History seems to be a story of generations, and some forever leave profound marks. Louie Zamperini, whose heroic story was told in the book “Unbroken,” was a member of the Greatest Generation. Jack Kerouac gave voice to the spontaneity of the Beat Generation.
At East Broad Street Elementary on July 1, a big audience got a good look at what might well become known as the Deep Generation.
The 35 high school students in Deep Center’s Block by Block program gave a powerful performance onstage. It was like the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s produced as a perfectly choreographed Broadway musical. It was a spoken-word choreography that told community stories, personal stories, neighborhood histories.
No wonder it finished to a long, standing ovation and plenty of cheers. Former Deep writing fellow Joyce McDonald said she knew how well the kids could write, but never guessed how well they could act.
“We just witnessed something great here,” she said. “One day some of these writers will be on other stages giving TED talks that will begin with, ‘When I was part of the Block by Block program in Savannah.’”
The show was the inside part of Deep’s Eastside Block Party. Afterward, there was an all-American sun-spangled picnic outside with plenty of food and fellowship.
Since November, the students attended community meetings and public safety and juvenile justice forums. They worked with artists, historians and civic leaders. And they interviewed, interviewed, interviewed. Under the leadership of teaching artists Trelani Michelle and Marquice Williams, one group focused on Savannah’s east side. Under the leadership of Erin DeYoung, Lindsey Grovenstein and Desina Van, another group focused on the west side.
I spoke with Mariah George, who was on the cover of the Block Party program. “I was surprised when I saw my photo. I think that it was picked because it conveyed my passion in delivering one of my writings.”
She was in Deep’s middle school Young Author Project and is now a sophomore at Savannah Early College. This month she and other Youth Leadership Team members will travel to Tennessee and Texas with the Highlander Center Seeds of Fire Living Legacy Tour.
“I learned something significant from everyone that we interviewed. In Wells Park, we spoke mostly with grandparents with their grandchildren. In the Bull Street area, we interviewed mostly millennials.” (Funny; that’s the first time I’ve heard millennials referred to by a group younger than them.)
Also going to Highlander is Elisha Murray, who said, “Block by Block has helped me do things I never knew that I could do.” The Beach High freshman has more poems and reflections than anyone else in “Reclaiming Savannah’s East Side,” one of the two books released at the Block Party. The piece that he delivered onstage, “A Place Where You Cry,” had the audience spellbound.
Zebadiah Singleton, a senior at Ash Tree Learning Center Academy, said it threw his mother for a loop when he told her that wanted to join Block by Block after sitting in on a session at the Carnegie Branch Library.
“I’ve learned a lot from the interviews we conducted, with former Black Panthers, with policemen, with people who wanted to give up, and with people who didn’t.
“I can’t stop writing now, and I love writing about emotions. I love my mom, I love Deep, my Block by Block family. I love the people who surround me with positivity.”
His poem, “Don’t Give Up on Love,” was all about perseverance.
Jenkins High junior Veronica Yancey sang the same song. She’s been in Block by Block since its inception three years ago. “We are like a family, a safe space. No one is left behind, and our job is to back each other up. I was shy when I started, but I have really opened up.”
Savannah Early College junior Nicholas Fields said the program has become like a second home. The inspiration for his poem “Negro Mother” came from meeting oral storyteller Lillian Grant-Baptiste at her event, “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder.” His own words about suffering, redemption and freedom are a true promise.
Recent Johnson High graduate Alexandria Sledge, soon to major in early childhood education at Armstrong State University, was exuberant about the Deep program. “We could write without boundaries. And tread paths revealed after walking with (historian) Jamal Touré.”
A poetic line of hers, “my name will ring bells,” sounds like a favorable forecast. She will travel this month with five other youth leaders to San Francisco for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. This year Deep is listening; next year they plan to enter the competitions.
Also going is light-hearted and laser-sharp Beach High junior Samuel Poole. “I want my writing to get straight to you.”
I asked him what he called his pieces; poems or spoken word? He said that, to keep them out of any box, he likes to call them S.I.Ps, his initials.
Now that’s Deep. And Savannah is its proud birthplace.
Ben Goggins, a retired marine biologist, lives on Tybee Island. He can be reached at 912-786-6181 or email@example.com.