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Journal, Day Two
What goes around comes around is usually about a negative experience. What if what goes around was positive to begin with and what comes around is an even greater affirmation? I wrote a meditation on the image and work of the great, late actress African-American Diana Sands that was published in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology in the 1970s and the anthology has been reissued by Rutgers University Press. The poem was read by a professor at Bennett College who happens be a scholar in residence at NYU this summer and he found me and brought K. D. Leary, a cousin of Sands, who just finished her biography, to one of my book events. I was stunned by the discovery of a poem written in my 20s that has great agency now. This experience seemed to be one more affirmation of the work of much maligned black feminists; cultural feminists, who during the 1970s tried in as many ways as possible to offer a different, more complex thinking about the lives and culture of Black women.
It also made me think how much Chicago was home to Black Women writers who serve as leaders of our literary sorority and how each of us finds our way into the community. My admiration for Diana Sands started with her portrayal of Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. In Beneatha, Lorraine Hansberry introduced a new kind of Black female character—intellectual, fascinated by Africa and African liberation, and unconventional and questioning; a character who talked back to her mother in an era when young people simply did not do that. Hansberry, a Chicago child whose prominent family tried to live out American privilege—buy a home in a community that they could well afford—but found themselves living the African American nightmare (racist violence and legal intimidation). From her child hood traumas, great plays were born.
In her short life Hansberry, who died at 34, used her considerable talent and intellect to examine and rail against American racism and imperialism. There she was in the ‘50s and early ‘60s living her life as an engaged artist, a social liberal, who talked back to Jim Crow America by marrying a White man in a era where miscegenation was illegal in all but a handful of states; left leaning during the McCarthy era; writing plays when the majority of Broadway-bound playwrights were American men: Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller, et al. She became the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway in 1959. With A Raisin in the Sun, she entered history. Her plays, essays, and interviews allow us to follow a mind set on freedom. And with Beneatha, she gave my generation a character to identify with, someone with the tools required to take on post-Jim Crow America—to struggle against racism and sexism, to find out what integration might mean, to have the chance that our mothers did not have of seeking fuller, freer lives.
Hansberry came from a city where female voices are heard—the powerful poet/teacher Gwendolyn Brooks who taught several generations of writers and sparked an institutionalization of her work on Chicago’s South Side. And there are others who have not been as celebrated, but should. I will be forever grateful for Carolyn Rodgers’ collection, “how i got ovah”— showed me how a poet could examine religion, the family, personal relationships, and desire in an era when many poets were removing any hint of Christianity from their work because everyone was intent on revolution, total change. If Lorraine Hansberry questioned Christianity in Black American lives, Rodgers found a way to show its strengths and cultural relevance. Given the assault on Black folk during the 1970s—urban renewal, massive unemployment—those institutions that actually worked like the church had to be examined and used. With that amazing Mahalia Jackson gospel hymn as inspiration, lines from the title poem ‘how i got ovah” gives you some of the flavor of her lyric and the rock of Black Christian culture on which her best poetry is based:
I have waded eyelash deep/have crossed rivers/have shake the water weed out/of my lungs/have swam for strength/pulled by strength/through waterfalls with electric beats/I have bore the shocks / of water deep deep
Another poet in the sorority and a dear friend of mine is Angela Jackson. Her collections grow and grow in sophistication and daring, but my favorite is Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes o the Spinners. As many of you know, spiders are important and sacred in African cultures—the web is not to be trifled with. And Jackson’s poems celebrate the many aspects of narrative, myth and history including one of the very best poems about Rosa Parks, a true web spinner: “Miz Rosa Rides the Bus,” which ends:
Jim Crow dies and ravens come with crumbs.
They say—Eat and be satisfied.
I fast and pray and ride.
Jackson, Rodgers, Hansberry, and Brooks are but a few of the incredible Black women writers from Chicago who give each of us direction or misdirection (if need be) in a poets’ journey. And they are only a few of the very many in that city who make and have made wonderful work as poets, playwrights, novelists, journalists, teachers, radicals, rebels, daughters, aunts, and mothers. They truly are fierce.
A few years ago, Alexis DeVeaux, whose biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet, should be on every one’s reading list, contacted me because Audre published early work of mine in Chrysalis along with other young Black women poets. It brought back a lot of great and not so great memories of the 1970s. One thing it did do was make me grateful for the gift of sorority. Sisters of all kinds were in my life—I participated in the first (and last) Sojourner Truth Art Festival in which I curated the poetry reading with a line up of Ntozake Shange, Thulani Davis, Debbie Harris (a poet and playwright from Memphis) and me, this just before For Colored Girls hit in NYC. That was wild.
But one of the great things about not having huge legacies, women began to make their own. That’s why Sara Miles, Sandy Esteves, Fay Chiang and I edited and published Ordinary Women. That’s why the WOW festival started. That’s why there were two women’s bookstores in the Manhattan. The sorority was in full flower, but endangered—straight versus lesbian sexuality; artistic restlessness, the start of many families, the rise of the political right. But, we created legacies. I can only imagine what women will do in the 20 teens. They have lots of materials to play with.