FLINT, Michigan — On a sunny day outside Totem Books in downtown Flint, poet, actor, and author Jerimiah Whitehead stands confidently as he poses for photographs. A butternut squash-colored turtleneck and a gray checkered suit jacket accentuate his smooth chocolate skin. Black jeans complete the look as he smiles from ear to ear, explaining, “I had to look good, or I wouldn’t forgive myself,” reveling in the sun’s light.
In between takes, he cracks jokes and inspects his appearance through his phone screen, checking for any imperfections that might bolster themselves on a day that celebrates him and the first anniversary of his debut poetry book, “I Shall Be Released.”
The book serves as a template for how Jerimiah has endured life’s hardships — something he’s immensely proud of. However, he admits with a hearty laugh that “writing is always something that finds me. It reminds me of our love, and I keep trying to look for something else. [It’s like] you keep trying to go for the bad boy and that good one is right there.”
"Living for yourself is easier said than done. But it is rewarding," says Jerimiah Whitehead about living his truth at Totem Books on Nov. 17, 2023. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside.com)
Back inside the bookstore, memories of his childhood on the north side of Flint come flooding back, evoking a range of emotions of “trying not to fall victim” to the vices of temptation and succumbing to the negative stereotypes. The weight of it hangs heavy in the air around him as if waiting for a chance to express itself.
In the brief moment of silence that follows, fragments of the wall he built to protect himself begin to show their cracks, revealing a deep tenderness that emerges from within him. They illuminate his testimony through battles with his sexual identity, a cancer diagnosis, family, relationships, and more. But, “I’m nobody’s victim,” he assures me with a fiery gaze.
Flintside caught up with Whitehead to talk about his humble beginnings, his love for writing, and how he’s “owning the part that I played” in his life’s narrative.
Flintside: Let's delve into the beginning. How was life growing up in Flint?
“My parents shielded part of it. A lot of things that were said were happening to the people around me but not to me. That taught me at a young age that it’s not your environment but the mind. It wasn’t until I got older [that] I realized I thought we were middle class. We were on the lower end of it, but we never dwelled on that topic. It was always the future: what we can do, what we will do, what we’re going to do. I think that’s how we survived.”
Flintside: You mention it’s not the environment but your mind. Can you expound upon that?
“Even when I didn’t know who I was, I knew who I wasn’t. My surroundings were saying you gonna end up in jail or dead. I didn’t give in to that. I knew I was becoming a force to be reckoned with. I did not know how, in what way, or how to get there. I wish there was a better answer, [but] sometimes, to be successful, you have to be a little delusional. I faked it till I made it. I used to drink Kool-Aid out of wine glasses, and now I drink champagne. I exemplified who I wanted to be.”
Jerimiah Whitehead gets vulnerable about his experiences growing up in Flint and battling cancer inside Totem Books on Nov. 17, 2023. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside.com)Flintside: That mentality makes you stick out in spaces like that. Is this where your passion for writing and poetry came from?
“I’ve always had a passion for writing. It exposed itself to me in 4th grade [when] we used to have these things on the board every day called a ‘Do Now.’ The writing was, for sure, a pleasingly commercial break for me — a commercial break from life. A lot was going on, and I needed a break. It was never when I said I was gonna write, I just fell into the rhythm of it. It was a tool or vehicle to get me to a place I never thought I’d be — where I didn’t think I could go, and it was very therapeutic. In 4th grade, in an after-school program, [a teacher] bought me a Maya Angelou book. Reading “Alone,” “Phenomenal Woman,” and “Still I Rise” changed me. Those were the ones where I said I can do this. I said let me see if I can be better than [Maya Angelou]. I’ve always loved it since then.”
Flintside: Over the years, you went and pursued other things. What was the catalyst for writing a poetry book?
“I had a great idea and concept, and I felt that that was the ingredient to make a book. I realized it’s not easy, especially when you want good quality work. I was going to use poems that I’d already used, but those poems and the new ones did not cohesively blend. I got into Rudy Francisco and developed a new concept. In 2022, I moved to Atlanta to be an actor, and I had to move back [to Flint] because I found out I had cancer. I said, 'I’m about to die. I needed something to leave behind; I needed a legacy.' So I said a poetry book it is!”
“I’m nobody’s victim. I am one of one. I know who I am now. I am happy," says Jerimiah Whitehead, smiling inside Totem Books on Nov. 17, 2023. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside.com)Flintside: Can you share a little bit about this period of writing this book while also being diagnosed with cancer?
“It was very sad. I had myself to live for, so I became very selfish and took care of myself through that period. My family sometimes didn't even show up for me or did it in their own way. I think it was when I stopped being a victim. I realized I didn’t want people to feel bad, and I didn’t want to feel bad for myself. I wanted to showcase how strong and resilient I was for me. And I wanted to do something.”
Flintside: Your poetry book speaks to sexual identity, father issues, family problems, relationships, etc. What have you learned since its release?
“I will say that living for yourself is easier said than done, but it is rewarding. You need to have some sense of yourself and acceptance of having to start over if people do turn their backs on you. That didn’t happen to me, but I went for it with the energy that I would be okay if it did. It is still hard. It doesn’t get easier, but you get better at navigating it. Now, I know who I am, love myself, and know how hard I am on myself.”
Flintside: Are there any last words you want to leave?
“I’m nobody’s victim. I am one of one. I know who I am now. I am happy. From birth, I’ve always had fine taste, and I’m not going to stop until I get it for myself. I’m going to be who I want to be and stand on it. If not you, then who? If not now, then when?”
You can find Jerimiah Whitehead on Facebook and Instagram. You can purchase 'I Shall Be Released' on Amazon.