February is Black History Month and this year, the inauguration of President Barack Obama stands as a landmark moment for black Americans to celebrate.
Today, a group of four University of Maine student-athletes will travel to the Maine State Prison in Warren, where they will join the inmates for their Black History Month festivities.
The impetus for the visit, according to Judith Josiah-Martin, the director of UMaine’s Multicultural Center, was a poem entitled, “New Day.” The poem was written by Joseph Jackson, an inmate who serves as the president of the Maine State Prison chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The NAACP is celebrating its 100th year in 2009.
UMaine football players Brandon McLaughlin and Jeremy Kelley, along with former Black Bears Kenny Fersner and Teron Allen, will make the trip with Josiah-Martin and UMaine athletic media relations manager Doug DeBiase.
An estimated 200 inmates and prison personnel are expected to be in attendance for the dramatic reading of “A New Day” by Fersner, Kelley and McLaughlin.
McLaughlin and Kelley were among three student-athletes who read the poem publicly in January at a UMaine breakfast celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Even so, they expect to have some “butterflies” this afternoon.
“We were talking about how it compared to one of the overtime games we had, the feeling of uncertainly and how we felt a little bit nervous and how we had to do something,” McLaughlin said. “It’s definitely more pressure.”
At the prison, each of the players will read approximately nine lines of the 27-line poem.
“A little bit, but it’s nothing like playing in front of 80,000 people, so I’m not too worried,” Fersner said of being nervous.
The student-athletes are part of a small campus group called the Black Student Union, the goal of which, according to McLaughlin, is to provide a forum where students can gather to help change people’s perspective on diversity and relationships across ethnic lines.
At the prison, the young men’s goal is to share the message included in Jackson’s poem while, more importantly, doing it justice.
“I’m excited for that, actually,” Kelley said. “This is something that you would never expect to be doing, reading a poem from a man inside a prison. I hope that we can really express the words as he meant them when he put it down on paper.”
They are buoyed by the positive response they received the first time they read the poem publicly and are proud to have the chance to do so under such unique circumstances.
“It’s obviously good for myself. I was asked by my teammates to present it with them,” Fersner said. “I’ll be representing myself, my family, the University of Maine. It’s pretty exciting.”
McLaughlin said the poem tries to put into perspective the election of President Obama, the first black president of the United States, among other historic events that have shaped life for black Americans.
“It’s pretty powerful,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone has their own interpretations of what it means to them.
“The essence of the poem is, where black people as a culture have come from, the challenges we face and then where we are today and where we are going,” Fersner said.
Kelley said the poem speaks volumes about Jackson who, in spite of his incarceration, seems to have tremendous perspective on the world outside the walls of the Maine State Prison.
“To have us go down there and read it in front of the man who thought of it is an honor,” Kelley said. “Being somebody that made some mistakes in his life, this is something so positive.”