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Why Am I and What Difference Does It Make?: Questions from a Young Artist

Victoria Ford

My name is Victoria Ford. I’m Southern, I’m black, and I’m an artist. Perhaps you’re wondering—and appropriately so—why I would begin this way.

My introduction is inspired by exciting news. With her recent honor as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway is the first Southern writer to hold this prestigious title since Robert Penn Warren. She is also the first African-American Poet Laureate since Rita Dove, who held the post in 1993—almost two decades ago.

That year holds a great deal of weight to me being that it was my birth year, an indication that during the course of my young life there have only been two female black poets, two artists I can closely relate to, who’ve held this title.

Shortly before finishing my first year in college and prior to beginning my internship with Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C., I’d been invested in answering a particular question: What are the ethnographic implications on my artistic context?

I frame the question this way because I’m not interested in answering the age-old question, “Who am I?”—this I’ve already answered. Rather, “Why am I and what difference does it make?” is a question that I find myself perpetually chasing.

So let’s begin here. Why am I here? Before this internship, before any shatter of a formal arts education, I was 12 and in middle school. It was there that poetry first came alive to me in the form of a friend. I thought of poetry as a sacred language we shared. Something ignited in my relationship with words and images. Writing became less a mandatory school affair and more a site of inexhaustible magic.

The road from there, although not smooth as river rocks, brought me to the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a two-year public residential high school. I could speak for years about this beautiful school (in later posts, without a doubt).

But it was here that I could afford to ask myself hard questions about my passion:

What does it mean to be an artist in America and Black?

A Southern writer and female?

Why am I yearning to do this and what difference does it make?

With certainty I can tell you that I don’t have fleshed out answers for my questions. And I’m not quite sure if I should at the age of 19. This isn’t to say that I’m too young.

Having discussed this as an inspiration for her own work, Ms. Tretheway was a 19-year-old in college when her stepfather murdered her mother. She says of her mother’s death, “Strangely enough, that was the moment when I both felt that I would become a poet and then immediately afterward felt that I would not. I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened…”

I believe our context—where we come from, what we’ve gone through, and what groups we identify with socially, culturally, etc.—deeply impacts what we choose to devote ourselves to in the future, art or otherwise. My own context is the springboard for my artistic ideas. It’s the reason for why I feel inspired to advocate for the arts, those pieces of our humanity that aren’t bound by the sanctions in which we set ourselves.

I believe, also, that the biggest difference between the who am I? and why am I? questions is the act of choice, as Tretheway so eloquently details. I didn’t choose to be born female, didn’t choose to be a Tennessean (although I’ll claim Carolina in a hot second), and of course, I didn’t choose my race. Simply put, my context was predetermined.

I did choose, however, to be an artist.

It’s the one thing I don’t hesitate to say when I meet people. It’s the scariest and most exhilarating choice I’ve made thus far.

Art. It’s not only a description of who I am, but it’s a declaration of why I am.

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