CLEVELAND — Raja Belle Freeman is a 21-year-old Cleveland State senior whose words will arrest you.
“She really writes and speaks her own truth,” says Daniel Gray-Kontar, the founder of Twelve Literary Arts, an east side non-profit dedicated to providing a safe space for writers of all ages to focus on imagination and social justice.
“She really does a great job of writing the truth but also writing it in a way so that it sucks and pulls others in,” says Gray-Kontar.
DEVELOPING A VOICE
“I hope people get a better understanding of at least how I perceive the truth,” says Freeman, who became connected to Twelve as a teen through their student fellowship program.
The South Euclid native says research helped her develop a voice for social justice.
“The more I learned about what was going on around me, the more I knew how I felt about it. The more I know, you know, how I wanted to speak.”
Freeman’s ideas expressed through her poetry is how she says she pushes her words into others to get them to understand her message. It's a skill she's now trying to teach other youth of color.
“I just want the students that I work with to feel like they really reached their voice,” says Freeman. “I want to help them be themselves on paper and on the stage.”
Freeman does this by serving as an assistant instructor for Twelve's after school literature programs at Michael R. White Elementary School and at Twelve's east side home.
"Raja is part -- and a very important part -- of that ecosystem in moving the tradition of the Black Literary Arts in this city forward," says Gray-Kontar. “Twelve Literary Arts is designed to be generative. We’re an ecosystem and part of what needs to happen in an ecosystem is that old ideas are replaced by new ones. Raja represents new ideas."
SPEAKING “TRUTH” TO POWER
According to Gray-Kontar, Freeman can illuminate larger themes in society by embodying other people in her poems. An example of this is the poem “Never Have I Ever,” which captures Freeman’s perspective of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri.
Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer. It's a moment that sparked protests and national discussions about policing in black communities.
In the poem, Freeman starts by describing how she has never lost a game of “Never Have I Ever,” a pastime in which players take turns asking other players about things they haven’t done. Freeman then shifts the flow of the poem by using her squeaky-clean background as the backdrop to discuss themes of innocence and the portrayal of blackness in the media.
“It’s about how the media treats young black boys after they’ve been murdered by a police officer and how it paints them as these villains, these thugs, these people that deserve to die,” says Freeman. “The poem shapes how I feel being a young black person and knowing the risk of just being a young black person.”
But what happens when someone disagrees with the viewpoints expressed?
“Whether you agree or not is at the end of the day aside from the point, it is the fact that she (Freeman) has made you think differently. She has challenged your thinking,” says Gray-Kontar, who teaches Twelve's youth to set a space of mutual respect where people with opposing viewpoints can listen to each other and understand why they disagree.
“The disagreement is good; the tension is what makes this democracy work," adds Gray-Kontar. "We say 'good' when there's a disagreement. Now let’s figure out a way to share one another’s truths in a way that we can hear each other.”