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From the Stage to the Page with LaChelle McCormick Johns

By Dakota Parks for Inweekly



If you’ve ever attended Pensacola Poetry on a Tuesday night, you’ve probably heard LaChelle McCormick Johns getting down behind the mic. A revered figure within the local writing community, LaChelle wears many titles—poet, mother, community builder, activist, business leader and now, author.

Her new book, “Black Beer Whiskey Wisdom,” has garnered recognition as a Pushcart Prize Nominee and soared to No. 3 on Amazon’s bestseller list in two categories—Black and African American Poetry and Parent and Adult Child Relationships—mere hours after its release. Within its pages, McCormick Johns delves into themes of love, loss, motherhood, family, community and the enduring struggle against injustice.


“I started writing in high school, but I never really had a community of artists until I discovered Pensacola Poetry,” McCormick Johns explained. “I was out of the habit of writing. But I went out to Sluggo’s and read a piece about (John) Carlos and (Tommie) Smith raising their fists on the podium in the (1968) Olympics as a sign of Black power and protest. Quincy ‘Q’ Hull stopped me to tell me, ‘People need to hear more of you. Keep writing and keep coming back.’ So, I went every single Tuesday for years, never missing a night, even when I had surgery. Pensacola Poetry is like church; it’s family to me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that community of people in my life.”


McCormick Johns drew upon the support of this community to bring her book to fruition, spending countless hours refining her work on stage, transcribing poetry from journals in bars and local businesses and, ultimately, completing the manuscript during a stay at the 309 Punk Projects’ Artist in Residence space. She uses her writing and her voice to tap into her local community, inspiring others to activism and political action. Many of her poems are tender and raw, grappling with heavy-hitting topics like the legacies of slavery, racism, fascism, police brutality and the prison industrial complex.


“When I hear news stories or I think about things that my parents and family have gone through or that others are going through in the world, I tend to really sit in those emotions. It’s like I can’t get that feeling out of me until I write it out,” she said. “Because I feel like when something’s impacting me that heavily, it’s impacting a lot of people. And, if I can put something out there that can allow somebody to feel what I’m feeling, educate them or call them to action, then I’m doing just as much as when I’m marching in the streets. To be an artist is a revolutionary act.”


In one of her poems, “The Evolution of Get Down,” a crowd favorite at open mics, McCormick Johns traces a single phrase through hip-hop history, intertwining a shared culture of dance and music with the history of slavery.


“I was listening to XM radio, hearing this James Brown ‘Get Down’ sample all over the place—from the old-school hip-hop station to indie rock to a new-school rap station, and all of these songs were from different eras and different genres,” she said. “I started to think about how music connects millions of people together and how these words were used throughout time, as words of celebration and dehumanization.”


In another piece, “My People,” her words are imbued with resilience and power: “We don’t drop to our knees in silence / Poised / We place one knee on fields/ And the earth shakes / It trembles.” This power and unconditional, revolutionary love is at the heart of her writing.


“Love was so tough for Black people in America, and those themes occur throughout my writing, because it weighs heavy on me,” McCormick Johns explained. “People say labor of love, but love really was a fight, a struggle, a secret. That line out my Robert Motherwell poem, ‘My baby’s nappy edges won’t lay even in the name of safety,’ really resonates with me, because Black people had to hide who they loved to protect them. It’s a revolutionary act to love someone so much you’ll go underground, organize and shelter each other just a get to a point where you can be together.”


Love serves as a recurring motif throughout “Black Beer Whiskey Wisdom,” intricately weaving together poems steeped in historical contexts with those celebrating the nuances of motherhood, community bonds, familial connections, friendships and romantic affections.

As McCormick Johns began assembling this book, she became motivated to craft a literary legacy to pass on to her children and future generations to come, including a section dedicated to poems written for her children.


“My kids are 21, 16 and 5, and it’s been on my mind how different of a person I have to be for each child. Each one of them needs a different version of me,” she said. “I think to give love is my only way to keep myself going. I’m here to influence the happiness and success of as many people as possible—to love people that need it during a specific time and then move out of your life. A lot of people have moved in and out of my life, and I’ve given them love, and they’ve gone, and that refreshes me, recycles my energy.”


McCormick Johns’ writing serves both as a didactic tool and a source of catharsis. Through her words, she implores community members to engage actively, to embrace love as a driving force and to stand up against injustice with fists raised high in solidarity. Her poetry acts as a rallying cry, urging readers to find their voice, to challenge the status quo and to empower others in the process.


“If you have a platform where people are going to hear you or read something that you’ve put out there, I think you have a responsibility to be the voice for people who don’t have those platforms,” she said. “I have been highly influenced by my entire family—my husband, my kids, my dad and my mom. My mom grew up Black in West Virginia in the ‘70s. She raised her six brothers and sisters. She was the first one to graduate from college, become successful and showed us hard work. She showed us that you have the power to change the world—the world being one person’s world. We have a responsibility to help people move forward, to help people heal, to help people succeed and to empower others.”


“Black Beer Whiskey Wisdom” is available to purchase online and locally at Open Books, 1040 N. Guillemard St. If you’re interested in attending Pensacola Poetry, this open mic is 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Subculture Art Gallery & Event Space, 701 N. V St. Follow facebook.com/pensacolapoetry for more.

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