At only 15 years old, Rock Ridge High School sophomore Zahria Ford made her mark as a major poetic talent earlier this month when her poem, “Colors,” won her the Northern Region branch of the 2021 Strong Men & Women in Virginia History student writing contest.
Poetry first captured Ford’s heart in the seventh grade when her English teacher gave students an opportunity to submit poems into a competition, and Ford’s entry ended up being published. Having only written around 10 poems since then, she said she uses the medium to channel months’ or years’ worth of explosive emotional energy.
“All that time I spend not writing, all of my emotions kind of build up together and I can put it all on paper,” she told the Times-Mirror. “That’s how I ended up writing ‘Colors.’ It took me a long time to process everything, to write it all.”
The Strong Men & Women in Virginia History contest is put on by the Library of Virginia and Dominion Energy to commemorate Black History Month, inviting students to submit creative works that address ideas of social justice, marginalization and diversity. The winner of each region received a MacBook Air as a prize, as well as a $1,000 award to his or her school.
Ford said “Colors” was largely inspired by her experience attending eighth grade in another county. Per her experience, that year was highly transitional since her classmates started to truly identify one another’s differences, which proved deeply affecting for Ford — one of the only Black children in the classroom.
“I feel like that was the grade where everybody kind of started to look at one another and be like, ‘Oh, she looks like me, and she doesn’t,’” she said. “I didn’t really have anybody to tell me, ‘Oh, no, your hair is beautiful, your skin is beautiful,’ because I didn’t have that around me. I had to just sit there and deal with it.”
Skin color, hair texture and other attributes that distinguished Ford from other pupils are mentioned in “Colors,” as are the experiences of her class learning about slavery, or classmates asking discomfiting questions such as, “Are those extensions?” or “Can I say the n-word?”
However, by the final stanza, Ford writes in celebration of her identity as a young Black woman, rather than feeling alienated by it. She bookends the poem with descriptions of her surroundings being fully saturated with color, a metaphor for the beauty she finds in her place in the world. “Colors” concludes: “Blue sky, white clouds, color is back in stock. Brown feet taking steps to meet a dream down the sidewalk.”
Ford said her goal in writing “Colors” was to both connect with readers who have had similar experiences and to educate those who haven’t.
“For readers who are similar to me … I want them to know that they shouldn’t try and change themselves for anybody, because at the end of the day it’s totally not worth it, and that they should stick to what they do, stay themselves, stay confident in themselves,” she said. “The way they are made is totally perfect, and nobody can change that.”
She added, “I want [people who have had different experiences] to see what it was like to be the only Black kid in the classroom, and how they should avoid saying these things, or avoid doing other things that may hurt [Black people] deeper than what they think.”
Ford described Black History Month as “a time where I feel like I can finally be represented.” She recalled one year as a pre-teen when her mother took her to an event to commemorate Black History Month as a highly important moment in her life, in which she saw many other Black people dressed up and celebrating their culture together — a feeling that was largely replicated when she saw the movie “Black Panther” in 2018.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re so pretty and they look like me! How is this even possible?’” she said. “That’s why I feel like Black History Month is so, so, so important, so that other kids like me can see that they are so, so beautiful as well and get to see themselves represented in media.”
As for her inevitably bright future as a poet, Ford seeks to continue the process that made “Colors” so powerfully resonant: to reflect and express her complex feelings and viewpoints — and hopefully immerse more and more readers in her beautifully rendered emotional experiences.
“I didn’t necessarily have the rest of the world in mind when I was writing it,” she explained. “I was writing it for me, so I think I’ll keep using that strategy, because that’s how I get the rawest words and the rawest emotions onto the paper. After I have [each poem] written, then I can look for opportunities where it can be showcased.”