Watching Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, perform her poem at the presidential inauguration, Penn junior Husnaa Haajarah Hashim thought of herself as a 10-year-old African American girl getting her poetry published for the first time.
Hashim is one of the celebrated young writers, like 22-year-old Gorman, in a new generation of poets.
“I’m thinking how influential and inspirational it would be to have an Amanda Gorman at that age,” says Hashim. “I have so much pride that poetry is being recognized and celebrated on this scale, by someone so young. She’s the first to write a Super Bowl poem. Who would have thought that that was even a thought?”
Hashim, who grew up in West Philadelphia, was the city’s 2017-18 Youth Poet Laureate during her senior year at Mastery Charter School. She has received many writing awards, and her poems have appeared in several publications. She published her first chapbook of poetry, “Honey Sequence,” the summer of 2018 before her freshman year at Penn, and she has emerged as a leader in the literature and arts community on campus.
“For young people creating art, we need art to be appreciated and respected for what it is, which is transformative and important and necessary and life-altering,” Hashim says. “I think young people are seeing Amanda Gorman and seeing their likeness reflected in her. Also, in our global consciousness as a country, she is forever now sealed in history, seared into our collective literary and historical imagination and reality for the rest of time.”
This moment calls for the power of poetry, Hashim says, considering the pandemic, the political upheaval, and the confrontation of racial injustice in the nation.
“I really think of poetry as a remedy or a salve, something that we can use to heal us. Oftentimes people speak of a favorite poem that they read at certain times, or even prayers as poems,” she says. “What gives me strength is ancestral memory, but also specific poems I turn to over and over.”
Poetry has long been a literal lifeline for Black women and girls, passing from generation to generation, says Grace Sanders Johnson, assistant professor of Africana studies. It’s a tradition she sees woven, and expanded, in Hashim’s writing and scholarship. “From a very young age, we have been using poetry to communicate the dynamism of our lives. We play with spoken and written prose to process the world’s reading of us, and then we offer our reading of that world, often proscribing futures that include and attend to us,” Johnson says.
The Super Bowl moment was especially powerful to Johnson, she says, to see a young African American woman perform her poetry on that international field of play. “That is how we imagine poetry actually pushing our imagination, to think about poetry differently,” says Johnson. “That’s where I think Husnaa’s work is so important because she's part of a whole generation of poets coming up who are pushing, expanding, and growing the practice.”
Poetry at Penn
Feminism, gender, race, equality, justice, and freedom are themes threaded throughout Hashim’s thinking and writing and creative projects. At Penn, she is an Africana studies major and a creative writing minor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I’m concentrating in African diaspora studies, which covers Black people, and people of African descent all over the world,” she says. “I love it because it is interdisciplinary, so I take history and sociology and English and philosophy that inform what I am thinking about.”
She considers Kelly Writers House her home on campus. As a program assistant, she does whatever needs to be done, helping with program planning, also giving tours, preparing food, and taking photographs during author talks. It is “those interpersonal relationships and interactions in that space that aren’t necessarily academics that have fed my growth more than anything,” she says, noting the “challenging and nurturing” conversations while baking in the kitchen.
Alli Katz, program coordinator, chose Hashim for the position and is her supervisor at Writers House. She is an “amazing presence” there, creating a fiber arts collective and naturally taking a cooperative leadership role, Katz says.
“Husnaa has this way of asking questions of the people around her, asking questions of herself, a really deliberate way of thinking through things with just such an intentionality and clarity,” says Katz. “She is so deeply thoughtful, engaging constantly with information in the world around her. She wants to explore things, follow the thread, and think things through in a beautiful, poetic, artistic way.”
During the past year, Hashim has been helping with the videoconference speaker events. But she says she misses being at Writers House in person. “I’m just being patient,” she says.
Her patience and thoughtful leadership are evident in the classroom as well, her professors say. Johnson noticed Hashim on the first day her freshman year. “She sat maybe in the second row. Her response to my questions were so thoughtful. She was jumping in with these really sophisticated comments,” Johnson says. “It was her curiosity that shone through.”
Hashim has “patience with her own thinking,” Johnson says. “Just to watch her process, process, process and then say something that compelled us all to really think through the subject matter even further.”
A favorite course for both professor and student was the interdisciplinary Black Feminist Approaches to History and Memory, an experimental class that combined the study of history with creative projects. Hashim often knits in class.
“The beauty of a scholar like Husnaa is someone who is willing to push the field and push poetry’s utility,” calling her final class project “stunning,” Johnson says. “It was something I hope she takes further. She really was using the process of knitting to interrogate the traditional craft of poetry. She was experimenting with a practice of poetics that expands our capacity to see and name Black women’s knowledge making.”
The courses with Johnson have been especially influential, Hashim says, and is why she chose Africana studies as a major. “I feel more challenged while also feeling a deep resonance because of my identity with the content,” she says.
Hashim has also taken a course every semester possible with Simone White, the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English, also an award-winning poet who started at Penn in the fall of 2018. “She’s one of the students I consider to be on the journey with me,” White says. “She is totally self-motivated. She is mature. She is gifted. She is a leader in the classroom, always.”
From the first poetry survey course to a course on 21st-century women poets to an advanced course on W.E.B. Du Bois, White says she has watched Hashim align her critical writing with her complex thinking. “She would make these adjustments. It was like watching plates move under the ground,” White says.
“It reminds me of my own struggle as an undergraduate to express myself in critical terms, but she’s far ahead of where I was as a young poet. I judged myself as confused and lacking. But Husnaa knows her calling and that the complexity of her thinking is an element of her gift.”
Hashim was the only one of her students to take her up on her invitation to attend a Black poetry conference where White was speaking at Princeton University. “Even though she is an undergraduate, she is already operating as part of that community,” White says. “It was very obvious that was where she belonged.”
Hashim and her brother were homeschooled in multracial, multiethnic cooperative groups led by her mother and other Muslim parents. Hers is a family of educators, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and, although her mother is a nurse, she also teaches religious and Islamic studies.
When she was 8 years old the family moved to Philadelphia from Silver Spring, Maryland. She attended Islamic day school and enrolled in Mastery Shoemaker in ninth grade. In an accelerated program, she was enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia her senior year.
Hashim was very close to her maternal grandmother, one of many women in her family who lived in West Philadelphia. “I like to use the word transnational to describe my lineage,” she says.
“There were aspects that were specific to our world, not just being Muslim, but also with being Black and our grandmother’s influence wanting us to actually know our history and understand it,” she says. “And I am so appreciative for that.”
A former Black Panther, her grandmother took her family to Iran in the 1980s. “That’s why I speak Farsi, and I think that heavily influences my culture and my family’s culture, the story of movement to Iran and then back to the U.S.,” she says.
Language and art were constants in her home growing up. In addition to English and Farsi, she was exposed to Arabic in Sunday school, and studied Spanish in high school.
“The importance of language and words and using them to articulate yourself and kind of be expressive was really shown to me from an early age,” she says. “My family always says I talked before I could walk. I was always very expressive and very independent and kind of, I like to think, defiant, and I think that's been persistent throughout my life.”
Hashim first learned about various forms of poetry through the nonprofit Artwell, taking her beyond the simple runs she was familiar with as a child. “Oh, you don’t have to use punctuation? You don’t have to use grammar? Oh, I love this. I can do whatever I want. And I just started writing,” she says. “It was a coping mechanism, a survival strategy, a hobby, all of those things at the same time.”
Hashim’s poetry was first published in print in a feminist magazine produced by New Moon Girls Media. “I kept writing consistently, and it became really important to me,” she says. “I had a lot of thoughts and feelings and things to say.”
Reading is important to her as well. “I definitely think being well-read has influenced my writing, just because I know more about the world,” she says.
At 15, she became part of the slam poetry scene in Philadelphia. “It’s a kind of very hot, especially in the summer, almost like the sticky, adolescent passion and rage, that’s really visceral. I think it was a really formative and necessary experience,” she says. “It’s complicated, but I definitely think I found myself or found it an outlet to express myself in that community.”
Her chapbook of poetry Honey Sequence was published right after she attended the Africana Summer Institute at Penn and while she was in the Pre-Freshman Program hosted by the Penn College Achievement Program. “That was a kind of a sending off, and also this recognition that my success culminated in a really beautiful way,” she says. “It was almost a relief to feel I don't have to hold on to this anymore, and people will bear witness to it ultimately on their own terms.”
When she reflects on her Honey Sequence poems it is clear she is moving forward. “I’m not there anymore,” she says. “I’m proud of it, but I also recognize the growth I’ve had from then until now.”
Part of that growth, she says, is feeling less of a need to explain herself. “I think that when I was younger, there were a lot of voices that I was responding to in the world,” she says, noting “hot words” like Muslim and Black girl. “I feel a lot more settled in my authenticity in a way that I don’t need to be so, I guess reactionary is a good word to these voices.”
At the moment, Hashim describes her work as interdisciplinary. Writing in many forms—poetry, prose, journal–and incorporating her work in fiber arts and collages and photographs, particularly pictures of her family. She makes flower crowns. She’s also exploring gardening, farming, herbalism, and healing as she considers her path forward.
“I think is just a constant search for more knowledge and more information. I don't think we'll ever have answers to any of the violences of my lineage, from slavery to transnational immigration. But what I do know is that all of these things are a part of me, and it manifests itself in my work,” she says. “So, how am I building, what am I taking with me, and how am I going to be transformed by all of the pain, to hope for, and to make, a better world.”