Sharea Harris, 2012
“The amount of black artists in Baltimore is fucking fantastic,” says Sharea Harris, 29, a poet and recent graduate of the University of Baltimore’s MFA program in creative writing and publishing arts. “It’s amazing. And I feel very lucky to be part of that, to know that I’m not alone.”
We’re talking about both the well-documented racial divide in Baltimore and its arts scene, a microcosm of the nation’s larger rift. The news of Alton Sterling’s shooting has just become public, and Philando Castile will be killed only hours after our meeting, adding to a history of injustice that is anything but lost on Harris.
“It feels so important, especially right now, that every black narrative is told, and I feel like there’s a place here for my story, too,” she says. “In Alabama, where I’m from, it’s different. All institutional art is white art. When I was young, my father opened an art gallery and wanted to showcase black artists, but there wasn’t enough interest—not that there weren’t enough artists, but that there weren’t enough people interested in seeing black art. I couldn’t believe it when I first came to Baltimore. Here, Sojourner Truth’s name is on a building. Black writers are included in the curriculum. It’s amazing.”
And despite the city’s evident problems, Harris says that this increased representation is an advantage she does not overlook.
“Baltimore is a city that’s very vocal about itself. Where I grew up, there was a parkway that divided the white and black sides of town, and I remember once hearing a white woman talking about how confused and scared she was the first time she wandered into the black part of town,” she says. “That doesn’t happen here. You can drive down one road for 10 minutes and see things change dramatically. It’s everywhere, and if you’re going to ignore it, you have to actively, willfully ignore it. There are parts of being here that are really hard and draining and frustrating, but you’re seeing how people are really living, how the human spirit thrives. It’s struggling, but it’s living.”
The struggle is mirrored in her own work, particularly her debut collection, dic tion ary, which deals largely with her identity as a black woman. And though much of her poetry is set in the south, her Baltimore poems reflect the profound resilience of the city she now calls home.
Though she’s unsure what the future holds, Harris hopes to continue working in education and consulting—particularly in teaching the fundamentals of writing and codeswitching, both of which she hopes will be tools for understanding and dismantling systems of oppression.
“I believe in the role of the writer. I believe in the role of the artist in shaping a city,” she says. “And as many people as I can help, I will. I feel like that’s how I’m paying my rent in Baltimore.”