Written by Nandhi Honwana
I first heard about Camonghne Felix through my internship at The New York Women’s Foundation. A regular assignment of mine includes the thrilling task of transcribing interviews. When I say thrilling, I truly mean it. Though transcribing 30 to 40 minutes worth of audio is not always the most fun, the women whose words I note are some of the best and the brightest. They all come from different walks of life and have different stories to tell. However, they are not solely bound by their womanhood: they are all soldiers of social justice (and I find them all to be incredibly inspiring). Camonghne Felix—a 25 year old poet from the Bronx—is one of these women.
I was immediately impressed with Camonghne’s voice, specifically the way she used it. She spoke her truth without holding anything back. She explained that she grew up in the Bronx, in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. She talked about not being invested in her education because of the contrast between what she learned at school versus what she saw on the street. She explained that for her, finding poetry meant finding a way to talk about the things she witnessed without understanding. Things like a lack of access to social resources, lackluster school curriculums, and police brutality. Growing up, Camonghne knew something was wrong but she had no name for it—until she started writing poetry.
Camonghne wrote her first poem in response to watching a Malcolm X documentary in high school. This was the first time that she’d been able to think through and express the entanglement of violence in the black American experience. It was also the first time she felt she found something she was good at that couldn’t be taken away from her. Now, almost 10 years later, Camonghne is an author, poet, speaker, and organizer. She holds 2 Master’s Degrees, one from Bard College and the other from NYU. She is also a professional, having worked in politics for Governor Cuomo and currently working at a PR firm.
Camonghne Felix’s story fascinates me because she worked hard to create more options for herself to explore. Though her interview with The New York Women’s Foundation was extremely eye-opening, it left me wanting to know more. So a few weeks ago, I reached out to her and asked if she would be interested in being spotlighted for the Healix Collective’s July Feature. When she said yes, I asked her to pick a place in the city that meant something to her. Below is my conversation with Camonghne Felix on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade:
N: What was life like for you, growing up in the Bronx?
C: It was really weird. My mom grew up the Bronx and her side of the family all grew up in the Bronx. My mom’s a lawyer and she was a single mom of 3. She did local city law. So she didn’t get paid a lot—she didn’t make anything. She got paid like $50,000 a year and was raising 3 kids by herself. So there was this weird contrast where I knew that I had academic privilege. And I knew that being able to talk to my mom about school and about Nietzsche and things like that, was something that my friends didn’t have. But at the same time, we all went to the same schools and teachers treated us all the same way. And I knew that the people didn’t value us. Just intuitively, all the time.
N: When you say people, you mean the teachers?
C: Teachers. Law enforcement. The people who were supposed to be there to give us hope and care, and take care of us. I just knew that they didn’t care. And that was hard because I’m a very empathetic person. I’m a natural empath. And growing up, even at very young ages, I saw the things that people were going through in my community. I knew that they needed help. I also knew that something wasn’t right. I knew that the situation that we were all in wasn’t just because we didn’t want to be successful or didn’t care about our lives. I just knew that that narrative wasn’t true. So I felt really angry. Because I didn’t necessarily understand what was happening or why we didn’t have access. Or at that point I didn’t even know that it was a lack of access. You don’t know exactly what it is. There’s no name for it. You don’t have any context, you just know that something isn’t right, and that the way people are reacting to it is also wrong. So I just had a lot of confusion growing up and I was very observant.
I paid a lot of attention to everything and to everyone. Which sometimes got me in trouble because I didn’t have a measure of what it meant to hang out with good or bad people. I didn’t know what that was. To me everybody was good, which meant that I got in a lot of trouble sometimes. People I hung out with didn’t necessarily have my best interest at heart because they didn’t have their best interest at heart. It was a confusing upbringing which was sort of a blur.
N: When you first started writing poetry, it started with a poem about Malcolm X. After hearing it, your teacher encouraged you to keep writing. And you did, even though you felt like it was corny. Despite feeling it was corny, did you find that through poetry you were able to make sense of the things you were seeing that caused you confusion?
C: That’s precisely it. And that’s why I kept going. The Malcolm X poem that I wrote was one of the first times that I was able to triangulate. And by triangulate I mean see where I was, see the people who were around me, know what time it was, and understand what that meant. The reaction I had to seeing Malcolm X die in my classroom, was the first time that I’d ever had such a visceral reaction to something that had to do with black people. You know, my mom’s black and my family comes from a revolutionary background, so of course we talked about race and talked about blackness. But that was the first time that I saw that blackness equates incredible violence. And it freaked me the fuck out. It was through that poem that I was able to talk to my community and start to piece together those things that I didn’t understand and those things that were blurs.
When I think about that poem, I know there’s a lot about it that was fucked up. Because I was still piecing things together, maybe I ascribed shame where it shouldn’t be. Maybe I was blaming my community for things it didn’t deserve to be blamed for. I don’t know. Maybe there was a line in there that said something like, “We need to stop shooting each other. Love each other.” You know, something that is essentialist and not really respectful of the actual situation. But it was the first time that I was able to sit down and think about it. Really think about why it was happening. And who it was actually affecting. And I remember the year after, I wrote a lot of poems. In my last year in that school, I wrote a lot of poems just about being in the classroom. It’s really interesting to think about it now… 5 years later, I’m writing poems that don’t really have anything to do with that but at the same time it had everything to do with what I was seeing in the classroom.
N: What kind of things did you see in the classroom?
C: One of my friends. We were really, really, really good friends. He was really funny and interesting. We would sit together in Math class, and bullshit. And one day, I don’t remember why it crossed my mind—maybe it was a workshop that I was taking that week, but I just said to him, “Where do you think you’re going to be in 5 years?” And he was like, “I don’t know. Dead probably.” And I remember, if I had not written that Malcolm X poem, I don’t think I would’ve asked him that question. And his answer wouldn’t have resonated with me in the way that it did. I never forgot that. I wound up writing a poem about it. Just really taking note of what was happening around me, to my classmates. It was in that year when I started writing poetry, I knew that I had gained a level of privilege. Gained a level of access that they hadn’t yet gained or that they wouldn’t gain. So I’m looking around me and really archiving that. Archiving what this privilege gives me that my friends—people that I hung out with, people that I got drunk during the day with—what they don’t have. And it was difficult.
N: That level of access and privilege also allows you to realize what the problem actually is.
C: And in that moment of realizing what the problem actually is, realizing that I have no fucking control at all. And there’s nothing I can do. When he says, “I don’t know, I’m probably going to be dead,” I can’t respond to him and say, “No. That’s not going to happen.” Because it fucking could. It might. It’s likely. And realizing that in order to do something, I had to do something. I think that’s where my civic desires and personality were born. I started to realize that the things that I was seeing around me were not one-offs. And that if I wanted to do something about it I would have to get involved in some way.
N: Did you get involved in ways that weren’t necessarily artistic?
C: Yeah. I started going to protests and doing some research. Just thinking a lot about the stories my mom and my dad told me about shit. And recognizing that the fights that they were fighting were still very relevant. And that I had a lot of work to do, and that we still had a lot of work to do. Because the world that they were trying to build, we’re closer to it, but it’s so, so far. So protesting, doing research, and reading a lot more. Listening to my father’s stories and my mother’s stories.
N: It’s really interesting that investing in the arts can give way to civic responsibility. In your interview with The New York Women’s Foundation you talked about access to the arts. You spoke about there being more people of color on stage but the audience is still not that diverse. You also mentioned that a big part of diversifying audience members begins with education. That if the arts are incorporated into the curriculum, not just treated as an extracurricular activity then young people would be more likely to invest in going to see a play or a poetry reading, instead of going to a club. Following that thread, then, it makes sense that in the places where you don’t have that kind of artistic engagement in school, the sense of civic responsibility is bound to be low.
C: Yes, precisely. Exactly that. I went to an alternative high school, which is where people end up after they fail out of 3 or 4 different high schools. And we had no arts access. I mean, that’s not true. We had a visual arts class. And we had KK, one of my teachers who is really important to my history at this point. She was the one who brought in hip-hop and poetry education. Even though I thought it was super duper corny, we were there. And it was important. I thought differently about Lupe Fiasco. I felt differently about the lyrics I was hearing as I ate the school cookies, or whatever. Maybe if we’d had that access when I was a freshman in high school, I would’ve been more engaged every day. I wouldn’t have failed the first high school that I went to.
It’s heartbreaking to think people only get politically engaged when they get to college. It’s because they have all this new access and this new information. But some people don’t fucking get there. They just don’t get to college. I wasn’t sure I was going to get there. I knew I had to. Especially because I come from a background of academics. I knew I was going to college at some point. I wasn’t going to not go. But at the same time, I didn’t know how I was going to get there. So it’s heartbreaking to think that there are so many people who have the ability to get more involved and to think harder and bigger about the situations that they’ve been put in, to really find their own community’s solutions. The more that we lack arts education, the more that we lack civics education.
You know, in high we had this class, Participation in Government. But it had no fucking grounding. Teaching me about the 3 branches of government and teaching me about why we vote, that has nothing to do with why the fuck I would vote. What the hell does learning about the 3 branches of government mean to a kid who can’t eat, whose brother just died, his dad’s in jail? What does that actually do for him? Not a fucking thing. Maybe if he had that in conjunction with an actual arts program, those things would’ve lined up for him. But it was a pointless class that he just got a credit for and he probably didn’t absorb anything from.
N: Going back to college, I have to ask you about your time up at Bard. How were your classes? What was the environment like?
C: So I went there for grad school. It was my first Master’s Program. It was interesting because I’m one of the youngest people they’ve ever had. Not the youngest. I think there was one person before me who maybe got there at 19. I got there at 20. I was also the only black person in the program at that time. So it was really jarring for me. Liberating in some strange ways that I haven’t deeply unpacked yet but it was fucking weird. To be the youngest person. And the only black person in Upstate New York–which is not the most palatable to people of color in general. I will say that one thing was useful: not having other black people around me made me formulate ideas about blackness by myself. Which was in some ways really oppressive and frustrating but in many other ways, super duper useful. Because it meant that I had no one to rely on and to bounce things off of. My convictions had to be solely mine. They had to be rationalized through information that only I could gather. Which meant that no one could say, “You only think this way, you’re only writing this way because you’re hanging out with this person.” It was like, “No, this is totally and wholly mine.” And it was useful because I got to really investigate some questions about the difference between presenting blackness and representing blackness.
I had to make a decision about which one I wanted to do. And this isn’t a judgment call to say, if you’re representing blackness that you’re doing it right or wrong or any of those things. I just realized over a little bit of time that what I actually did want to be doing was presenting blackness. That’s what was most important to me. And by presenting I mean, not just writing through black pain, and bringing black pain into the fore for white people to have to contend with. But really thinking through blackness as an entity, as a body that has a significant amount of layers. That has a significant amount of relevance. Of course much of it comes from our pain, but we’ve also built around it, and built structures and scaffolds around and beyond it that have nothing to do with pain or whiteness.
So I had a good opportunity to really think about what blackness meant in relationship to whiteness but not in spite of it. And I also got to toy a lot with different mediums. With visual art, essays, sculpture. And that was exciting. It was exciting to play around. It was a good time. It was frustrating because it was one of the first times that I realized just how academia keeps us out in a way. How it disrupts us. But it was a good time for me to grow into myself as a young thinker. As a young academic. Especially coming with my background. I graduated high school with a 1.2 GPA. I had no idea that anyone would see me as someone “intellectual” or “academic.” But I had the opportunity to define that for myself. Which I don’t think I would’ve gotten if I’d gone to undergrad at the same age that I started grad school. So it was interesting. It was good. I wrote some good poems. Half of my first book came from that experience.
N: Did you have any advisors of color?
C: The whole department was white. But there was one professor, her name was Matana Roberts. She’s a jazz musician. And Fred Moten, who’s a very well-known black poet who came for a week and spent a lot of time with me. They were really formative for me. Especially in that space because they were all I had. More than just teaching me techniques and tactics, they taught me how to deal with the fact that there was nobody for me to relate to or bounce things off of. They told me how to understand what that meant, how to understand the freedoms and pitfalls of that.
N: Can you talk about the power of poetry. How it has empowered you and how are you using it to empower others?
C: I’m using poetry to ask questions. To ask really complicated, strange questions I think. And that’s empowering because I think that people of color, we take a lot of answers from other people. Especially from white academics. And academia as a whole–which is, you know, an intuitively white space. We don’t get very many opportunities to ask our own questions and answer them ourselves. So I think what I’m doing is asking questions that start long, important conversations. That’s what I hope that I’m doing. And I think that through it, I get to talk through things that are hard, that are complicated, without constantly reopening wounds. I’m not trying to make people feel pain. The pain of blackness or womanhood. I’m trying ask questions about that pain which I think opens it up in a way that’s a bit more liberating. Where you don’t feel required to contend with a wound to be present. Where you don’t have to feel pain to talk about blackness. Where it can be joyful.
One of the things that I like to write a lot about is growing up in the Bronx. I was out a lot. I had a lot of friends. We’d do really ridiculous, ratchet shit. I like to write about that because as much as it came from a place of lack of access, it was fun. I had a good fucking time. I had a great time kicking it, being out in the street with my friends, learning things about myself that I wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t have that experience. We had fun. We cut school. We smoked weed. We got in fights. But we loved each other very well and very much. And I try to write from those places too. To humanize those experiences. To make them less about our flaws and faults. And to elevate and spotlight the beauty that we somehow scaffold and build and even dream.
Of course poverty is disgusting and painful and fucked up, but there’s an entire industry around the practice of poverty. Which is making something out of nothing. I saw on Instagram, the other day, a weave cap. Which is basically a baseball cap with tracks sewn into it; so you just put it on and you’re good for the day. That’s some ingenious shit. And it was fly as fuck. I like writing about that shit. Which obviously shows you the pain and the frustration of poverty and the ugliness of poverty. But it also shows you how fucking ingenious we are. All the ways that we literally make beauty out of nothing.
Block parties are lit. And a lot of the time block parties happen because people want to have fun and they want to dance and they want to give their kids somewhere to kick it and cool down in the summer. People can’t afford to get out to this or that, so they turn the goddamn hydrants on and their kids play like it’s a goddamn beach. It’s one of the most joyful, interesting experiences that a kid could have. Some of my fondest memories are of playing in the hydrants. And racing to the ice cream truck with 75 cents that your mom definitely yelled at you about, like, “Girl, this is my last 75 cents. I ain’t go no more money for this. If you want more ice cream, you’re going to have to get a job.” All of this shit is super interesting. So I think that’s how I empower and inspire others. At least I hope that that’s part of what I’m doing.
N: I think it is. Can you explain the difference between the language you use in your writing and the language you grew up with and use in your speech?
C: I think for me, I almost feel bilingual. In the sense that the language that I spoke growing up with the homies and shit, I don’t speak that way in classrooms. Or in interviews or even in my professional world. But that language is very special to me. I talk to all of my friends that way. You know, like, “Kiki-ing” and “Yes, bitch.” You know, that accent that language is very special to me. And very precise. I think it does something very special. But also the language that my parents gave me, which is this academic language that is almost in many ways self-taught. I think that that dynamic, the contrast of them both really explains who I am. It explains the kind of binaries that I’m working through. So I tend to choose that academic language to transcribe the language that I was speaking in when the actual experiences happened.
There’s one poem I have in my book, Yolk, where I talk about my friend Tasha dying. She got her throat slit by a girl she was fighting with over a boy. The language that I use is very academic. And it’s almost in a way that I don’t really want the reader to have access to the language that we used. Mainly because it’s not theirs and they haven’t earned it. Also, it’s useful to note, when I first started writing and reading poetry, a lot of my audience was black and were black women. That’s still true. But I do readings these days that are all white people. I go online and I check out my book reviews and they’re mostly by white people. So I’ve had to contend with how do I talk about my community and how do I talk about the people that I love without exploiting them, without exploiting the language that they trusted me with and that they allowed me into. So a lot of it is trying to very gingerly talk about who we are and what we’re doing, without exploiting the very pieces that bind us to each other. Which in a lot of ways is that language.
N: Ah okay. Can you tell me more about your parents.
C: My mom grew up in the Bronx in the late sixties. So that was during the time that the Bronx was burning. There was a lot of violence and a lot of crime. And more than anything, there were a lot of developers coming in. Basically the situation of the developers and the Cross Bronx Expressway caused a lot of the crime and a lot of the pain that was happening at that time. Without my mother having explained that to me, I would’ve had no context of why the Bronx was the way it was. I would have no reason to think critically about what it means when developers come into our communities. And what is about to happen when they enter. So that helped me think really hard about the narrative that I wanted to use. It made me think hard about whether I wanted to be the kind of person who said, “Yeah I grew up in the Bronx and it was really fucked up. Everyone is bad.” Or did I want to be the kind of person who really thought about it meant when I said, “There’s a lot of crime. Things are really bad.”
My mom, because she’s a lawyer, she used to cross-examine me. A lot of the time what she would do was listen to me say things and be like, “But what do you mean when you say that?” If I said something like, “I’m starving.” My mom would be like, “Are you? What does it mean to be starving? Do you know what that means?” And then when I would really think through it, she’d be like, “Well, are you starving?” And be like, “No, I’m not starving. I’m hungry.” My mom was just very good at holding me accountable to my own language. To be precise in saying what I mean.
My mom was also an artist. She was a musician. She used to be in a reggae band for a long time. And she almost got signed when she was 18 or 19. She decided that she didn’t want to get signed because she wasn’t going to write love songs. So my mom also taught me a lot about artistic conviction. About knowing what you want to do and why and what that means. That really set me up for success.My mom was also very specific in giving me agency. Like, “You have to decide what’s valuable to you. You get to decide what you want to eat, what you want to wear, and who you want to be. I may not approve of those things, but it’s up to you to decided whether or not my approval matters.”
My dad is a revolutionary in a lot of ways. In 1983 the US invaded Grenada and my dad and Maurice Bishop and some other people started the People’s Party, which helped to get the US out. So a lot of what I understood about political conviction came from that too. My parents were just really influential in the way that I thought about the world and in building my world view.
N: Whoa. That’s amazing. What’s your life like now? What are you doing?
C: Right now I do political PR and strategy. I was working for Governor Cuomo. I was his Deputy Press Secretary and his Speech Writer for a while. And then I transitioned to this firm, where I work for a bunch of different non-profit and social justice organizations and also some politicians. What’s cool about it is that essentially what I do is that I get to tell stories. I get to protect people and build their narratives and tell the stories that are important to them. And those stories happen to be important to me too. It sort of came full circle. One thing that I’m really interested in doing is going back to my community, my hood, and teaching people what PR and strategy and all that stuff is because there are so many kids that I grew up with who I think would be so good at this shit, but have no idea what it is. So yeah, that’s what I’m up to now. I love it so much.
If you want keep up with Camonghne Felix:
- Follow her on Twitter
- Follow her on Instagram
- Check out her interview with The New York Women’s Foundation, on pg. 9 of the foundation’s E-magazine Activist Philanthropist
- Come to the Healix Collective’s screening of “Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth”: a documentary about writer Alice Walker, the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.