In the spirit of Black History Month, I am reaching into my literary arsenal and choosing to share a few thoughts about Brown Women who have touched my life for numerous reasons. My hope is that you can share in the joy of who they are, even in these short excerpts.
I have chosen five women, although the list is much longer than five. These particular women are artists I refer to in class, in conversation, in my performances and in my personal time as I transform into the Woman-artist I aspire to be.
bell hooks. I was first attracted to her name. bell hooks – small ‘b’ and small ‘h’. I often said her name over and over again as if at the mention of each pronounced letter a bell would ring and I would be drawn into whatever she had to share. This indeed happened. The first book I ever read of hers was Black Looks. This is when I learned about the “gaze” and what gazing means from a cultural perspective. Depending on how you define yourself and what your experiences are, the gaze can ignite an unjust power that hurts and diminishes a human being (no matter the race, gender, ability, age, and so forth). Then I moved on. Somewhere along the bell hooks repertoire I found a piece of myself in all about love (again small caps) and what it means to transition from love, the noun, to love, the verb. I resonated with her Chapter 6: Living by a Love Ethic. Her opening line is, “Awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination” (2000, p.87). She thoroughly speaks to this point and urges us to face fears that block our light and our ability to love communally and to love whole-heartedly.
Audre Lorde. I truly found myself in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She told me it was alright to rename myself and claim my identity. Moreover, I was allowed to claim ‘me’ daily. Today I am Traci. Tomorrow I am my grandmother’s child, Evadne. A week from now I may be Peace-Be-Still. Zami is Audre ceremoniously renaming the ‘self.’ The name links to a Caribbean island north of Grenada called Carriacou (a place I visited a few years ago). The word Zami spoke of Carriacou women “who survived the absence of their sea-faring men easily, because they came to love each other, past the men’s returning” (1982, p.14). I saw this as survival, beauty and empowerment intertwined in a particular space over a period of time. I could only imagine the powerful and spiritual intimacy among these women! Audre talked of having courage to love. And if there is one thing I have learned, love will take you on a journey that includes being courageous and vulnerable simultaneously. Audre also told me it was okay to say, “I am Caribbean American. I am Jamaican American. I am whatever I wish to be today.” How empowering this is for me, given my heritage and great desire to reach back and grab hold to a place I know through other people’s eyes – not necessarily my own. I had also been using her book of essays, Sister Outsider, as an artist-guide. She gave credence to poetry by reminding women,
Poetry is the way we help give name to the
nameless so it can be thought. The farthest
horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled
by our poems, carved from the rock experiences
of our daily lives.
I must speak for myself, as well as for other women who remain silent, not out of choice. And yes, there are many women today who are silent and afraid.
Maya Angelou. I will refer specifically to her book, Letter to My Daughter. I have been blessed to have a phenomenal mother who gives of herself willingly and without question. It is through Maya Angelou’s words that I am able to appreciate those who have birthed children both physically and spiritually. A few years ago a student approached me and requested that I be her mentor. There was no doubt I would say yes, but I did not know the impact this relationship would have on how I perceive motherhood. I have heard horror stories of women whose painful experiences as a daughter and/or mother have impacted their lives and relationships. I learned from a biological-distance (not birthing my own child), how some mothers must feel by the three simple words, “I love you.” Or when someone actually calls another person, “Mom.” I have called a few women in my life “Mom” or “Mother” because they have taken on this secondary maternal role, but to actually be considered someone else’s mother is powerful and not to be taken lightly. So, when Maya addresses me in the opening letter “Dear Daughter…” I thought of my own mother’s unconditional love and how she sends me love letters daily through simple actions: voice mail messages, quick reminder-emails to call other family members, her routine to focus on how I am doing instead of how she is doing, her laughter at my silly jokes about her grandchild (which is presently a cat), her listening ear at my frustration with someone, and her being there even though she is miles away. On the last page of her book, Maya Angelou shares the lyrics to a gospel song she wrote that bespeaks the power of being both mother and support simultaneously:
You said to lean on your arm
And I am leaning
You said to trust in your love
And I am trusting
You said to call on your name
And I am calling
I’m stepping out on your word.
Valerie Bloom. She wrote a poem called “Wha Fe Call I.’” I fell in love with this poem for its dialect and it’s Caribbean and British cultural context. I would say the poem aloud and hear myself fall into step with the women and men I have heard speak in what some might call patois but what I call natural-speak. I love the rhythm of Jamaican dialect, even when I do not always understand the words being said. I have spent a short amount of time in Jamaica (at a young age and also when I was older), but I find myself reaching back and flying home to my parents’ birth when I hear the authentic tongue of Jamaicans, as spoken in the first two stanzas below:
The poem is much longer, but this is just a sampling of how dialect in its native-speak has much to do with cultural acceptance, beauty, rhythm, structure and non-structure, fun, fusion, and creativity. After all, there is nothing more creative than what people can do with language over a short or long period of time, ya know?
Below, see Valerie Bloom perform Sandwich, a vibrant, call-and-response poem about her childhood and culture:
Ntozake Shange. Every once in a while I remind a few people that Tyler Perry’s 2010 film For Colored Girls is an adaptation from the choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. This film is not Perry’s story. How many of us women have considered suicide when the endless colors in the sky just didn’t cut it anymore? And if suicide wasn’t a thought, then some sort of drastic unnamable measure was the next option. Ntozake spoke to me in colors. Every woman represented a color in this long poem, and I was amazed and pained by what they all went through. Here is the thing though, whether people understand the book or not, I know the stories are real. I was recently sitting among some of the most beautiful black women in a Sister Circle located in Michigan. Some of the women have lived overseas; some had been through extensive certification, college experience and spiritual training that led them to their present career; many are mothers (some with companions and others single); most have been on spiritual journeys that have included different faiths; all of them are creators and have birthed some sort of life-force that has spawned change in other women’s lives. The stories shared reminded me that privilege, power, and pain are alive and present. Also alive and present are survival, sensibility and community. Ntozake was writing a story for women. I have learned that not every story is for everyone to understand or fall in love with. A matter of fact, I was once told, “If everyone loves who you are, you need to start questioning yourself.” I watched an early 1980’s version of Ntozake’s choreopoem starring Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard. This video program was a part of my introduction to performance poetry. I kept thinking, “How powerful. How sad. How inviting. But is there no happiness for black girls?” In 2013, I firmly believe that in the midst of hardship, you must create your happiness and take ownership of your joy. The journey may not be easy, but ART isn’t easy all the time. Love can be complicated. Identity is an ever-evolving process. And rainbows, what can I say about rainbows? Hhhhm, let me close with Ntozake’s final words in the book, in the spirit of Black Herstory…Everyday of Our Lives,
& this is for the colored girls who have considered
suicide/ but are movin to the ends of their own
Move, My Dear! Move towards your rainbow and light up the world!
In order of mentioning above:
hooks, b. (2000). all about love. New Vision. HarperCollins, NY.
Lorde, A. (1982). Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. The Crossing Press, CA.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press, CA.
Angelou, M. (2008). Letter to My Daughter. Random House, NY.
Linthwaite, I. (1993). Ain’t I a Woman! A Book of Women’s Poetry From Around the World. Wings Book, NY.
Shange, N. (1997). For Colored Girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Scribner, NY.
Traci Currie is a Communication Studies lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer for 5 years; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes the PRC will help young women reach their highest potential. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read other posts by Traci here.