He’s African American, but he was raised in an overseas environment where he never encountered racism. Yet, Franklin & Marshall College senior Jonny Teklit eloquently captured the historic, often violent, experience of being black in America for his poem, “Black Mythology.”
The American Academy of Poets recently bestowed the 2019 honor of “Most Promising Young Poet” on Teklit for his poem, which he based on the Greek tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on wings of wax before plummeting to Earth.
“This is a very big honor for a young poet,” Assistant Professor of English Meg Day said. “His poem originally won our College’s Academy of American Poets Prize and was pooled with other national winners for this contest.”
A joint studies major in writing and psychology, Teklit was 5 when this family moved from Arlington, Va. to Dubai, the largest, most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. His father took a corporate job in the capital of the Emirate of Dubai, where Teklit resided (except for summer trips to visit family in the U.S.) until he graduated from high school.
“It’s a pretty diverse city. Everyone speaks English and their own language. I lived a very safe life,” he said. “I never experienced any sort of racism.”
Teklit watched racism in the United States through the lens of television news. “It was interesting to see the news and not be able to relate to it in an experiential way, but to know I could relate to it as a ‘Well, that’s a black person and I’m a black person’ kind of thing,” he said.
The senior experienced culture shock when he arrived at F&M. “When I came here, I entered a community that I didn’t know much about—not in terms of history, but in social interaction,” he noted. “I didn’t know the references, the music, the language used. Dubai was homogenized; we were all from everywhere, a melting pot of one common language, I suppose.”
His writing began around the eighth grade, not for school assignments, but while he watched cartoons. Teklit said, “All my short stories were just variations of what I had been watching with names changed and things like that, but I think that at least I was writing.”
His sonnet, “Black Mythology,” is part of a larger series that he wrote last spring in his creative writing seminar led by Day. Teklit spent a few weeks throwing around ideas for a thesis before he arrived at what he called “this weird conclusion.”
“One day I was thinking about it and realized there’s no black people in mythology,” he said. “I wanted to know what they looked like.”
“Black Mythology” became one of seven sonnets, a poetry crown, that transforms Greek myths into contemporary black stories. Day encouraged him to fully develop “Black Mythology.”
Teklit recalled, “She said, ‘You should turn this into a sonnet. It’s already almost there; just add three more lines,’” he recalled. “I was pleased with the way it turned out.”
Under the cover of night, Icarus,
careful not to wake his captors from sleep,
flees from the prison built by his father’s
master. He does not look back. He does not
stop. Just as Icarus arrives at the border
of the sky, more North than he’s ever thought
possible, Master’s son, with blazing rage,
strikes the wings from Icarus’ shoulders with a whip,
a tendril of flame hungry for dark meat.
Icarus plummets into the river and drowns.
The river carries him and spits him out
someplace colder, some unfamiliar South,
where he’ll tread forever in an ocean
always bloated blue with bodies of kin.
Copyright © 2019 Jonathan Teklit