“Put a blindfold on me / tell me who you fear / and I will tell you / your skin” (94). This stanza from spoken-word poet and activist, Bao Phi, is included in his first collection of poetry entitled, Sông I Sing. The words quoted above come from a poem in the collection entitled “8 (9),” where Phi delves into the murder of an unarmed Hmong-American teenager, named Fong Lee, at the hands of a police officer. Written in 2011, Sông I Sing is a collection filled with anger and violence, but also with great power as well as a distinctive voice that could only come from Phi himself.
Bao Phi is a Vietnamese-American writer who built his career as a spoken-word artist in the 1990s. While Phi sometimes employs the use of explicit and aggressive language, there is a tenderness to his writing; he shows readers that with struggle comes violence, that there are also beautiful moments of connecting with those whose stories have unfolded in similar ways. Sông I Sing works to remind Phi’s Asian American brothers and sisters that they are not alone, that he hears them and that there must be a place for them in America.
I had the privilege of hearing Phi speak when he visited my Asian American Literature class on March 22, 2021, for a conversation about his poetry and activism. In his opening remark, taken from a Facebook post, he had made previously, he said, “every day of my life that I’ve walked out a door, for over 40 years, I’ve had to wonder what kind of target my race made me.” Phi approaches every bit of his writing with complexity—the passion in his voice when he speaks is striking.
Our meeting was not even a week after we received the news that eight people had been murdered in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian American women. The rest of this statement can be found on Phi’s Facebook page, where he continuously speaks out against the influx of Asian American hate crimes, and the erasure of Asian American people and their everyday struggles. When our meeting with Phi came to an end, he recommended that we read the novel, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. In his novel, Yu writes that the two words, “Asian Guy,” work to “define you, flatten you, trap you and keep you here. Who you are. All you are. Your most salient feature, overshadowing any other feature about you, making irrelevant any other characteristic” (94).
In Phi’s poem entitled, “The Nguyễns,” from his collection, he writes about a series of Vietnamese people who share a last name but are living vastly different lives in America. This poem helps readers think about the various different experiences of people who have similar backgrounds, and also where those experiences meet up. He writes, “Last name, Nguyễn, all of them / they’re not related / but they’re more related than any of them will ever know” (17). Phi helps readers think about how parts of peoples’ stories intersect and are in conversation with each other, but also helps us think about stereotypes that run rampant in American society. All people deserve to be seen for who they are as individuals, but also for how they define themselves as part of a whole.
Phi centers his poetry in Sông I Sing more specifically around the prevalence of police brutality and the everyday racism that people of color experience in America as well as around the world; and the ways in which Asian Americans are pushed into the background in conversations about race and justice. These conversations are also centered around the prevalence of horizontal hostility, violence and anger directed toward people within a certain group (race, class, etc.) that come from others in that same group. Phi depicts this hostility coming from Asian Americans to other Asian Americans and from people of color who have different races or ethnicities.
One of the most compelling poems in the collection, entitled “8 (9),” which was mentioned above, is a tribute to and commentary on the murder of 19-year-old, unarmed Hmong-American teenager Fong Lee. Phi uses nine stanzas in this poem to illustrate the eight bullets that entered Lee’s body and the ninth bullet that missed him. He drifts between the language that was used in the case and interjects his own feelings about the massive injustices that occurred both when Fong Lee was murdered, and how the violence was validated when the police officer who killed him was awarded a Medal of Valor for doing so.
With this poem, Phi examines the specific instance of an injustice that occurred within the legal and justice systems against a person of color, but it also examines the larger picture of racism in America. He is not only speaking about this experience to educate others on what happened to Fong Lee and his family, he is also calling attention to patterns that depict how people of color are being targeted by the police and by others around them.
Phi is a powerhouse in every sense of the word; the breadth of his work and the wide range of audiences that his work attracts supports this sentiment. Not only does he have a long and decorated history with spoken word poetry, but he has also published two collections of poetry, two children’s books, short stories and essays. Phi both supersedes the expectations for the structure his writing takes and also bends the assumptions that people have for these forms.
At the end of Phi’s Facebook post following the murders in Atlanta, he concludes by saying: “For all the victims of hatred towards Asian Americans, many of whose names we don’t know and whose stories we may never hear: we bring you in. You are a part of us. We will never, ever forget.” This sentiment rings throughout his work in this collection, and Phi’s voice in every poem is a reminder that his fight for justice will never cease. It seems to be nearly impossible to watch one of his spoken word poems, or read one of them on paper, and not be influenced by the gravity that his choice of words carries and the weight that each of them holds.