Jillian Hanesworth has a rare gift for words. But even now, she says she can’t fully express how it felt on Jan. 20, when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman walked onto the podium at President Biden’s inauguration and began reading her poetry in front of the world.
“For a minute, I just stared at the TV,” Hanesworth said. “A girl just walked out in this beautiful yellow jacket with her beautiful brown skin, looking like everybody I grew up with in Buffalo. I was so proud. And then to hear her work, when she started doing her poem, and to watch the way the audience responded.”
The nation was mesmerized when Gorman recited “The Hill We Climb,” a moving call to America to be a more perfect nation during a time of turmoil, to “step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid … for there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.”
Like much of the country, Hanesworth had tears in her eyes that day. It was especially powerful for a young African-American woman to hear Gorman talk about “successors of a country and a time when a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming President, only to find herself reciting for one.”
Gorman lifted her voice and the hearts of millions of Americans that day. The nation’s first youth poet laureate was a symbol of hope and possibility in a nation divided by a pandemic and social/political upheaval.
“You could almost watch a weight being lifted off a lot of people’s shoulders,” Hanesworth said. “Her words were so necessary at that time. It was like I was watching everything that I was hoping I could be and I could do.”
Her aspirations became reality soon enough. Two months later, during Women’s History Month, the Common Council appointed Hanesworth as the first-ever poet laureate of Buffalo. For a two-year term, she will be asked to “inspire Buffalo in verse.”
Early success in poetry
Inspiring Buffalo shouldn’t be difficult for Hanesworth, 28, who has been writing since she was a little girl, one of six kids growing up on Thatcher Avenue in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood on the city’s East Side.
Life was a struggle at times, growing up in a segregated environment amid poverty and gangs, “being Black and a woman in a male-dominated world.” She had problems fitting in, feeling invisible. Jillian said she went to at least seven different schools, looking to find herself.
“Even though I was raised among my peers, my interests, my focus, was a lot different,” she said. “When a lot of my friends were going through the boy phase, I was going through a book phase. I was reading.”
Writing, too. Her mother, Anita, was a singer and worship leader at New Bethel Church on Englewood Avenue, which was started by Jillian’s grandfather. When she was around 7, she began writing songs for her mom. She’d say, “You need a song writer and you’re my talent!”
At 10, she tried her hand at poetry. Hanesworth wrote “I Too Have a Dream,” a spin on Martin Luther King’s famous speech. It was about a Black kid growing up in a segregated world, living the experience.
“We have dreams, too,” she said. “We want to survive, but we also want a world where we don’t have to struggle every day to survive. That was the premise of that poem.”
Suddenly, she was a little literary lion. She was asked to read the poem at assemblies. Canisius College included the poem in its ‘Speak Your Mind’ publication. People would come up and ask her, “Can you come and do that I Have A Dream poem?”
She wound up at Buffalo Academy of Science for middle school, where she met a girl who became her best friend. Hanesworth was shy and lacking confidence, Tamiko Williams was outgoing and gregarious. To this day, she’s the first one to read Jillian’s poems.
“Oh, my goodness! She was a phenomenal writer,” Williams said. “She was very shy, but I would say, “No, it’s great!” I always push her, because she’s got such a talent. I’m always first in line to reassure her of her greatness.”
Jillian and Tamiko went to high school at Performing Arts, where Hanesworth continued to write poems, songs, and short stories. Williams would provide titles, because Jillian (who is currently at work on her second book of poems) was so bad at naming them.
Hanesworth went to SUNY Fredonia, which was less than 10 percent minority at the time. She felt a certain dislocation there.
“It gave me such a different perspective,” said Hanesworth, who was president of the Black Student Union. “Today I feel that experience prepared me for the world that I live in, working in the non-profit world. A lot of the spaces I maneuver in are predominantly white.
“If I nothing else, I learned how to be unapologetically myself in a room where nobody else looks like me. Nobody else talks like me or has my lived experiences. I also learned how to challenge the norm.”
Fredonia was also a harsh awakening. In college, she struggled and was academically dismissed at one point before having to appeal. Her geology professor noticed she was quick to answer in class, but had trouble with written tests. She went to a learning center and discovered she had dyslexia.
Imagine that: a brilliant writer, a future poet laureate and community leader, with a reading disorder.
“That took away my confidence as a writer,” Hanesworth said. “I didn’t know that I had skated under the radar all through high school. It kind of killed it for me.”
She stopped creating, lost her financial aid, had to take multiple jobs to make ends meet. Hanesworth graduated — on the day she got an eviction note for her apartment.
Late in 2014, after graduation, Jillian was making a list of job applications when she saw on the news that Darren Wilson, the man who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., would not be charged with a crime.
At the bottom of her list, Hanesworth scribbled, “I wish the little Black boy did something wrong.” That turned into a poem:
Because it’s easier to explain why he’s laying dead in the street
Bullet wounds still steaming from the lead and the heat
Than to say no justice, no peace or RIP, the little black boy did nothing wrong
It’s easier to explain what’s wrong and what’s right, what’s black and what’s white …
“That was the poem that kicked it off for me,” she said. “I performed it for the first time at the University of Buffalo educational opportunity center, on Feb. 1 of 2017. By the end of that program, I had already booked three more performances of that poem.”
“By the end of that year, I had performed over 50 times. I couldn’t believe people were so connected to the words that I wrote out of pain, the specific pain of watching black kids get killed by the police for no reason. I was like, ‘Please tell me he did something.’
“I added a second part to that poem, kind of telling the history of our movement — following Dr. King to the mountaintops. How we had to drink out of different water fountains. We were always indoctrinated to believe that if you speak properly, speak white.”
Hanesworth became a community advocate and landed with Open Buffalo, a non-profit collaborative that promotes racial justice and equity in Buffalo. She is now the organization’s director of leadership development.
“Through Open Buffalo, I kind of got my footing as a performer,” she said. “I started going to the emerging leaders program and expressed my interest in being a poet professionally and making it part of my personal culture. They started making opportunities and spaces for me to do so. Between 2017 and today, I’ve performed upwards of 200 times, in multiple cities — Baltimore, Toronto, New York City, smaller cities around our region.”
She’s a writer, performer, and organizer. She’s a teaching artist at Ujima, where she does poetry workshops with teens. She’s an SAT prep instructor. You can’t believe how brilliant some of these kids are, she says.
Now she’s the city’s first poet laureate.
‘She is the Buffalo Amanda Gorman’
You wonder where Hanesworth finds all the time.
“Have you ever watched the musical Hamilton?” her pal Williams said with a laugh. “When they sing the song, ‘Non-Stop’, I think of her.”
There’s a stanza in the song that asks, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time … every day you fight, like you’re running out of time.”
“She’s always busy,” Williams said. “She’s non-stop. I always remind her to take a break, get some sleep. It’s OK to have a down moment. It not, you’ll burn out. But she handles it very, very well. She stays on top of anything she commits herself to and gives 100 percent. I admire her so much.”
She’s not the only one. Jim Anderson, a veteran radio host at WUFO, likes using his show “Conversations with Jim Anderson” as a “grooming spot” for young city leaders. He’s been a fan of Hanesworth from the first time he heard her recite a poem in public.
Williams screamed when she heard that Jillian had been named the city’s first poet laureate. Anderson beamed like a proud uncle or father.
“It is huge,” Anderson said. “She’s straightforward, strong in her words, very creative and a very infectious, smart young woman. Her glow, her aura, everywhere she’s been everybody wants a piece of Jillian. She raises the bar. She is the Buffalo Amanda Gorman.
“People need to understand she is no nonsense and she’s got fire in the bones.”
It was Hanesworth who had the idea for a Buffalo poet laureate. In 2018, she approached Ulysses Wingo, council member for the Masten District. She said a poet could help tell the city’s story. She said there were many fine poets in Buffalo, like Brandon Williamson and Eve Williams.
“We should be able to build bridges and create a platform for those of us who write to become the ones who are helping to represent our city, as opposed to just our elected officials,” she told him.
Wingo said, ‘Well Jill, do you not realize that everything you’re saying the poet laureate should do, you’re already doing?”
The wheels of government move slowly, but Hanesworth was appointed last month. She has published a compilation of her poems and observations on Black issues called, “They Say I Talk White.” She’s a leader for social justice, a community organizer.
She’s hardly apolitical. It’s her unflinching ability to see the world, to look injustice and despair in the eye and write powerfully about it, that makes her a fine poet. Last summer, she marched for racial justice in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.
“I marched the entire summer,” she said. “Wore a bunch of new sneakers down.
“I feel it’s important to remind people outside the Black community that the Black community gets re-traumatized constantly. Even with the Derrick Chauvin trial going on now, re-watching these videos with George Floyd and hearing this man who sounds like our fathers and uncles and brothers yell for his mother as he takes his last breath.”
Her poem “Take Care” seems especially relevant nowadays. It touches on all the problems affecting people today, especially young people, and reminds them that if they’re going to change the world, they need to take care of themselves, too.
“For some of us, taking care of ourselves is the physical. It’s eating right and going to the gym. But for a lot of us, it’s mental. Feeling lonely, and how to survive that.”
Sometimes those who look out forget to look within
Sometimes we neglect ourselves always trying to lend a hand
So busy trying to be a bridge that we forget to be the land.
Ground yourself. Deep breath, what will get you through the day?
Find yourself. Tell your truth. It’s fine not to be OK.
Uplifting the community
Hope lies largely with the young. Jillian thinks of all those kids like her, growing up in the inner city, feeling invisible and traveling in their minds in books, language, and song. Part of being the laureate means raising the level of arts throughout the city.
Her new project is called Buffalo Books! She’s raising money (there’s a GoFundMe campaign) to buy those “little libraries” you see on lawns and street corners around town, where people exchange books with strangers.
“I want to get them painted by local artists,” she said, “with quotes from local poets and song writers. And put them in neighborhoods where there’s not as much access to literacy tools.
“I think they’re the coolest things. I can’t walk past one without stopping and looking in it. Imagine there’s kids on Doat Street that want to read. Where are they going to get a book? Who is going to encourage them? How are they going to a library if they don’t have a car or if they’re afraid to walk in parts of their own neighborhood?”
Maybe you touch one child’s world and they become the next poet laureate, or even President. Hanesworth wants to make people’s lives better, at Open Buffalo and through her writing, and she absolutely loves doing it.
“Maybe I get that from my parents,” she said. “My father (Craig) being a former detective and a pastor, my mom being a singer who always worked in hospitals. She’s a social worker now at Roswell.
“Maybe they gave me that thing. But I can’t feel fulfilled if what I’m doing is not going to help somebody. Now everything works together and it all helps the community. So I love it. I really love it.”
Non-stop. No nonsense. You can almost feel a weight being lifted off a community’s shoulders.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.