

Do not cry
Your vulnerability is a weakness
Do not be shy
You are unbreakable
Do not show fear
Protection is something you give not receive.

The list continues, until the poem takes a turn near the end:

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Dear Oyewumi
Do not listen when they tell you not to cry
Your tears are the water that fills the rivers of the earth
Do not listen when they tell you not to speak
Few are worthy of your boldness
Do not listen when they attempt to strip away your protection
You are more treasured than the greenest emerald.

“When you’re a Black, femme-presenting person in modern society, you get told you can’t be a lot of things: You can’t be emotional. You can’t show vulnerability. You don’t deserve this or that because you look like this,” she said. “So I wrote that as a love letter to myself.”

Oyewumi Oyeniyi at a podium
Oyewumi Oyeniyi is surrounded by supporters after she was named Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate at the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Youth Poet Laureate is a one-year position, during which Oyeniyi is expected to work with the Free Library in creating community programming and act as a cultural ambassador representing Philadelphia’s young creative voice. Oyeniyi will also receive an educational scholarship.

“We don’t know each other’s stories,” Oyeniyi said. “We are all deserving. We are all meant to be here. I’m gonna show us the way forward.”

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