By using language as a powerful force for storytelling and social impact, poets find ways to use words as tools for change. Local poet Assetou Xango, whose pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them,’ is no exception.
For the last few years, Xango has acted as the poetic voice of Aurora by serving as the city’s poet laureate – making them only the second person to ever hold that title. That position has opened Xango up to a wealth of opportunities and allowed them time to polish their art and serve as an educator.
“It’s also given me the opportunity to be a full-time poet so that I can spend all of my time crafting that and working through it,” said Xango in an interview with 303 Magazine. “Also, being in the classroom and hearing students say stuff like ‘I felt wanted during this workshop,’ or that ‘I feel like I can really language myself’ and stuff like that. It’s just been, really, [an] opportunity that’s been the biggest benefit.”
Writing poetry for the better part of 15 years, Xango has mastered using art to evoke a feeling from audiences. Recently, one of Xango’s poems, Give Your Daughters Difficult Names, has proven to be a powerful piece of art, garnering national attention and receiving praise on social media.
That poem was written in response to a few of Xango’s life experiences, primarily the decision to change their name. “That poem was written in 2016 when I changed my name on Facebook,” said Xango. “In January 2016 I started asking people to call me Assetou instead of my birth name.”
The decision to change your name on Facebook may sound simple, however, for Xango, it was met with many questions. For them, the answers to those questions were easy — the name Assetou Xango fits who they are better than their birth name. What was less simple, was understanding why this specific name change raised so many questions.
“If your name is never questioned, why is my name now suddenly questioned? If my birth name was never questioned, why is now my name now suddenly questioned?” explained Xango. “Oh, this has to do with white supremacy and anti-Blackness and this idea that English-speakers, westerners, are the center of the world and everyone should adjust to them.”
” When you know your hell yes and everything else is a fuck no, you start to de velcro yourself from the ideas of who you should and shouldn’t be.”
After a trip to Africa and a summer spent finding themself, the name Dominique no longer felt fitting, and so Xango adopted this new name as a way to tell their story. Rooted in ancestry and spiritual practices that feel close to home, Xango’s chosen name directly reflects the person who they’ve grown into.
Xango’s name was in part given to them during their two-month stay in Mali, and the second part was selected from their own history and spiritual practices. “My name is genuinely like a map of my evolution to an extent,” said Xango. It draws on their experience in Mali, where Xango felt disconnected from the culture and was reminded again of their otherness. However, it also reflects a period of their life after returning from Mali, where Xango spent time finding themself.
Give Your Daughters Difficult Names retells Xango’s life experiences but also tells the experience of many Black individuals. As a poet, Xango explains, they’re always looking for connections and parallels. “I’ve had lines in that poem that are like ‘they’ll call you predator, they’ll call you thug,’ that are specifically referencing how Black men in particular, but Black people are treated and targeted and poorly represented in the media to continue to support violence against our bodies.”
These experiences have helped to inform other parts of Xango’s life, including the healing work that they do with Black femmes. By identifying triggers and patterns, Xango helps individuals to identify why they have those triggers and therein lies the healing work.
While Xango specifically offers their services to Black femmes — Black individuals who identify with their feminine qualities — it’s work that everyone can and should be doing. The first step, Xango explains, is determining that you’re ready for the change you want and dedicating to the work to make it happen.
“I think the starting point is going to be making the decision, setting the intention,” said Xango. “I am actually thoroughly done and through with remaining unaware of this, whatever it is. I am actually ready to move into deep relationship with X. You set that intention and the universe provides.”
Consequently, this makes it easier to take Xango’s most simplistic and perhaps their most vital advice. Xango encourages everyone to chase what makes you happy. “When you follow your bliss,” explained Xango, “when you know your gut, when you know your hell yes and everything else is a fuck no, you start to de velcro yourself from the ideas of who you should and shouldn’t be.”
According to them, breaking out of the mold and bettering yourself at a deep level might be the best way to create lasting change. Therefore, Xango has dedicated themself to unlearning bias and understanding how their social identity can have an impact on others. This inner work and healing has allowed them to focus their art on the topics that are most impactful to them and their healing work with Black femmes is an extension of that work.
“When you come to the surface with a more expansive understanding of who you are, you’re able to see people in their fullness,” said Xango. “You’re able to see them in their compassion because you’ve also had to go through your deep healing work.”
For more information on Assetou Xango or to contact them, visit their website.
All photography by Karson Hallaway.