Editor’s note: This story is part of our our Young Voices Cleveland series.
When Raja Freeman composes a poem, it’s usually because she embarked on a path led by a particular inspiration. She’s fine with the uncertainty of what she will find along the way because it’s all part of the process and how her perspective ends up on a page or bellowing out of a microphone for a crowd to enjoy.
“I have a tendency to focus on things that most people don’t focus on,” the 19-year-old Cleveland State University student says. “I think I’ve always done that.”
She does just that on “Hounds,” a poem she performed earlier this year en route to a first runner-up finish at Twelve Literary Arts’ One Mic Open. It’s not merely a poem about slavery; it focuses on a specific aspect of the slave trade that Freeman read about in the Narrative of Henry Watson, a Fugitive Slave published in 1848.
“It is almost a matter of impossibility for a slave to escape on account of its situation,” reads the Watson quote that Freeman begins “Hounds” with. “And, added to that, there are men who do nothing but hunt fugitive slaves with hounds that are so well-trained that they do, as they advertised, take slaves without scarring them enough to injure their value.”
Next, Freeman talks about how much that observation affected her and the irony of a dog being able to show a level of restraint that several present-day police officers have not in beating and killing unarmed African Americans.
“They must have had some damn good dog trainers, for their time, if they could train a dog not to rip off nimble, cotton-pickin’ fingers,” Freeman continues. “And they could train a dog not to kill a man just because the future of a county is packed on his shoulders. No, dog, please save them!”
Freeman’s ability to dive into the details is one of the things that struck Daniel Gray-Kontar, Twelve’s founder and executive artistic director, when he began working with her.
“The unique perspectives, her capacity to juxtapose ideas — that’s part of who Raja is, naturally, and she just brought that to the page without much instruction or urging,” Gray-Kontar says. “She just got it, really, really quickly. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Though Freeman has been writing poetry since a third-grade haiku assignment, with inspiration from poetry by her older brother, Robert Freeman Jr., she realized it was her niche somewhere around her sophomore year at Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst. Back then, she wrote poems like “Conformity Cult,” which discussed pursuing individuality instead of blending in with society. Freeman composed this piece at a writers boot camp that Gray-Kontar taught. When Twelve later launched its after-school fellowship, Gray-Kontar says Freeman was one of the first students he wanted to get involved.
“She was unique, in that you usually have to teach young people how to bring their own voice to the poem. However you speak and think off the page, you have to bring that to the page,” he says. “You typically have to teach that, but we didn’t have to teach that with Raja. She just, quite naturally, did it.”
Freeman says Gray-Kontar’s best advice contained just two words: keep writing. She followed it and became the 2017 youth poetry grand slam champion of One Mic Open. She then represented Cleveland at the annual Brave New Voices competition in San Francisco.
As Twelve continues to help usher young poets into Cleveland’s literary arts community, Gray-Kontar says Freeman plays a crucial role in that process.
“If a student graduates, our intent is to connect them to adult writers so that there’s a seamless transition between their development as poets at a young age and to continue writing through their college years and beyond,” Gray-Kontar says. “She’s among the first generation of young poets to transition into becoming adult writers. That’s why she’s so important.”
He continues, “She is a part of that very intentional transition on our part to develop writers. She’s one of the leaders, in that regard, just because of her brilliance and willingness to stay on that path.”
Freeman likes what she is seeing from her successors at Twelve and her alma mater, where she recently judged a poetry slam.
“We heard some really good, powerful speakers,” she says. “I’ve been hearing a lot of powerful things coming out of Cleveland, and I’m excited as we branch out, reach out to more people and they start to come forward and bring their voices with them. I have a lot of confidence in Cleveland right now.”