Germantown poet recounts a family journey in ‘Migration Letters’

by Ann Marie Doley
Posted 5/16/24

"Migration Letters," a slim volume of 55 interconnected poems, represents a 14-year journey for Nzadi Keita, a petite woman with a powerful poetic voice.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Germantown poet recounts a family journey in ‘Migration Letters’


Germantown is known for its poets, especially Black women poets whose names are emblazoned on T-shirts reading "Sonia, Ursula, Yolanda, Trapeta." With the April publication of Nzadi Keita's "Migration Letters," some would argue that another name belongs on those iconic shirts.

"Migration Letters," a slim volume of 55 interconnected poems, represents a 14-year journey for Keita, a petite woman with a powerful poetic voice.

"To the many people who are afraid of poetry, I say, embrace curiosity over fear," she said in a recent interview. "In 2016, I sat down to sort a large set of raw material I'd been drafting and amassing since 2010. Out of those folders came a large group of raw poems that began 'Migration Letters.'

Born in Germantown, Keita moved to Mt. Airy with her family during her school years but returned about four decades ago to settle in the neighborhood with her husband, where they raised two sons. 

On April 2, Keita launched “Migration Letters” at the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library in Center City. On Thursday, May 16, she will read from her new book at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy at 7 p.m., where she will be joined by Philadelphia poet, photographer and journalist Pheralyn Dove.

The book's origins trace back to 1943, when Keita's grandparents and their children traveled from La Grange, Georgia, to Philadelphia on a segregated troop train. Next to the youngest on that journey was Keita’s mother.

"In Georgia, my grandfather was working in a sawmill and my grandmother worked for a wealthy white family," Keita said. "They came because they saw no future for their kids other than the kind of work they were doing. A friend who had ended up in Philly wrote back that Grandma could make four times the $7 a week she had always made with four kids to feed. And wartime jobs had opened up that were hiring Black people, so my grandfather would earn far more than the $9 a week he made in 1942."

More than 6 million rural Black Americans journeyed to Northern cities during the decades between 1920 and 1970, otherwise known as the Great Migration. These migrants were pulled by economic opportunity and pushed by Jim Crow — the Southern system of segregation enforced by law, custom and terror.

Keita's poems reveal in verse the breadth, depth and impact of this massive movement, which writer Isabel Wilkerson calls a "declaration of independence" that changed the course of American history.

The poems in "Migration Letters" move through time and geography to touch on both literal and figurative movements, from the Great Migration to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of Keita's childhood. They provide a rich glimpse into Black working-class life in Philadelphia, seamlessly shifting between the political and personal, rural and urban, and rigid segregation of the South and the more nebulous discrimination of the North.

Keita, who retired in 2023 after 25 years teaching creative writing and literature at Ursinus College, said she considers herself and others like her to be first-generation Northerners because "our parents were migrants."

She said that as the daughter and granddaughter of Black Southerners, she sees her experience as similar to that of the children of European and other immigrants. Raised by people who were formed and molded by the culture, laws, and lawlessness of the rural South, she felt a kind of "double life" here in this northern city.

Keita said she hopes readers will "stop trying to impose a colorblind myth" on the story of our nation and come to "recognize and bear witness to U.S. Black life and culture in all its complexity, uniqueness, and fundamental, pivotal impact on shaping this country."

Keita discovered poetry as a way to explore the unique pain and joy of Black life early, she said, and recalls WDAS-FM playing poets like Gil Scott-Heron and Nikki Giovanni between songs in the '70s.

At 13, she prophetically saw Sonia Sanchez on TV. Now 89, the acclaimed poet, herself a 1943 migrant from Alabama, has become her mentor. Keita credits Sanchez with teaching her "to reject the notion that poetry is an elite-only art form" but "a joy, simultaneously public and private … that can unlock hearts and/or minds and urge us to reclaim our humanity."

Keita said she’s particularly pleased to be reading at the Big Blue Marble, which is located on Carpenter Lane near Greene Street in W. Mt. Airy. 

"The store is about 10 blocks from the house I grew up in and the neighborhood featured in '233. [Letters to Mt. Airy, West Side],'" Keita said.

One of her favorite poems is the "109. [Great Migration Pentimento]" series. To Keita, "it captures a range of themes and concerns that reveal the scope of the book, and express the experiences that tie my life to my elders."

An excerpt:

When you left for college, you waved back

to grandparents who had raised crops

on land they didn't own. Cooked

food they couldn't buy

from any store. Cut, mopped,

and scoured, brushed, stewed,

and decorated cakes

in kitchens she entered according

to the side door-only rule. Labored

in sawmills, hauling whatever tipped

him closest to risk. Nosefuls of heavy

dangers, iron work. Never designed

to pay enough for savings. For smiling.

For clean favor in the shade.

"Migration Letters" is available at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy, Uncle Bobbie's Coffee & Books in Germantown or ordered from For more information, visit