September-October 2021

The power of words

For Montgomery College student Sasa Aakil, the county’s first youth poet laureate, writing is a way to express hurt and hope

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Sasa Aakil at home in Wheaton. Photo by Louis Tinsley

Sasa Aakil describes visiting her grandmother, a potter then living in New Mexico: “I was 5 or 6, but I remember being captivated by the clay and the wheel and just the nature and the rhythm of ceramics. I think that was my first time when I fell in love with an art form.”

Now 18, Sasa loves the “nature and the rhythm” of many art forms—pottery and music, print-making and hairstyling. Above all, she is entranced by words and what they can convey. She writes in her poem “This I Can Do”:

The wind told me stories and taught me to dream,
I never learned to sing on tune, but this, this I can do

Earlier this year, Sasa was named Montgomery County’s first youth poet laureate by Words, Beats & Life, an educational nonprofit devoted to advancing hip-hop culture. The Wheaton resident won the title by submitting samples of her work and then outperforming three other finalists in a live online competition, and as a young Black Muslim woman she understands her responsibility as a role model. “After surprise, I felt pride that I got to be one of the first, that I got to be someone who made the next Muslim girl know that her story was worth hearing,” she wrote in a blog post.

While most of Sasa’s ancestors were sharecroppers from the Deep South who migrated northward, one grandfather was a Panamanian who converted to Islam. Her mother, Latifa Barnett, was raised in that faith, came to Washington for college at Howard University, and met her husband here. Their daughter, now in her second year at Montgomery College, hopes to combine her interests in writing and art history at Howard next year.

Sasa was born in Tennessee, where her father was stationed with the Army, and that experience left a deep scar. “I know living there was very traumatic for my mom because the way she was treated there, while my father was out on deployment,” Sasa tells me over lemonade at Busboys and Poets cafe in Takoma in D.C. “We had people throw rocks at our cars and break our windows. We had people saying things about us. It was very stressful for her in that environment and it directly influenced and informed the way she raised us.”

That experience helped convince Sasa’s mother to homeschool her children once the family moved back to this area, and her daughter adds another reason: “Oftentimes Black children aren’t treated well and supported in public school systems. And Black Muslim children would have had even a harder time. So I think a lot of it was trying to protect us from that.”

Sasa showed an interest in words at a very young age, she explains with a laugh: “People are always like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so crazy’ when I tell this story. But I think one of the first ways I noticed that I have an inclination towards words is that I was really good at insulting my siblings. That was one way I could defend myself.”

Her mother noticed, too, so she added poetry to her lesson plan. “I really, really, really loved it,” Sasa recalls. “My mother kept encouraging me to write and I started getting journals and filling them up. When I was frustrated, I would write things out and that helped me understand my world and also build my own world.”

Sasa’s world has many dimensions. She learned to play the bass guitar and to style hair, and she considers hair “part of my artistic practice.” She’s an expert in “sisterlocks,” a process that involves braiding a Black woman’s hair into hundreds of tiny knots, and her work sends a political message as well as an artistic one. “History matters, how natural hair in America is looked down upon, considered dirty,” she says. “Historically, you couldn’t get a job if your hair was the way it grows naturally out of your head. You weren’t allowed to wear it that way to school. It’s something that’s been very, very, very deeply stigmatized, in the same way that Black women have been told in this country that their features are ugly. A lot of people over the generations have internalized that, so I think there’s something very deep and important about actively working against that.”

Working in a hair salon, she adds, also feeds her writing life: “I love being with the clients because when you’re taking care of someone, when you’re making them feel beautiful, they feel like they can trust you. And so you get to hear these stories that they tell you and listen to their lives.”

Sasa describes herself on her website as “a frequent maker of mistakes,” and when I ask about the reference, she answers: “I would not be this Sasa if I didn’t fumble my way through life, and I wouldn’t have all the fun and ridiculous stories that become a part of my art. So I’m a maker of mistakes and that’s something I cherish.”

Much of her art these days is fueled by darker themes, however, mainly the police killings of young Black people. Last year she converted her bedroom into a workshop and started printing postcards and T-shirts with “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” a rallying cry adopted by civil rights activists almost 100 years ago. Some of her writing reflects similar emotions, like this verse from a poem titled “Flag”:

I am golden door sealed with lock and key, symbol of the free.
You know the ones with blue eyes, white skin, and red blood stained hands.

When I ask if her writing expresses anger, she replies: “I would describe my poetry as hurt, because I myself am hurt. What comes through in my poetry, sometimes it’s anger, but sometimes it’s healing and sometimes it’s joy and sometimes it’s conviction. So I think it has all of these things in it because I have all of these things in me.”

If her work expresses hurt, it also expresses hope. Hope that other young Black women will be encouraged to tell their own stories, to feel their own power, to say to themselves, “This I can do.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.