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Poetic license to be free

The windowless Cotton Club might be confused for a strip club, walled by mirrors that offer patrons an assortment of views from any seat.

But people come to hear, not see, reflections every Tuesday night at the club, where the bar sells half-pint bottles of liquor.

On the chessboard-like black and white floor, poets, most of them black, rise to the microphone and expel their feelings before listeners who shake their keys when they feel a connection.

The feelings black men convey in rhythmic cadences are sometimes contradictory but always passionate. They reflect a national survey released this week, which painted a complex portrait of black men in America.

Among the findings of the survey, conducted by the Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University: Black men recognize opportunity but know discrimination lurks like a land mine. They believe in the American dream but believe they must work harder than whites to realize it. Most take responsibility for their problems but report a political, economic and justice system tilted against them.

Black men don't often publicly express those views, for fear of opening themselves to censorship and scrutiny, says the poet who goes by "L.I.F.E.": Living It For Everyone.

Those concerns disappear at the Cotton Club, during sessions called Black on Black Rhyme. People feel emboldened.

"This allows us a place where we can express our feelings with others who feel the same way," said Walter "Wally B" Jennings, 29, who founded Black on Black Rhyme.

L.I.F.E., 31, who runs the event with a fellow poet, called it the "closest thing to church."

In the West Tampa club on Howard Avenue, regulars at the microphone deliver pieces about incest, molestation, relationships, suicide, war on terrorism, poverty and the art of the spoken word.

Kenny Rivas, 20, became interested in poetry because he loves music.

He sat in the corner of the Cotton Club and waited for his moment. He had written his poem, Real Talk, the day before.

"What inspired me is my everyday life," said Rivas, who was born in New York's South Bronx and grew up in the area of Tampa known as Suitcase City.

L.I.F.E. called Rivas' name, and he rose from his stool. The words came out.

I can bet that almost everybody in here has family, friends or somebody they know that's locked in prison now or has been locked up in the past. Now that's not just a coincidence. Our people are not these vicious thugs and criminals that they, the media and society, portray us to be.

And the thing about it is that America had to come up with a new way to enslave us in this country so what better way to do that than the prison system.

The audience applauded and nodded.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or