CJ Suitt grew up singing in a church choir, where he learned about performance from preachers — who delivered their messages with charisma and passion.
In high school, Suitt began to gravitate toward writing poetry. With encouragement from his 10th grade English teacher, Michael Irwin, Suitt performed a piece at his school’s Black History Month celebration.
“It was wild to me that I could be applauded for just sharing really how I felt,” Suitt said.
With his poems, Suitt began to use his voice to highlight people who aren’t often given a platform.
“I care about people who grew up, like me, outside the rural buffer in Chapel Hill ... and more often than not, those people are low-income or they are Black or brown,” Suitt said.
Now, Suitt is in his last year as Chapel Hill's first poet laureate — a role he assumed in 2019.
“I am very honored and grateful to stand on the shoulders of Zora Neale Hurston, who taught at UNC, and George Moses Horton, who was the first Black published poet in the South, who bought back his time from a plantation to read poems on campus at UNC to students and thus became published,” Suitt said.
A Chapel Hill native, Suitt stood out as a joyful, intelligent student, Irwin said.
“CJ had such a natural curiosity to learn,” Irwin said. “To not just learn real history and engage in meaningful literature, but to also have a creative voice to respond to that learning.”
Irwin said he did what any educator should do and used his position to help one of his students shine.
“CJ’s poetry has always been profoundly beautiful, and all I really ever had to do was hand him a mic and get out of the way,” Irwin said.
Since then, Suitt has used his work to bring attention to the art of poetry and the issues facing the people in the Chapel Hill community beyond the University.
“It feels really important to me particularly to have students understand that their university, or their university experience, is not just Franklin Street and that Chapel Hill is not just UNC's campus," Suitt said. "But it is actually a much broader community that will be there after the four years."
Suitt has worked with many student coalitions over the years. One of these became what is now known as the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a community organization that honors historically Black neighborhoods near UNC's campus.
Suitt has performed at many community events, including the town's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and Juneteenth celebration. He has also taught at schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district.
Melissa Bartoletta, marketing and communications coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, said she hopes for more poetry events that connect the community this year.
“This is CJ’s last year as poet laureate, and we really hope to bring the community together in a safe way to experience his performances and poetry,” Bartoletta said.
Right now, though, Suitt said he doesn't yet have any performances scheduled in town.
Bartoletta said the Town is working with Suitt to determine the criteria they want for future poet laureates.
“We want to look for someone who is passionate about their work and who has a presence throughout the community,” Bartoletta said.
Suitt said he hopes the next poet laureate recognizes that poetry is not just for wealthy, upper-class people, and that the laureate has a connection to North Carolina.
“I think the poet laureate appointment is for somebody who wants to and is willing to be out in the public, in front of people and sharing poetry and highlighting and uplifting not only themselves, but other artists in the community,” Suitt said.
While Suitt’s position as poet laureate is nearing its end, he hopes to continue the work he is doing as an artist in Chapel Hill.
“As profoundly powerful and moving everything that CJ has done already is, I clearly believe that the best is yet to come,” Irwin said.
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