Childhood peers who slash faces and catch bullets; a frigid-hearted father, damaged by hard labor and harder racism, wringing out his anger on his wife and kids; a brother who's riddled with addictions of all sorts.
These are the characters in Hip Hop Warrior (Main Street Rag), a new book of poetry by East End native Romella D'Ore Kitchens, a member of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange who's been published in magazines such as Essence and Catalyst as well as City Paper. Her book is "an imprint of conversational poetry about the African-American experience in Pittsburgh with general correlations on a more universal level."
In the collection's title poem, connections are made between African wars of the past and gangs of the present. The "Hip Hop Warrior" is the "Progeny of when tribes were / tribes and, fought each other, sold those not native / blood bred brothers to European slavers."
For Kitchens, hip hop is the latest shift in the African-American musical legacy, a spirit that hasn't died since the gospel blues of the slaves. That spirit, says Kitchens, reflects blacks' struggle to make a decent living, especially in the period of the Great Migration, where blacks traveled en masse from the fields of the South to the factories of the North.
Among them was her father, a character who looms frequently in her poems as a man hardened by the bigotry he faced trying to work and provide for his family. Kitchens says her father worked two full-time jobs, additionally putting himself through school, earning his master's degree in education. But even as a hard-working man with a respected degree he still faced racism.
"I think it was a hard time, before the '60s, for black men to raise children, because we hadn't gone through civil rights yet," says Kitchens.
It was also tough for Kitchens and her father to deal with her brother, who as a young adult picked up a tough drug addiction. Poems such as "Burning Spoons," "The Fairmount Beatitudes" and "Testimony" tell stories of characters moved by their demons to steal, cheat and hurt.
The cover of Kitchens' books is an old black-and-sepia photograph of her brother as a toddler seated in a stroller. Beside the baby is the tall shadow of a man, who Kitchens says was her father. They had a loving relationship, she says, and these are the kinds of struggles experienced by black families everywhere. c