April 20, 2018

A Maine high school student is suing the NEA for the right to recite poetry


W.E.B. Du Bois, who was smarter than you, and had a cooler moustache.

I am the Smoke King
I am black!
I am swinging in the sky,
I am wringing worlds awry;
I am the thought of the throbbing mills,
I am the soul of the soul-toil kills,
Wraith of the ripple of trading rills;
Up I’m curling from the sod,
I am whirling home to God;
I am the Smoke King
I am black.

So begins “The Song of the Smoke,” a stingingly powerful 1907 poem by epochal American intellectual and longtime friend of the blog W.E.B. Du Bois.

It’s one of three poems that Allan Monga, an eleventh-grader at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, recited last month, to win a statewide Poetry Out Loud competition. Monga’s next step should be advancing to nationals, which begin Monday in Washington, DC — but, as Robbie Feinberg reports for Maine Public Radio, he’s been told he won’t be allowed.

The contest, which is run by the National Endowment for the Arts, is open only to US citizens and permanent residents. Monga came to the US less than a year ago from Zambia, where things aren’t terrific right now, and promptly filed for asylum here. He’s currently waiting on a green card.

“Honestly, I felt discriminated against,” Monga told Feinberg. “Because I think I should be given an equal opportunity as any other kid.”

Monga has some support, though — from teachers, school administrators, and politicians, including Portland’s Congressional representative, Chellie Pingree. Alarmed at the prospect of his missing the opportunity the competition provides, Monga, with the backing of the school district, quickly sued the NEA.

The Bangor Daily News’ Judy Harrison attended Monga’s hearing on Wednesday, and reports:

“Why is it in the national interest to prevent someone like Mr. Monga from participating in this poetry contest?” U.S. District Judge John Woodcock asked attorneys for the NEA Wednesday.

“It’s in the national interest to give the limited resources of the country to permanent legal residents and U.S. citizens,” replied Assistant Attorney General Rachael Westmoreland, arguing on behalf of the government-funded NEA.

But as Ray Routhier points out at the Portland Press-Herald, that logic seems to fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, a landmark 1982 case that found undocumented immigrant children were entitled to the full resources of a public education. Westmoreland contends that there’s no contradiction, since Monga received coaching from teachers and competed in his school’s poetry competition before advancing to State. Woodcock responded by asking whether allowing Monga to come that far, and then taking the ball away, didn’t seem “somewhat contrary to what we as Americans think we stand for?”

It’s important, in fairness, that government administrators answer for the public money they oversee. The NEA supplies about $195,000 of the $695,000 it costs to stage Poetry Out Loud, with the remainder donated by the Poetry Foundation.

Still, it’ll be an egregious shame if the NEA does exclude Monga, who says he discovered his love of poetry after arriving at Deering High. He’s a transfixing performer. His choice of text is rad. (He also doesShe Walks in Beauty.”) And he himself is a teenager who’s traveled across the world to participate in whatever America is. To deny him, on a nationalist technicality, entry into what is after all a poetry-saying contest for teens can serve no purpose but cruelty.

Woodcock has promised to deliver his decision today; we’ll update the story as we can.

With that, here’s Monga’s performance. You may want to sit down, you’re about to feel something.


UPDATE: Judy Harrison reports for the Bangor Daily News that, as of 4:30 this afternoon, Judge Woodcock has ordered the NEA to allow Monga to compete in DC! In his decision, the judge wrote that “there is no congressional enactment that requires [the NEA] to impose these citizenship or permanent resident requirements to the [Poetry Out Loud] competition.” Monga’s lawyer put out a statement explaining that he was too busy preparing for Monday’s competition to speak with reporters. Which is really terrific.


Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.