At the , Tripp Fontane gave a talk about insecurity, the trauma of racism, and how the two are connected. Toward the end of his time, Fontane seamlessly weaved in his poem, “Growing Pains.” As he spoke, the audience went silent.
God forbid we grow
Fast enough to run
Limping off plantations
Marching onto battlefields
Still crashing into stereotypes
Why Black boys fate always so cruel?
The poem is featured in Fontane’s latest book, A Ghetto Called Eden, which came out in February. Like all of his work, this collection, Fontane’s second, is heavily inspired by his life, drawing from his experiences growing up in Dayton, a racially diverse (and highly segregated) city, and later in Xenia, a small and majority white town in southwestern Ohio. For Fontane, moving between the two was a stark and disorienting experience.
“[In Dayton], you would have no idea what it would really look like for Black to be a problem, because everybody I knew in my little world up until [that] point was Black. If we said 'nigga' amongst each other, it's because he was Black,” Fontane said in March over drinks at Upper Cup Coffee in Gahanna. “I moved to Xenia, I got called 'nigger' by a white person immediately. But I was so confused, because I didn't necessarily know the context of it. This is my first real interaction. ... And so, my impression of these people is immediately negative and consistently negative. It's not everybody, but don't nobody say nothing either.”
Other times, the racism took what Fontane described as a “more well-dressed” form, such as reprimands from teachers over how he spoke, or being handed military brochures instead of college applications his senior year.
Like its title suggests, A Ghetto Called Eden is a book that explores juxtapositions. Poems about coming of age in a poor, segregated neighborhood (“The ghetto / Where gentrification will keep us at least three blocks outside the American Dream”) share space with verses about the beauty of being young and hopeful (“It was in a back alley / That We remembered / We weren’t just Black boys / We remembered We were godliness made flesh”).
Fontane said the book is about bringing dignity and value to the hood and to the people who live there. So often, Fontane said, those who grew up in neighborhoods like his – poor, Black and segregated – are taught to reject that part of them. It’s something he was taught, as well.
“The hood is a sacred place, man,” Fontane said. “I truly believe God is in all things. I didn't see God in my own story because of how I was taught to look at it, how I was taught to hear it and tell it. … Then we realize [there’s] so much to be learned from that experience. It's so much character building. It's so much refinement, so much finesse, so much confidence, so much just damn sauce. The hood is the tastemaker of the world. Ghetto America is who decides what Black is for the rest of the fucking world. And we don't value it. We don't understand it. We don't unpack it. We don't explore it.”
Fontane is focused on not only centering Black stories but centering Black artists. He and four friends founded Broken English, which Fontane describes as “if TEDx and Def Poetry had a love child.” The goal with Broken English is to pay artists a sustainable wage and to bring Black art to Black people without middlemen. “A lot of times we have to hop on white platforms,” Fontane said. “If we got to go through that to get to us, then there's a larger problem at hand. So, this is our piece of resistance, if you will.”
The group currently hosts shows in Dayton and Columbus. The next Columbus show is this Saturday, April 8, at Venture Suites and will feature performances from Cynthia Amoah and Racquel Armstrong, as well as Christian Richardson, one of the founders of Broken English. The group also hosts where they have deeper conversations with the featured performers.
“You get this very rich, artistic and entertaining experience in the front half, and then you get this very human experience on the back end,” Fontane said. “Because culture is not just us being entertained. It's the communion, it's the fellowship.”
When talking about the future of Broken English, Fontane compares his plans for expansion to the Chitlin' Circuit, a group of entertainment venues across the United States that were accessible and welcoming to Black performers during the decades of racial segregation. He and his partners have big plans to expand Broken English, first to other cities in Ohio and then the rest of the Midwest. This desire to create a successful and wide-ranging live show was what brought Fontane to Columbus in 2015.
“I knew I was coming to a place where I could go to work, really get it done,” he said. “It was a lot more diversity and depth than I think I was used to from home, even amongst Black poets only – just the diversity and experience and perspective. Because again, Dayton is super segregated geographically, so we all live in the same area. So, for the most part, we done went through the same shit. Here, you got this hood pocket, that hood pocket, this suburban pocket, that middle-class pocket, and you get all of these people expressing this thing. … Seeing and hearing that gave me a lot of new ways to approach my work."