Using prose to change lives

12th Annual White Linen Affair. Aug. 2-4, $35 day pass and $50 weekend pass, Crown Plaza at Ravinia,

4355 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Atlanta, 30346. 404-247-4661,

Some event highlights include free health and wellness screenings, photo and art exhibits, credit repair seminar, Old School Party featuring DJ Lonnie Luv, and Civil Rights Luncheon honoring U.S. Rep. John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Trumpet Awards founder and president Xernona Clayton, Tuskeegee Airman Val Archer and Georgia Coalition of Black Women founder Rita Samuels.

The news that morning weighed heavy on Hank Stewart. But it wasn’t the carjacking or the floods washing over the Midwest or even the string of murders that settled in his throat. It was this:

NBA great Magic Johnson had just announced he was HIV positive. It was Nov. 7, 1991, a day Stewart remembers the way some people remember 9/11. It hit the sports fanatic hard.

But what happened next, he said, changed his life.

Stewart, then a 28-year-old husband and UPS manager, sat down and for the first time in his life penned a poem he titled “Can You Hear Me?”

Lord, there are times when I can’t find anything good to talk about.

Lord, there are times when I cry.

Now 49, the Decatur resident has long stopped crying, but he’s still listening for that “very soft voice” that spoke to him in the wee hours of that morning, put that poem in his heart and would soon move him to start a foundation to somehow improve the lives of “our children.”

And so, come Aug. 2, Stewart will host the 12th annual White Linen Affair, the fund-raising arm of the Stewart Foundation, the non-profit he founded with Gwen Mason to foster leadership skills in youths ages 6 to 18.

"God has been good," he said recently, sitting in an empty sanctuary at Antioch Baptist Church North, the place he said gave him his first public platform for reciting his poetry and propelled him to stardom. Stewart would go on to perform at the Essence Festival, star in a McDonald's commercial, win a 2006 Emmy for a commercial written and performed for Fox News and write and recite a poem for Yolanda King's funeral service. And if you've seen the July-August issue of Trendsetters Magazine, that's Stewart on the cover.

Perhaps more important than any of that, Stewart sees himself fulfilling his divine destiny: to speak truth to power, to make a difference in the lives of others.

“Any poet worth his weight in salt should be active in the community,” he said. “When you look at poets of old, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Countee Cullen and Sonia Sanchez, they stood for something. And, when it’s all said and done, I want people to say that about me, to know I tried to make a difference.”

Becoming a poet and activist

By all accounts, Stewart does indeed stand for something and has already made a difference in the lives of thousands of metro Atlanta youth.

Courtnee Futch, an 18-year-old from Kennesaw and rising junior at Syracuse University, says she’s one of them.

Even at age 12 when she first met him at a foundation meeting, Futch said she sensed the poet’s love for children.

“Children have a good sense about people, and I knew even then that he cared for and wanted the best for us,” she said. “Not only is he one of my closest mentors, he’s like a second father to me.”

Futch credits Stewart with honing her leadership skills, making her socially and politically aware and helping instill in her the entrepreneurial spirit that inspired her to open her own business, Thundercakes.

When he and Mason launched the foundation in 2007 through a partnership with Tower High School and Miller Grove Middle School in Dekalb, their single goal was to develop tomorrow’s leaders.

At any given time, more than 100 kids from across metro Atlanta are involved in the foundation’s programming, which is divided into four quarters, each devoted to specific areas: health and financial wellness, community service, education and etiquette.

The foundation also sponsors one of Atlanta’s largest job and career fairs and ongoing “Vote for Me” voter registration campaign.

For years before he wrote that first poem, Stewart was a fast-rising business manager at UPS but hearing Magic Johnson’s announcement that morning somehow awakened his muse.

Lord, there are times when I’ve fallen and wondered did you see me.

Can you hear me, Lord, can you hear me? Just give me a sign.

That’s when Stewart heard a still small voice recount Jesus’ march to Calvary, he said.

I died on a Friday because I heard your cry but I rose on a Sunday because I heard your cry.

Now my child you have it all simply because I heard your cry.

“I’ve been writing ever since,” he said.

Two years later, Stewart said, his pastor, the Rev. Cameron Alexander, invited him to recite one of his poems during Antioch’s worship service and, from that moment on, he’s had more invitations to speak than he has time.

In 1995, the company began offering buyouts. Stewart took the offer.

He was looking to promote the release of a new CD when he hosted the first the White Linen Affair. When his sister, Bobbie Smith, was diagnosed with breast cancer, he turned the affair into a fundraiser to both raise awareness about the disease and money for research.

It was Smith, who died Jan. 25, 2011, who suggested he start the Stewart Foundation, but the poet didn’t just stop there. He also founded the popular Five Men on a Stool and more recently Hank’s Muse, music and poetry ensembles.

Early on, he said, Atlanta’s civil rights leaders — Alexander, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian and Joe Beasley — embraced him.

“They imparted so much in me, I don’t have the luxury or the right to run from it,” Stewart said.

Instead he’s adopted a new mantra: “It’s my turn and, if I don’t do anything about it, it’s my fault.”

And he remembers a letter an Antioch member once wrote to tell him a poem he recited — “Why would you stop in the middle of a storm” — prevented her from committing suicide.

“Any time I think I’m not making a difference,” he said, “I go back and read that letter.”