Alpha Kappa Delta hosted Chicago native and slam poet Heather “Byrd” Roberts this past Friday to talk about her poetry. Roberts’ poetry focuses on being black and being a women and the intersectionality between the two.
Roberts started off the afternoon by breaking down the wall between speaker and audience member and asked for audience participation, breaking down the power dynamic between the two. She later answered a question about this saying that she wanted to allow for others to speak too so that they can hear their own voices and be heard and acknowledged by others.
“Be in your own truth,” Roberts said. “Don’t wait for someone else to verify that they believe something I’m saying.”
Roberts then told the audience to break up into small groups to talk about the origin of their names. Names are apart of our lineage and familial line but also are an important part of who we are, Roberts explained.
Roberts’ government name is Heather Ann Roberts, the name given to her by her mother and grandmother. According to Roberts, her mother and grandma were walking out to the car together one day in 1987 when, at the same time, they looked at each other and both said “Heather” and that was that.
Roberts struggled with her name. Her mother and grandma intentionally gave her a non “black person” name as a form of protection and to help ensure she would be more successful in life. Roberts appreciated the thought, but felt disconnected from her lineage because her name was so far removed from everyone else in her family.
“How many other black Heather’s do you know?” Roberts asked. “I think I know three including myself.”
One afternoon, Roberts was in a small local restaurant in Iowa after a work conference. She walked into the restaurant, still wearing her name tag from the conference, and ordered her food. While she was waiting, one of the employees approached her asking if her name was Heather. Forgetting about her name tag, Roberts felt starstruck and confused as she watched the employee shout over to a fellow helping hand claiming that she “found another black Heather” and sure enough, there was another black Heather working at the restaurant.
“It was a camaraderie that I didn’t know that I needed until that moment,” Roberts said. “We spent a long time talking to each other about it.”
Great names have power, Roberts concluded. The history of a name itself can work against you and can affect you before you even walk into a room.
Roberts then switched gears to address another issue she’s run into during her career. She described a time a few years ago in which she went to a “committee on committee meetings,” which she couldn’t say with a straight face. During the meeting, Roberts raised her hand to ask a question and the speaker refused to call on her, despite her obvious presence in the room and hand raised high in the air.
After the meeting, several other people spoke to the speaker about missing Roberts’ hand. Eventually, the speaker came to apologize, explaining that he didn’t see her hand raised.
“He didn’t understand what he had done,” Roberts said. “I had trouble going back to work after that because I literally felt invisible. I think he just apologized because he knew it was the right thing to do and not because he understood what he did.”