Black Lives Matter: In Conversation with poet activist Toni Bee

Black Lives Matter Cambridge

Toni Bee is a lot of things. She’s a poet, artist, activist and mother. She’s also one of the voices behind Black Lives Matter Cambridge, the local chapter of a national movement to combat systemic racism. The group emerged during the first weeks of this year and already they’ve led a march of more than 200 people through the streets of Cambridge, held an evening of education on structural racism and sponsored an all-black poetry performance. Full disclosure: Toni Bee is a friend with whom I’ve worked on various projects. She was kind enough to sit down with me to speak about Black Lives Matter and her life in Cambridge.

Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length.

Emily Hopkins: What prompted you to join the chorus of voices that is Black Lives Matter from Cambridge?

Toni Bee: I’m a mother and an aunt who couldn’t sleep at night after Ferguson happened. And then Eric Garner happened. Of course all before this is Trayvon. So it was hard for me to sleep at night because I have seven nephews. Actually eight now. And I’m like, so with the statistics being what they are, basically, I’m waiting ’til the day it happens. And I was like, I can’t have another season of something happening to colorful people. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn’t been a part of making some kind of public statement.

What for you is the imminent goal, right now? Is it education? What is your focus?

We have a few focusses. My focus really is education and community building. Because I think the citizens need to be educated on different levels about racism and about black history. And if you don’t build a community surrounding your issues, then what you want to get done is not going to get done. And I am talking about black folk, POCs and allies. Because we’re all in this together.

Tell me a little bit about the training you held a couple weeks ago. I know you had two groups, one of them for allies.

We ended up having three groups. That was about educating the citizens about institutional racism. It’s in our institutions. For God’s sake, I even believe in it. I know I’m sick. Me and my bloodline has been in this for a long time. And I’ve got a mixed bloodline. So I’m talking about white and brown folks. Peach and brown. Afro and Euro. That runs through my bloodline. These workshops are for us to get well. And to realize what we’re doing to each other. Or if you’re the victim, realize what is happening. But I feel soon we are going to get into educating beyond just racism. Because I know who ran things for millennia before we got here on this chunk of rock. And I’m sorry that people might not want to hear it. When we challenge institutional racism, we’re challenging people’s money. Really we just want fairness. And we really ain’t getting it.

How is living in Cambridge as a black person?

For me, living in Cambridge as a black person, along with my daughter? It’s pretty cool. I mean, I come from Boston, but I … I feel welcome in Cambridge. I feel heard in Cambridge. I feel loved, and I think my daughter does, too. I’ve got a great church. And that’s within me and on the surface. And yet I know the places I couldn’t get a job in Cambridge, even as the poet elect. Maybe because I was too real talk. I also know people claim they want to hear from citizens but then they have meetings at four, five o’clock.

There’s just this whole population of people who are barely limping along. And they look like me. A lot of it is a class issue. A money issue. And I see the difference. But black people, with the class issue: We have challenges. And I am P-O-O-R. What about the kids? I see too many young brown males in my neighborhood, who I know are brilliant, kind of just lingering after high school.

If someone is a person of color growing up in Cambridge, do they have an opportunity to stay in Cambridge?

No, they can’t. You need to real talk to high school students and say, look. When you come back here after graduating from college, you need to make sure that you get a job making at least $4,000 to live because your rent is going to be $2,000 for a one bedroom. Is anyone really telling the high school students that? That’s like, reality. Kids can’t come back here. That’s why I say, it is a Black Lives Matter thing. Certain things, when we’re talking about the class and money issues, it just affects black people more. So you can be a peach kid, and the same thing. A lot of this is money. And class. But it’s worse when you’re black.

In the video of the march earlier this year, you talk a little bit about walking into board rooms. I think this message of disruption exists throughout the national movement of Black Lives Matter. How does that translate into the next step? What do you do once you’ve disrupted the order?

I don’t know that we’ve disrupted the order. I think the march was, hey, we’re aware of it. We use things like that to go on some other level. I mean, I’m real with it. And I’m uncomfortable with disruption. Because I like to say I’m peaceful, and I am, and I’m cool with everybody, and I am. But I’m 20 again. And I don’t know if disrupting the board rooms and other institutions is really going to give me a really great paying job where I can live in Cambridge and buy a house. None of us can. So the stuff I’m doing—and I don’t make all the decisions, I need you to know that there’s [a group of] people that’s getting a little larger, and we make the decisions. And I’m uncomfortable with some of the things I have to say yes to. That’s a little more democratic. We’re pushing up against institutions, and [pushing is] what institutions do … I’m uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with disrupting the peace. But I don’t see any other way that the institutions are gonna hear us.

I think that almost subverts this image that some people have of protesters, that some of them want to disrupt things gratuitously. But it makes you uncomfortable, yet you see it as a necessary means to an end.

Yeah. A necessary peacefulness so that maybe we can get to the end. And that’s not to say that the methods that’s been used to subjugate black people have been peaceful at all. They’re killing brothers in the street. You want me to be peaceful? Like okay, that’s just me, but really? Turn the other cheek, turn the other cheek. Brothers is falling. We had 12-year-old Tamir Rice—did you see that video?

I didn’t watch it. I know what you’re talking about, but I couldn’t watch it.

The videos! Tamir Rice. Did you see the video that they was taking from the inside of the store when Eric Garner was on the ground for several minutes? And the reaction? And you want me to be peaceful? Okay. Okay. And I’m going to maintain peacefulness. But I’m an artist. And you’re going to hear the force of my voice, and my feelings through my art, through my poetry. I’m an artist now. I’m working with other artists. Get ready for the art within protest. That’s what’s going to make you even more uncomfortable, probably, than any violence that I would never do anyway.

Disruption isn’t necessarily violent. The marches have been nonviolent.

Marches are nonviolent. A lot of people feel dissatisfied with what happened with 93. But they went to the Pats parade, where everything was, you know, traffic was diverted and stopped up along those ways. And all the snow was cleared.

Do you feel like, when you have these marches, that it’s almost like shaking someone and making them listen?

Yeah. It is. I don’t know though. I’m just a bee. So I’m okay pollinating. And I’m ignorant. A lot of other people are ignorant. Just about the issues. Like, really. They’re just ignorant. So I’m not tired yet of talking about this. Plus I’ve played nice for a while. I got aggravated making comments and saying, really? So you made a meeting at 5 o’clock, yet it’s public meeting? People who work can’t get there. It came to a point where, black lives matter. I’m okay with talking from time to time. And we should know what’s going on.

I know that you work with kids. This must be an exhausting but inspiring experience.

Yes. I love it. And it took me a long time to get here, because I was a little bit afraid of kids. My mom died when I was 14, but she was a school teacher. She was kind of a natural school teacher. My daughter is too. She’s my inspiration. But my mom was a natural school teacher. So I am kind of following her in some ways. It’s not exhausting—I mean it’s exhausting, they’re kids. But I get to say, ‘you beautiful chocolate princess’ to kids who may not believe that their chocolate is beautiful. That’s revolutionary. We don’t have to go out there and do no big march. Me telling you you’re beautiful, and telling you why. That’s revolutionary.

What’s the future look like, in the short term?

We’re going to have more community events. We’ve had three thus far. I think people should expect our website, and expect us to build community. I feel black lives matter in Cambridge. But Cambridge gets to prove itself. Gets to prove that black lives matter when we come and we make certain requests. So it takes $800 to rent something for one day. Again we get into the class thing. So if black lives matter to you then, well? The team has mapped out some things, but really, expect community building. Expect being educated about combatting racism and knowing histories. Because that’s what it is. The best thing we can do is get to know each other.

For more information about Black Lives Matter Cambridge, check out the group on Facebook.