CMU Originals

3 winning entries in the Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards

This year’s Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards contest received a record-breaking 220 entries from 16 area high schools and five colleges.

“I was particularly excited to have a number of new schools participate this year,” says Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English who founded and directs the awards program. “The more schools that submit work, the more representative of the community the awards become.”

Winners in Carnegie Mellon University’s 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards tackled topics from self-identity and racism to terrorism and the U.S. presidential election. The awards program was established in 1999 to give high school and college students a safe, creative space to explore racial and cultural differences.

The student winners received cash prizes and had their pieces published in a booklet.

Due to the high number of entries, the judges created a new category to recognize the best piece from each school that was not included in the prose and poetry categories.

“Every year the submissions bring surprises, but the range and quality of stories this year was particularly impressive,” Daniels says. “While the recent election showed up in a number of pieces, it was more of a catalyst for students to tell their individual stories than to go off on a political rant. The maturity of these young people in discussing sensitive topics is truly inspiring.”

Here are the top three winners in the High School Poetry category:

MLK Writing Awards
Winners of the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University. Photo courtesy of CMU

“We Are Americans” by Zainab Adisa

First Place for High School Poetry

When I speak with my friend whose skin is smooth oak, with curls on top of his head the shade of low charcoal I am mesmerized. His accent is thick with South America. Brazilian pride lining the sentence he has told me often in variation: “You know you’re not American right?”

I stiffen and scoff at such bluntness. His voice speaks with a playfulness I’ve come to love yet a seriousness that my mind associates with trivial business. When we allow our words to flow freely in debate we are defending our “nationalism.”

No, I am not American, he’s right. My blood lines the heritage of Nigerian village kin whose accents flow in a wind I have yet to tame and words I’ve yet to claim.

But when he says, “You are not American” I know he knows nothing about my heritage.

Without knowing, he is referring to citizens of the United States of America.

to the blondes with blue eyes and peckish habits,

to the brunettes with long legs and apparent attitudes,

to the pale skinned with their perfect verb conjugations,

to the “blacks” with kinky curls and grease slathered fingers

and lastly, the mulatto hued with a sense of limbo hiding between their words.

He speaks highly of his home as we often do, though secretly loathing the countries that never gave either of us more than what we earned.

I want to ask him though I’m not sure if I ever did, “What defines an American?”

“I Am Not Wrong: Wrong is Not My Name” by Elsa Eckenrode

Second Place for High School Poetry


When I cut my hair my mother asks if I want to be a boy, as if this new haircut has transformed my entire being, and imagine this: the day after, me, hunched over my kitchen table, hair short and bleach blond, my body in an XL black shirt, formless, not angular or curved, she asks, is this your butch pose?


How do I tell her I learned a while ago to hate my body for what others see? I learned to cover myself up because when it’s 9 pm and I’m walking home by myself

I am: all skinny jeans and body outlined, I’m nothing more to the man outside than some dyke he’d love to see in bed, but how do I tell him I am more than just a body?


What does it matter if my mom sees me as a butch and men see me as a fetish when at the end of the day I’m still thinking about the first time a guy called me a faggot for not flirting with him. Why couldn’t I tell him he was wrong? I was 14. Will he ever know how scary it is to be told you’re unnatural?


And one night 3 years later, at 17, my dad’s girlfriend sits me down for girl talk and asks me why I don’t like men, but doesn’t she understand we are so much more than bodies? Why can’t I tell her she’s wrong? It’s like I’m 14 again, numb and speechless, breathless. Does she know how much my chest hurts to feel so ungodly?


I try to forget the sinking feeling but it starts eating me alive and I tell my mom the next day, broken down and sobbing in her car, and my dad promises she isn’t homophobic but how can he tell me I’m wrong when he wasn’t there? Why wasn’t he there for me? How do I tell him how hard it is to feel right but this isn’t who I am, I swear I’m so much more. I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name.

“Wide Tooth Comb” by Ciara Sing

Third Place for High School Poetry

My sister’s brown skin glows when she lies down on the back porch, her lips are full. They point towards the sun. Her moles form a pattern across her face, her tight curls have to be teased into the bun on top of her head. Sweat dances across the tip of her ear. You can see the sun in her skin.

My cheeks, and nose and ears are burned with red. My curls plastered to my forehead, damp and drooping. There is no glow.

My hands wouldn’t even be compared to the paper bag. White without question. Blue veins stain my skin.

My dad’s hands are cracked and dry. Ashy lines cover every inch, the dark skin stretched so much it tears when he turns a doorknob. He walks past the lotion. Our hands use to bleed in the fields.

On Sunday mornings, I watch flames dance around the points of my aunt’s comb. She swipes her raven hair up away from the back of her neck, tugs the comb under her hair and pulls. She tells me, never come to church with naps. I touch the back of my neck. The hair is soft and straight there.

I told my mom she could no longer do my hair.  She doesn’t do it right. How can a white woman do black girl hair, my friend asked. She can’t.

I wore my hood the rest of the day. My mom sent me to my room, after telling me she’s been doing it for 10 years. Her hazel eyes contrast her angelic face showing disapproval. Neither of us did my hair the next morning.

I steal my mom’s scarf and wrap it around my head, copying the woman’s movements in the video—they’re easy and swift. When I try, I look like an alien, lumps all under the scarf and my curls sticking out. The woman looks like a queen. She says to always use a silk scarf.

My mom doesn’t own one.

The black girls squint their eyes.

They tell me my uncle’s name is Tom.

He’s not our relative, he’ll never be.

Niggas don’t need to be using the word niggas. I’m not nigga enough.