By Jennie Lusk
Poet, journalist, and activist Hakim Bellamy is a Bernie Sanders Independent who formerly became a Democrat to vote for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He’s also a community organizer, a father, a performer, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellow, an alumnus of both the KUNM newsroom and KNME (New Mexico PBS) ¡COLORES!
As an African American man sometimes eyed in New Mexico stores, Bellamy recognizes that being “made invisible” by those who consider New Mexico’s cultures as merely ”tricultural” has its liabilities. He’s become accustomed to being seen as “different” in a state with a small African American population, and knows the value in seeking to overcome cultural—and political—differences.
The author of several published books, Bellamy is now finishing a prose memoir and is taking on more projects that keep him on the political front lines. The soon to be 44-year-old recently left his post as Deputy Director of the City of Albuquerque’s Department of Arts & Culture. The City‘s inaugural poet laureate and twice National slam poetry champion is drawn more toward creativity and community organizing than toward the quieter, systemic change that working inside government often requires. Bellamy organizes by facilitating youth writing workshops for schools, jails, churches, prisons, and community organizations in Albuquerque and nationwide.
Recently, Bellamy took part in Civic Seminary, one of Eric Liu’s Citizen University programs, which are designed to bring disparate people together to equip Americans to be “civic culture catalysts.” In it, he’s found ways to seek common ground with people he might never have otherwise encountered—an experience many have needed after the 2016 presidential election.
“Most of us were expecting a different outcome,” Bellamy said of the election, “and we were shocked, disappointed, and disillusioned. The election showed us we can no longer deny the divides. People in our own families, in our jobs, and our schools fundamentally disagree with us—and have surprisingly different values than we do.”
Bellamy has a wealth of experience in breaching a divide from his work as a performance poet, where he regularly stands alone and stands out on stage. Since slavery, he explains, African Americans were made to both stand out as a result of their skin color and to “blend into the background” by virtue of their station. The blending-in was to avoid conflict. “Standing out, being visible, is dangerous. But being erased is just as dangerous,” he said, remarking that during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, people accustomed to being in the majority claimed that they were the ones being made invisible, and chanting that they would be neither erased nor replaced.
“I’ve been in a few situations where my blackness is a liability,” he said of living in Albuquerque as opposed to his hometown near Philadelphia, where the African American population was approximately 40%. While emphasizing that no one should mistake his individual experiences as representing those of the whole African American community, he recalled his mother’s caution when he first left home: “It’s easy to be yourself and express your identity here, where you are one of many, but not so easy where you are the only one of you.”
“My audiences [here] don’t look like me,” he said. Even so, he finds that he connects with his audiences deeply when he speaks of his personal, individual, unique experiences. “I find the more specific I can be about my experience, the more universal I become. The more of me I authentically show, the more the audience and I connect and find common values.” Overcoming divides in perspective, background, and identity can be powerful and constructive in building kinship and community, if Bellamy’s experience is an indication.
Recognizing and leaning into differences seems to be the key to overcoming them for Bellamy’s work in the community. Accepting and acknowledging differences also offers a way forward in healing the political divides that became so obvious in November 2016.
An unintended outcome and benefit of Bellamy’s Civic Seminary work is his newfound desire to become more active in local Democratic organizing with wards and precincts. He posits that his involvement and that of people like him can anchor the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County further left.
“No party deserves unflinching allegiance,” Bellamy said, “but if there’s any hope for the Bernie coalition, it will be in the Democratic Party. A third party is just not going to happen.” Commenting on the Biden administration, he continued: “You can have holier-than-thou principles, but the reality is that at some point you have to govern. We handled Joe Biden’s predecessor with kid gloves. He deserves better but he can also do better.”
Being a target of counter-activists and regularly putting himself in the precarious position of standing out on stage rather than blending in animates Bellamy and his work. “When anyone expresses their identity, it can cause a backlash. Not living your identity causes you to lash yourself,” he said. Recognizing differences is essential for finding common ground, as he has discovered. It is dangerous, but it is also the stuff of building communities—including political communities.
To reach/follow/learn more about Hakim Bellamy and his views, visit www.beyondpoetryink.com