Safia Elhillo

Sudanese American

Watch the Video

A short, powerful meditation on home and identity by spoken word poet Safia Elhillo.

about the author

Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, Safia Elhillo received a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.

Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Safia has performed at venues such as TEDxNewYork, the South African State Theatre, and the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway. Her book of poetry, The January Children, depicts displacement and longing while also questioning accepted truths about geography, history, nationhood, and home. The poems mythologize family histories until they break open, using them to explore aspects of Sudan’s history of colonial occupation, dictatorship, and diaspora. Elhillo explores Arabness and Africanness and the tensions generated by a hyphenated identity.

The Reading from the Author

Resources & Discussion

Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing.


Pre-reading Questions:

  • What does to pledge allegiance mean? Define both words.
  • Write 5-10 things–people, activities, and/or places–that you pledge allegiance to.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does “pledge allegiance” mean in Elhillo’s poem? Define each of the two words.
  2. Who is the speaker?
  3. What occasion prompts the writing of this poem?
  4. Discuss the general “topic” of each stanza.
  5. In each stanza circle the images that make this an effective poem.
  6. What comment is the poet making in the last stanza?
Now You Try

This is a collaborative exercise and is best assigned to groups.

Stanza One

  1. Brainstorm stanza one:
    1. i pledge allegiance to my
      homies      to my mother’s
      small & cool palms     to
      the gap between my brother’s
      two front teeth      & to
      my grandmother’s good brown
      hands       good strong brown
      hands gathering my bare feet
      in her lap
  2. List relatives, friends, or others who are important to you.
  3. After each one, list 5 interesting physical details about them.

Stanza Two

  1. Brainstorm stanza two and create a list of 10 inconsequential concrete things that are important to you but may not be important to others:
    1. i pledge allegiance    to the
      group text      i pledge allegiance
      to laughter & to all the boys
      i have a crush on      i pledge
      allegiance to my spearmint plant
      to my split ends      to my grandfather’s
      brain & gray left eye

Stanza three

  1. Read stanza three and then list the following: five things about where you come from, and five things you do not pledge allegiance to:
    1. i come from two failed countries
      & i give them back      i pledge
      allegiance to no land    no border
      cut by force to draw blood    i pledge
      allegiance to no government    no
      collection of white men carving up
      the map with their pens

Final stanza

  1. Read the last stanza. What do you choose? What specific favorite places, people, what activities do you choose? What is your country?
    1. i choose the table at the waffle house
      with all my loved ones crowded
      into the booth     i choose the shining
      dark of our faces through a thin sheet
      of smoke     glowing dark of our faces
      slick under layers of sweat     i choose
      the world we make with our living
      refusing to be unmade by what surrounds
      us      i choose us gathered at the lakeside
      the light glinting off the water & our
      laughing teeth     & along the living
      dark of our hair    & this is my only country 

Consider the following terms:

Pledge – A solemn promise or agreement to do or refrain from doing something. 

Allegiance – Loyalty, dedication, devotion, fidelity, honor, obedience, homage

Class Collaboration Model

I pledge allegiance to

The pen I haven’t lost yet

Coffee on tired mornings

Netflix binging

The one go to jacket

The thousands of lost papers

The bird that landed on Bernie’s podium


Awkward conversations

My brother’s elf ears

My sister’s scowls

My grandmother’s 4 fingers

My grandpa’s chuckle from his Lazy Boy

My mother’s left eye- half brown half blue

Laughing til your cheeks hurt

Hot water in the shower

Waking up without an alarm

The comfort of colored pencils

Good leftovers

Annie’s Mac and Cheese

Curling in the Olympics



I come from

Nighttime drives and peanut butter soup

Sitting on my dad’s lap working my thumbs on Playstation 2

Challenging my brother to ping pong games

My mother’s womb

Fearing death in every bite

Sudden weather changes

Loud arguments

A twisted family tree

The park in my neighborhood


I do not pledge allegiance to

Awkward silences around people I don’t know

Expectations imposed on me

Teachers that look down their noses

Shattered windows

Fights between siblings

Any religion

Demanding I follow the rules

Oppression of people based an what they believe

Violence without a cause


I choose

Big Spring

Pop Tom’s House

Lakeside Amusement Park



Camp dances vespers

Extended cousins that apparently I’m related to

Eating enchiladas with my grandpa every Sunday after church

Playing basketball in the park at dusk

Spending afternoons at my auntie’s house with sticky watermelon

Breaking the trampoline

Eating snowcones

Hot cocoa in white snow

Sleeping beneath the stars

Running away from the geese

Secret hiding

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