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NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green Teaches Curating Your Own Past

A headshot of Jaki Shelton Green wearing a colorful necklace and large round glasses against a yellow background
North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green. (Courtesy of Charlotte Museum of History)

People revere museums and exhibits because of the history and knowledge surrounding them and the way those institutions captivate them, but few people realize that they can house their own museums. North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green hopes to change that.

“If we walk through our homes, all our homes are museums,” she said. 

Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina’s first Black poet laureate and the third woman to hold the position. She will host her Personal Museum Workshop at the Charlotte Museum of History on Feb. 25 as part of the museum’s annual African American Heritage Festival.

The workshop invites attendees to explore their own personal museums from multiple perspectives. Green encourages attendees to bring letters, photos and heirlooms to explore stories and legacies that exist in their everyday lives.

“I believe that what we keep keeps us,” she told Queen City Nerve. “You should pay attention to how a culture and a country decides on what’s important enough to put in museums. It’s the same thing in our lives.”

Whether they are exploring private areas they do not want anyone to see or public areas they do not mind sharing with anyone, Green wants people to explore it all. She wants people to think of the spaces in their museums as “rooms” in order to best compartmentalize and navigate the feelings associated with them.

“There might be rooms that have been locked for a long time and you are ready to open them,” she said. “Your human museum should have a room of your dreams, a room of sorrow, a room for the ancestors. But everybody’s museum is different.”

Green added that her own museum has a dance floor and a soundtrack. 

By exploring parts of themselves that are often ignored or locked away, the event’s main goal is to explore the legacies that exist in these personal museums. 

A bigger world

Born in Alamance County and raised for much of her childhood in Orange County, Jaki Shelton Green has lived in North Carolina off and on throughout her life. As a child, she attended a Quaker boarding school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and went to college in Minnesota and Maryland. 

It’s the boarding school experience that truly changed her, Green insists. 

She had rarely experienced cultures outside of her own, nor had she been away from her family. The boarding school taught her that she could dream, that she could travel the globe, and that a bigger world existed.

“For the first time, things were not black and white. It opened my world,” she said. “My peers, my classmates were from all over the world. It was very diverse. So many different cultures interfacing and interacting and living together.”

Once she knew there was more to see, she wanted nothing more than to experience it. She began to dream of things she would never have dreamed of before, like traveling the world and owning a house in Morocco.

“That experience was really the beginning of wanting to explore the globe, my existence,” she said. “Wanting to experience more and more people who are not just like me. I’m fascinated with things I don’t know.”

“I like getting lost in foreign countries. And my prep school experience really prepared me for this early on.”

Before Green went to the Quaker school, she had been attending segregated public schools in her hometown, some of which she helped integrate. She ended up at the boarding school after she organized a walkout which resulted in her expulsion. 

Leaving the South to be introduced to a bigger world at the Quaker school was likely a blessing in disguise and a necessary catalyst. After all, she did eventually get that house in Morocco.

Poet as a verb

Jaki Shelton Green was nominated to her position by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018. Traditionally a two-year appointment, he reappointed her in 2021. 

“It’s an honor to be nominated by my peers,” she said. “I carry it and I don’t take it lightly because I know that the ancestors on one side of me and the unborn children are on the other side of me. I’m standing with my ancestors and I’m standing with a future as a Black Southern woman who grew up in the rural South.

“I know what my trajectory has been like,” she continued, “and it’s been different than some of my white counterparts. But I’m very proud and honored to be in this position and to have a voice that helps people.”

Though Green’s appointment is historical, it is also worth noting that it shouldn’t be. North Carolina’s first poet laureate was appointed in 1948, meaning it existed 70 years before a Black person was given the role. 

“It was long overdue,” she said. “I think the timing was perfect. I think 2018 was a ripe year.”

Green looked to Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, for inspiration.

“She’s my peer, we both were 69,” she said. “That’s a long time for women of color to not have been at the table. And not just women, but any person of color.”

While Green is honored to be in her role, she said she did not need the title. She explained that the word ambassador means to serve, and she has been doing that all along.

“I have lived the legacy of poet [and] of serving the people,” she said. “I love being poet laureate, but I don’t need the title. I built this. I built the tables, that’s what I teach people to do. You’re not being served at the table you think you want to be at? Build your own table. There’s enough wood, there’s enough work. The need is there.”

Green emphasized how she lived this role long before she was appointed to it. Because she views the term poet as a verb rather than a noun, she has been able to live her life accordingly and serve those in need through poeting, as she calls it.

“Poetry does not just live on the page,” she said. “We are always poeting. I’m always being the voice because through poetry, we can also serve the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, those without voices.”

It’s not apathy that Green feels toward the title, however, as he’s still enjoying everything that comes with the role: teaching others, being a voice for the voiceless, and meeting new people.

“I’m enjoying traveling the state and being with audiences of so many different diverse community groups,” she said. 

Curating our own museums

While the Personal Museum Workshop may be new to residents of Charlotte, it is not a new concept. Jaki Shelton Green has been operating this workshop for around 40 years. She was driven to it from her desire to simply learn more about people and their history, which originated at her boarding school.

“I love anthropology, and I love this notion that all of us are human museums,” she said. “And it’s an interesting way to have people look at themselves and to see how much history and how much cultural information is sitting on a bookshelf or sitting on a coffee table or sitting on a dining room table or in the drawer.”

“If we had a conversation with the great grandmother’s teapot, we might learn something about the great grandmother,” she explained.

A Black woman and her child bang on African drums during an event at Charlotte Museum of History, where Jaki Shelton Green will be hosting a workshop this year.
Visitors at Charlotte Museum of History during a past African American Heritage Festival event. (Photo courtesy of CMoH)

Her audiences have ranged from all sorts of backgrounds: chaplains, oncologists, students, women and men. She’s even done this workshop with inmates on death row. The audience variety, and her eagerness to help them, speak to her claim of living her legacy and serving people.

The workshop explores much of our histories, much of our artifacts, the meaning behind them, and how they have impacted our lives. 

“All of these things that we keep, it’s just not the thing,” Green said. “It’s the story of all these things. It’s like, if you were to tell me, ‘Well, I have my mom’s frying pan, and this is what she always cooked chicken for us on Sunday with,’ that frying pan is an artifact.”

The pan may seem like a pan on the surface, but it has stories of its own, stories that can only be told by exploring its history.

“We don’t think about how these everyday objects that we use have a story,” she said. “What are the stories inside of whose hands have cleaned that pot? And how we care about these things? I’m going to invite people to explore what’s in their own museum.”

Green encourages everyone to imagine themselves like a museum, with exhibit halls both public and private, open and closed, small and large. 

Another exercise is for people to write a letter to the curator of their museum — themselves, ideally. 

“If you’re not the curator of your own museum, you should be trying to figure out why not,” she said. “That’s your museum and nothing should be in it but your stuff.”

 That is one of the reasons Green believes these workshops to be so important: You may be holding onto someone else’s baggage without even realizing it.

“It’s kind of like an excavation,” she said. “I’ve never done one of these where people were not just blown away by what came up for them.”

Green believes that failing to observe these personal museums and legacies can lead to creativity blocks. 

“If you’re a writer or creative maker, a lot of us will say, ‘I really want to write, but I just can’t get started,’” she said. “If you breathe, you can write. Write about your breath or just three words: ‘I am here.’” 

In exploring these legacies, Green mentioned how much she thought minimalist living could harm people’s ability to curate their museums if they discard everything. 

“Some historian will want to know that story,” she said, referring to the items people often throw away. She also stated that she is concerned about deceased relative’s belongings disappearing after they pass on.

Green’s own mother passed away in December of 2022. She was 106. In going through her mother’s belongings, she found several items that she wanted to keep. 

 “She has this jewelry drawer that I just have not been able to get through,” she said. “I’m not ready because I need to sit with those pieces. A lot of things will be given away, but not until after I’ve had my conversations with them.”

Green explained that everyone’s personal museum is constantly changing, which is why she encourages people to revisit them periodically. When attendees are done with their first session, however, she hopes they will take the lessons they learned out into the world.

“It’s a great project to do when you’re working with creative makers, or I like doing this with elders and retired people,” she said. “I always hope that it’s something where it really reflects back who they are to themselves.”

Her desire is twofold, though. Not only does she want attendees to take their stories out into the world and share them with others, she wants them to make additional discoveries once they have begun to share.

“That’s the biggest takeaway for this exercise, is that when we talk about our human museums with each other, we realize that our lives are not too different from each other,” she said. “People may see things in a different way, but we all got that [junk] drawer, and we all got the crazy aunt.”

“We all have something in common when we start doing these movements. So I think that would be really enriching for a community to look at what it’s holding.”

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