Wilmington's Twin Poets Provide Healing Through Art
Meet the state’s poets laureate, Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills
When twins Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills fought as children, their mother made them write to each other to mend their disputes. As they evolved into the locally renowned Twin Poets, their writing helped to mend children from the most challenged communities.
Now, as Delaware’s poets laureate, they hope to mend those communities.
“Writing is a tool for finding peace and the power of the heart. Writing can be a cure,” says Mills. “You can write yourself a better life.”
Gov. Jack Markell bestowed the shared title of poets laureate on them in December. “Their artistic excellence, combined with extensive experience in outreach to underserved communities and infectious love of poetry and spoken word, will be a benefit for all Delawareans,” Markell said at the time.
The Twin Poets represent the voices of the disenfranchised and those on the fringes. They write of street life and the challenges of poverty. They take on absentee fathers, young girls who show too much, and those who would buy liquor or drugs before providing for their families. They are critics of the dumbing down of America and of senseless gun play. They lament the neglected children and the deaths that garner headlines instead of help.
But they also send messages of the hope to be found in education and the power in taking responsibility, harnessing personal destiny and working toward a dream.
“They touch on uncomfortable truths without being aggressive, without the hate,” says Linda Letson, a former art and French teacher from Cab Calloway who has been at several of their readings. “The Twins exude a tremendous amount of warmth while being advocates for justice and fairness in all aspects of life. Audiences are enchanted, drawn in by their melodic counterpoints and the authenticity of their content.”
The sons of William “Hicks” Anderson, a local activist during the Civil Rights movement, an advocate for children and namesake of the community center in West Center City, the twins have continued their father’s legacy of speaking for the most vulnerable. As social workers at Kingswood Community Center, they have spent 17 years working closely with children, visiting schools and homes, holding after-school programs and working with organizations that provide services for young people who had been incarcerated. “Our poetry has always been deeply rooted in our social work,” says Chukwuocha. “One fuels the other.”
The brothers’ transformation into Twin Poets happened during the mid-’90s. In their early 20s, recently home from military deployment overseas, they began reading to schoolchildren. They moved up to performing at the University of Delaware, reading at venues around Wilmington like the former Haneef’s Bookstore on Vandever Avenue and the Delaware Art Museum, and presenting at events such as the annual African-American Family Festival. When the twins appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” series in the mid-2000s, “Our reputation skyrocketed,” Chukwuocha says.
The experience of growing up in a poor black neighborhood is beyond the understanding of many. Even in the most loving, nurturing homes, people are surrounded by crime and violence right outside their doors. “Countless teens—and many we have worked with directly—have lost their lives,” says Mills. “These aren’t just names in the newspaper. These are people we knew. Each time one of them dies, a piece of us is lost.” They whisper, “Our own cousins were murdered.”
So poetry is, for them, far more than rhyming words—it’s the salvation of the streets. They tell the story of the girl who wrote to the father she never knew about how she was going to make it in this world without him, about how he would be a lesser person for not knowing her. A young boy wrote a tribute to himself, enumerating the great successes in his life that he had yet to attain. A girl admitted that she was now writing instead of cutting herself, that she had found a way to heal the pain with a pen instead of a razor or the gun she had almost reached for.
"If we don't speak on these stories of abandonment and invisibility, the violence and the heartache, a culture confused and lost, then who will?" says Chukwuocha.
He and Mills have performed on stages across Europe and Africa. Barbara Gray, host of the Delaware Literary Connection’s long-running 2nd Saturday Poets performance series, recalls the twins as featured readers.
“They were full of energy, pulsing with rhythm, their poetry dynamic and scintillating, and they drew the crowd in very quickly,” Gray says. “I clearly remember the rhythms they evoked and how the audience physically swayed along with their recitations. Word musicians, those young men, not needing strings or drums or a pounding piano to evoke rhythms within their listeners.”
Sharon Baker, an award-winning documentarian, refers to the brothers as the real deal. “They’re genuine and sincere. They’re good hearted, caring and talented, and they’re great role models for so many who have no fathers. Their work is definitely mission driven.”
In Baker’s documentary, “Why I Write,” the Twin Poets share insights into their loving family, where their mother, Mary Strother-Jones, taught them the value of reading and writing. “We read everything,” says Mills. “But we began to challenge each other to see who could do the most expressive writing. Finding our own voices gave us power and made us more perceptive.”
They challenged themselves again as teens, to explore themselves as individuals, to see who they could be beyond twins. Mills went to Howard High School. Chukwuocha attended Delcastle High School. Mills went to Savannah State College. Chukwuocha headed to Delaware State University. Both were all-state athletes. Both served honorably in the military. But every time they reunited, their voices again became one.
“Being a twin is a deep, spiritual experience,” says Chukwuocha. "I am totally connected to my brother. I know what he is thinking, and that enables us to utilize our poetry to support and complement one another’s messages completely. Even when we were stationed miles apart in the military, we came home to find we had been writing about the same things. Our combined voices are powerful, a united body working for the empowerment of those in need. As twins, we have almost this cosmic consciousness. It is who we are. We feel it like the wind—it is always around us. We know our poetry and social work is most powerful when we are united in our efforts in the community and on stage.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills are working to mend the area’s most challenged communities
Phillip Bannowsky, a teacher, activist and associate editor of the literary journal “Dreamstreets,” says, “The Twin Poets exemplify poetry off the chain of literary retreats, elite lit magazines and academia to empower a marginalized community. It is fascinating to watch these brothers convert the typical twin habit of finishing each other’s sentences in the tandem recitation of poetry. Their ‘I’m just a 6-Year Old Junkie in the Making’ is a devastating critique of the over-prescribing of drugs for black kids who are just curious, acrobatic and quick. Highly educated and engaged in social services and politics, they are role models as well as advocates.”
Both men have counseled teens and children to think for themselves, to not feel pressured by the social media and magazines that presented questionable choices in behavior, fashion and music. “We wanted children to find pathways and solutions in their own voices, their own thoughts and reflections,” says Mills. “Living in the world of hip-hop and rap, it was important for those children to filter through those words, analyzing what was poetic, and what was not.”
The hip-hop and rap the brothers grew up with is different than the music of today. “Ours was party stuff,” says Chukwuocha. “It was fun, a contest of rhyming and rhythm to see who could tell the best story. In the inner city, it was a positive art form, poetry, a way to look at the world, and it gave us a place in it.
“Everything changed when the recording industry thought the culture should glamorize its violence and drugs, the whores and thugs. This is what began to bring in the money, so the whole tone of hip-hop and rap changed. It became a corrupt form of itself. Now that’s what kids think they have to be writing about to be famous, and all that hard negativity has become the new cool.”
Many of the children they have worked with have gone on to graduate from high school and college and to lead successful lives. Some did not.
“Sometimes the pull of the streets is just too much,” Chukwuocha says. “But at graduations, you will hear young men celebrating that they’re still here, that they’re still alive. They honestly didn’t think they would live long enough to graduate.” A woman in one of their writing classes wrote, “Every man in my life—my grandfather, my father, my brothers, my nephews, my uncles—they’re either dead or in prison.”
Both men are quick to point out that while the state enjoys an all-time high in the number of high school graduates, the city is at an all-time low. Chukwuocha, who was elected to the Wilmington City Council in 2012, is also chairman of the Education, Youth and Families Committee. The twins know the work that needs to be done. As poets laureate, the brothers see themselves developing a larger platform for their work.
“We need to be teaching and helping people on a larger scope,” says Mills. “We’ll be showing up in prisons, alternative schools, and detention centers. We are making plans to visit veterans.” (Mills suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq.) “These are adults. Many are suffering and damaged, and many have kids. We can’t help the children if we’re not helping their parents, too. We have to help heal the whole family and bring them together.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is not just a result of war. It’s a reality for those who grow up in challenged neighborhoods. It is so pervasive on the street that Wilmington City Council asked the Centers for Disease Control to address the problem last year, making Wilmington the first city in the country to treat a social issue as a public health issue.
“Everyone on the streets is in a military mode,” says Mills. “I can see the same look in a child’s eyes that I saw in a soldier’s. I know the mood swings, the anger, the horrible days, the nightmares. Unspeakable things are just a part of their waking days. Once you’ve seen someone get shot, once you’ve seen and smelled the blood, once you’ve had bullets riddled across the front of your house, you are never the same person. These horrors might manifest themselves years later in ways we can’t even begin to see now.”
Both men point out that children from poor and violent neighborhoods are touched by death every single day.
“There was a bus stop that picked up kids right where a young man had been shot,” says Mills. “These kids stood at a memorial to wait for the bus. Now they get on that bus, go to school, and they’re supposed to drop everything they’ve just seen and felt and become students?”
According to Mills and Chukwuocha, the schools that are told they’re failing are often the ones filled with these traumatized children who have the greatest needs. The system, as it is set up, is designed to fail these children who need more care and more attention. The twins mourn the lack of programs, counselors, mentors and social workers where they are needed the most.
“We need systems in place that are sustainable,” says Mills. “We have programs that are punitive rather than preventative. We will spend more on a young man to rehabilitate him after he has been incarcerated than we will on a program to keep him out of jail in the first place. And then that money will disappear or be reappointed, the program will die, and there will be nothing.”
The twins claim the solution is a greater investment in the community, sustainable services for the underprivileged and programs that aren’t the political flavor of the month.
“Those services that monitored curfews and school attendance, the ones that provided mentoring and help, the ones that provided dialogues to help families come together and to make better choices in their lives, those services are missing. We need people willing to do the hard work because they understand the big picture,” says Chukwuocha. “We need church leaders who are invested in their communities. We need more diversity in our social workers, and that work needs to be recognized and applauded. It’s a beautiful profession.”
The twins are each other’s support system and each other’s therapist. “Most social workers don’t have that. The job can be a strain on their lives and their families,” says Chukwuocha. “They need to be valued to balance the pain they see every day. There aren’t enough social workers or counselors. The caseloads are just too great. But the ones we know and see, they’re doing their best.”
The twins are working to establish writing workshops at 14 libraries in Wilmington. “As poets laureate, we can do this. As social workers we can do this,” says Chukwuocha. “We love what we do. Every day we do our best, give our best. Many a young person who has gone on to help heal his own community, who has followed in our footsteps, tells us, ‘I do this because of you.’”
In 2012, the twins founded Art for Life-Delaware, a nonprofit focused on youth and community development. In addition to conducting writing workshops at the Walnut Street YMCA, Prestige Academy and the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center and hosting the Rebirth open mic series, they lead bi-monthly community service projects in and around the 1st District that Chukwuocha represents on council.
Chukwuocha says that children today don’t hear enough encouraging and loving words. “Many are raised by the harsh side of social media. All that negativity is breaking down the community and the family, and it’s there 24 hours a day,” he says. “Social workers and community centers have closing times. The streets and the media do not.”
Adds Mills, “These children all need to feel safe. They are all so vulnerable. In their writing, they get to take off their masks and be truthful about what they don’t get at home or at school. No one takes the time to listen. When else and where else do they have to tell these stories? We know what art can do. We know how it matters.”
They want those who have known challenging lives to reach for a pen before reaching for drugs or a gun, before becoming teen parents. Art inspires and gives hope. “You helped me remember I’m a good person. I was a good person before the guns, before the violence,” says a young writer in their workshops.
“We need well-rounded people who are proud of themselves, their neighborhoods and their country,” says Chukwuocha. “If children have failing families and schools, then they need support through the programs and the people who can help them visualize a different life.” The twins say it’s their job as artists to let children know that despite everything, they can make it and they determine the future of the community.
Their mission is to create support programs—arts therapy, more counseling and modeling family behaviors. People with success stories are a large part of what they have been able to create.
“We turned down offers from hip-hop artists and rappers to be a part of their works and their recordings,” says Mills. “We were offered a lot of money. We don’t want to make a lot of money. We want to make a difference.”