Arts & Culture

Poetic Justice

As the city’s first Youth Poet Laureate, Derick Ebert uses his voice to discuss race, masculinity, and the future of Baltimore.

Derick Ebert dreamed of being many things, like an athlete at Baltimore City College, maybe a football or basketball star, rushing for 100 yards or hitting a winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

He wound up on the debate team.

“It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Ebert, who became the city’s first Youth Poet Laureate last year. “Being on the debate team was about becoming fearless and getting up in front of a crowd of people, my peers.”

The 20-year-old Ebert, now an English major at the University of Baltimore, is taking a break in the UB Student Center between exams. Sitting in an upstairs lounge overlooking Mount Royal Avenue, he wears a gray sweater with blue Beats headphones draped around his neck and exudes a casual self-assurance that’s compelling. He speaks with a balance of passion and poise, though his widening eyes and gesturing hands often tip the scale in the direction of the former. It doesn’t take long to glean that he’s as much a performer as he is a poet.

Over the course of one year, Ebert performed at The John Hopkins and Towson universities, the Baltimore Book Festival, and Teach for America’s inaugural gala at the American Visionary Art Museum. He visited the White House for discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline and was summoned to City Hall during the Freddie Gray unrest to talk about youth-related issues with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. American Short Fiction and the Poetry Society of America featured his poems online, his photo appeared on the front page of The Sun, and his debut book, Black Boy Archaeologist, was published last month.

Ebert impressed Kenneth Morrison, director of Dew More, the community-based arts group behind the Youth Poet Laureate initiative, which, according to the group’s website, “[gives] young people the opportunity to express themselves creatively and have a political impact on our city.”

“Baltimore,” says Morrison, “could not have had a better young person than Derick as its first ever Youth Poet Laureate.”

It certainly has been a whirlwind for him. “Two years ago, I never imagined any of this could happen to me,” says Ebert, with a look of mild disbelief. “I’m definitely not the same person I was back in high school, before all this started. And it’s all because of poetry.”

Asked if he has always liked poetry, Ebert shakes his head. “No, I’ve always liked attention,” he says, smiling. “Poetry came out of nowhere.”

Ebert grew up in Northeast Baltimore and can tick off a list of his old neighborhoods that would make a 3rd District councilman smile proudly: “north of Montebello,” “Woodlea,” “closer to Hamilton,” and “around the Moravia area.”

He has an older brother, Michael, and an identical twin, Trevor, who attends UB as a public policy major. Derick and Trevor are first-generation college students.

He’s as much a performer as he is a poet.

They are the product of a mixed-race marriage. Ebert’s mother, an educator at Moravia Park Elementary, is black; his father, a driver for UPS, is white. Ebert thinks his parents’ relationship is extraordinary, especially considering that his mom was one of two black students at her middle school, where she was called racial slurs, and got chased home after school. “Chased and harassed by white people,” notes Ebert, “and she ended up marrying my father. It’s amazing she didn’t have some sort of trauma that would prevent her from marrying a white man.”

He finds it surprising that his parents rarely talk about race. “If something happens to come up, we might talk about it,” he says, “but race is never at the forefront. I’ve always wondered what other family members thought about their relationship. Did they support it? I love my dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and they love me, but there’s a distance that’s created by the things we don’t talk about.”

But race was definitely an issue outside his household. Because he is light-skinned, Ebert experienced a great deal of colorism within his own community. A middle school teacher, for instance, chided him for self-identifying as African-American on standardized test forms, saying, “You’re not black. You are white.”

Another teacher called him to the front to demonstrate the “brown paper bag test,” which has historically been used to evaluate skin tone with an eye toward denying privileges to darker-skinned people. In Ebert’s case, the teacher held the bag up to his face and declared, “See class, Derick is lighter than a brown paper bag, so he could pass for being white.”

The demonstration distanced Ebert from his fellow sixth-graders, who labeled him “white” despite his claims to the contrary. They also chastised him for “talking white,” which, he says, grew out of being educated and watching Cartoon Network. “Ever since I can remember, it was about race for me,” he says.

At City, Ebert found teachers that nudged him toward a deeper sense of self, teachers he later celebrated in his poem, “Pieces.” In it, he likened Sedrick Smith, a history teacher, to “an instruction manual from Ikea/he could never make things easy” and recalled him urging students to see the world and return as teachers. He praised Mark Miazga, an English instructor, for introducing him to the work of James Baldwin, and Patrick Daniels, the debate coach, for being his “brick wall” and counseling him to “not flinch when things fall apart.”

He compared Tameka Taylor, another English teacher, to “a wrecking ball,” because she “knocked down borders for children.” She spoke frankly with her students and laid out the challenges ahead: “People like you don’t often make it out of the city,” she told Ebert, “and that’s why it’s especially important to pursue education. You can do anything you want, but there’s a lot of distance between where you are and where you dream of going.” Ebert appreciated her candor. “It was like the kitchen table talk that your mom, your uncle, or anyone who really cared about you would have,” he says.

Taylor remembers her former student as being reserved, even a little timid, as a freshman. “I had the opportunity to watch Derick blossom,” she says. “His personality and confidence seemed to emerge when he found his stride with the debate team.”

Still, she never pegged him as a poet. Ebert’s father didn’t envision him as a poet, either, and encouraged him to study history, or maybe work as an archaeologist (hence the poem of the same name and title of his book).

But like many scribes before him, Ebert found poetry after having his heart broken.

Ebert was in a long-term relationship when he started at UB. During freshman year, he and his girlfriend split up, leaving him “shattered and lost.” That is, until a teacher, once again, showed a way forward.

“Derick ensured his platform included conversations not captured on CNN.”

His writing professor, Anthony Moll, was fond of playing spoken word and poetry slam videos at the beginning of class, and they caught Ebert’s ear, and eye. In the age of Def Poetry and YouTube, popular poets are akin to hip-hop stars and have the page views and Twitter followings to prove it. Ebert was immediately taken with Rudy Francisco’s love poems, wordplay, and circuitous route to “a-ha” moments. The first time he watched Javon Johnson perform “cuz he’s black,” where the poet looks at police brutality through the eyes of his 4-year-old nephew, Ebert cried. He watched it a second time, connected profoundly with the storytelling, cried again, and thought, “I would like to try that.”

So he did, shutting himself in his bedroom to write poems between homework assignments and PlayStation sessions. Like many of his peers in contemporary poetry, Ebert envisioned himself “spitting” poems, not publishing them. His early performances, often documented on video, coupled the debate skills he gleaned at City with his experiences as a young black male coming to terms with race, masculinity, and expectations for the future. His poetry is captivatingly visceral, combining strong emotion with everyday metaphors.

“Initially, I was doing it mostly for the videos,” he says. “I wanted to become YouTube famous.”

His goals evolved considerably, especially after winning the Youth Poet Laureate competition and witnessing the Freddie Gray unrest erupt about a week after he was officially appointed to the position at City Hall. Ebert took his responsibilities seriously as an arts and culture ambassador, striving to give voice to city youth, especially with regards to deep-rooted concerns and often-overlooked accomplishments. Some of his work entailed teaching foster kids to write poetry and embarking on a mini-tour of appearances at various Enoch Pratt Free Library branches.

“I became more geared toward children and my peers,” he says. “I saw that I had an impact, and I wanted them to lead an impactful life as well.”

Dew More’s Kenneth Morrison witnessed those encounters firsthand.

“During a time when the city had no choice but to hear the concerns of its youth, Derick was essential in taking that voice to corners of the city that needed it most,” says Morrison. “It became easy this year to allow campaigns and media to limit the conversation, but Derick ensured his platform included conversations not captured on CNN. I watched him grow into his voice and, more importantly, grow his understanding of the responsibility that comes with his voice.”

That voice will change this month, as the next Youth Poet Laureate will be decided by a competition held at City Hall on February 1. It will be a two-round poetry slam, with each poem judged on a scale of zero to 10. Ebert is one of the judges.

Beyond that, Ebert looks forward to graduating from UB and, hopefully, going through Teach for America to become a Baltimore City public school teacher. “To some extent, I am already a teaching artist,” says Ebert. “I definitely know how to lead an urban classroom and get everyone’s attention.”

Checking his watch, Ebert sees it’s almost time for his English Literature final. He stands and reaches for the headphones around his neck, as he prepares to walk toward the elevator for his next test.

“I’m still discovering and questioning things about myself,” he says. “I’m always changing and growing.”

It brings to mind the closing lines of “Archaeologist”:

I’m not going to pretend to be a poet.
I told you,
I’m an archaeologist.
I’m just trying to find the pieces
that’ll make me feel whole.