An Indies Introduce Q&A with Tony Keith, Jr.

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Tony Keith, Jr. is the author of How the Boogeyman Became a Poet, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce young adult selection. 

Keith is an award-winning Black American gay poet, spoken word artist, and Hip-Hop educational leader from Washington DC. He is author of How the Boogeyman Became a Poet and Knucklehead (Winter 2025).

Tony’s poem “Views for Damani” is included in the YA poetry collection Poemhood: Our Black Revival and his piece “Black Man on Fire” won first prize in the Tom Howard Poetry Contest.  

He is co-author of Open Mic Night: Campus Programs that Champion College Student Voice and Engagement, which received an outstanding book award in Curriculum Studies from the American Education Research Association (AERA). He has academic work featured and forthcoming in the International Journal of Critical Media Literacy, Equity & Excellence in Education, the Journal of Black Masculinity, the Journal of Negro Education and several others. 

His dissertation, “On Being Ed Emcees: Mastering Conditions in Education Through Hip-Hop and Spoken Words,” won outstanding awards from George Mason University College of Education and Human Development, the Hip Hop Theories, Praxis and Pedagogies group of AERA, and several fellowship grants from HumanitiesDC. 

Tony is Founder & CEO of Ed Emcee Academy and lives with his husband, Harry Christian III, in his DC hometown.

Maryan Liban of Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers in Columbus, Ohio, served on the committee that selected Keith’s book for Indies Introduce.

How the Boogeyman Became a Poet, in my opinion, is required reading," said Liban. “I could spend days analyzing Tony’s writing style and choice of words. This affirming memoir, written in verse, walks the reader through the beautiful journey of being honest with yourself and fostering community. This book is for anyone trying to put the puzzle pieces of their life together, but feel like they are missing just one piece.”

Here, Keith and Liban discuss How the Boogeyman Became a Poet.

Maryan Liban: The intentionality in your writing style is extremely profound and brilliant. In many ways, this book is a snapshot of your life. The reader is able to get a window into your world as you were coming to understand your place in it. As a poet, you not only beautifully weave your story with your poems from high school — you allow the reader to follow you on this journey of becoming. Why did you center your old poems in the way you did to carry us through the chapters of your life?

Tony Keith, Jr.: First, thank you so much for that beautiful affirmation. In fact, I included my older poems for that exact same reason: to affirm. I was afraid back then, that how I came out in the world, and who I am, was somehow wrong. But my poems served as evidence of my humanity, and I wanted to provide readers with some kind of “proof” to contextualize my stories about discovering love, joy, and freedom. I thought about folks who might also be creating poems for themselves as a way to make sense of — and to-cope with — the realities of their complicated lives. I want them to feel affirmed on the page too.

ML: Navigating the world with such multi-layered identities (Black, Queer, and low-income) it’s no surprise the world was not accepting of you, nor were you of yourself. How did you find refuge in poetry amidst your identity? How did it serve as a symbolic act of resistance and resilience? 

TK: Poetry was, and still is, my way of figuring out what’s going on in my world. In the book, I share how spending time with my poems was like therapy sessions that I saw white folks go to in the movies, except I was the only person counseling my emotions sans couch and an expensive hourly rate. I believe writing metaphors about feeling anxious, confused, sad, and angry was an organic and healthy practice of resisting racism, classism, and heterosexism that silences voices like mine. I could safely, secretly, and quietly put on the page what I could not say out loud. That process not only made me more aware of my voice, but helped me develop my identity as a poet. Plus, the positive responses from audiences after my performances improved my self-esteem and strengthened my confidence as a writer and performer.

ML: Throughout the book, there are many references to the boogeyman. At first, it is a tool to suppress one’s self, create self-doubt, and invite shame. But eventually, the boogeyman shapeshifts and evolves as you grow into your sexuality. How did you come to use the boogeyman analogy to come to terms with your identity as a Black Gay youth? 

TK: The last line in the epilogue is “...and so the Boogeyman became a poet”, which comes from a poem I wrote several years ago after talking to a friend — also a gay Black man, who called me for some cheering up. After we spoke, I reflected on the page what it feels like to desire love and greatness, but not believe that you are deserving or worthy. I wanted to express a counter-story to the negative self-talk we can tell ourselves sometimes.  And since most of my poems are for me first, that ending line was a reminder that I too, am amazing, bright and brilliant. So, I decided to write my memoir as an answer to the essential question: how did the Boogeyman become a poet? I wanted to know how I came to be unafraid of — and unapologetic about — who I am. It wasn’t until I was midway through writing the book when I had an “aha!” moment and realized what the Boogeyman was really about. Then, I knew I would weave “It” throughout the book as an anchoring metaphor.

ML: As a first-generation college graduate, I love how you walk the reader through your college journey. From the application process to navigating freshman year, it’s clear that structural barriers play a role in the quality of one's college experience. It’s both powerful and validating how you open this conversation as a minority student attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). What lesson do you want the reader to take away from your experience as a first-generation minority student?

TK: I hope readers understand the value of having cultural centers, diverse faculty and staff, and student organizations that represent communities of color at PWI’s, is that they function as places and spaces for belonging on campus and in the classroom. In the book I share my experience learning about the histories of Black Student Unions (BSU) and participating in open mic events and poetry slams. I needed to be around people who looked like me. Those moments helped me develop a positive Black identity, and reinforced the “knowledge of self” philosophy I gained through my first year at an HBCU. In a way, they helped me battle the Boogeyman disguised as internalized racism.

ML: I really enjoy how you included your friendships and relationships in the memoir. It is clear that your friends were your anchor. It made me reflect on the community and how to foster it throughout adolescence. What advice do you have for teens trying to find their tribe? 

TK: I am still very close friends with several characters in this book, especially Tiffy, Ebby, and Blu. In fact, Blu did the cover art! What holds these relationships together, is unconditional love and acceptance, and a genuine recognition of each other’s humanity. We care about each other’s health and well being. We celebrate small and large victories. We only speak of positivity, joy, and prosperity for one another. We are teammates with a freedom to be our most authentic selves around each other. We charge — not drain — each other’s batteries.

How the Boogeyman Became a Poet by Tony Keith, Jr. (Katherine Tegen Books, 9780063296008, Hardcover Young Adult Memoir, $19.99) On Sale: 2/6/2024.

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