On Black Women Writers and Inspiration

Nikki Giovanni graciously invited me to attend her class at Virginia Tech last week.   She had invited writer – Renée Watson – to speak to her class.   And what a blessing it was for me.

Renée is an award winning writer, whose genre is mainly young adult literature.   http://www.reneewatson.net/about

She is also a Black woman.   And her works, fiction and poetry, are often about Black women, girlhood, and Black girls. 

In the class, she shared poems and paragraphs from her works. She emphasized the importance of Black women – Black girls, in particular — speaking on our own behalf and not letting others speak for us.  She said that we need books that give us another way to be. She encouraged us to move beyond silence and shame. 

She shared the importance of young people finding a voice to break silence and realizing they have power – that we have power, even as Black girls, — even as ourselves are often seen as invisible, erasurable, dismissable, deniable, disenfranchisable.

Renée writes about Black girls and our lives and encourages us to realize that our lives must be more than being stitched together and coming undone, but about how to remain whole in a world trying to break us. Thus, her work entitled, “Piercing Me Together.”

She talked about fighting to get an image of a Black girl on the cover of her books so we could see ourselves.  I remembered fighting to get my daughter on my cover of my first book on Critical Race, Feminism, and Education: A Social Justice Model. 

Renée reminded us about the stories our bodies hold that and that we are walking stories.   She encouraged the class to remember that our experiences are complicated and we, as people, are complicated.  We have good days and bad days; black friends and white friends. The world is nuanced and as a writer we can share that world.  She talked about the importance of “crafting” a story, revising and refining our language and literature and making words come alive.

I have been reflecting on her talk and on Nikki since last week.  And on what it really means to be inspired, to have role models, to have examples.

What does it mean to have a role model?  To see someone that represents possibility, to see someone that shows us what might be possible?  To see someone that embodies dreams realized?

To hear someone speak what you have thought; to hear someone share what you were too afraid to share; to hear someone sanction what you thought was unsanctionable; to have a heart stirred with words that resonated, deep in my spirit?

I saw Renée before she got to the class.  I was running around the building, trying to find the right classroom.  I don’t remember if I smiled at her.   It made me realize that too often when we, even as Black women, see each other, we don’t pause enough to smile, to say hello, to recognize.

I rushed in, bringing a student from my office who wants to be a writer with me.  I gave Nikki a hug and introduced my student.  I then said we were going to sit in the back…and immediately, was reprimanded by Nikki that no one is supposed to or allowed to sit in the back – take a back seat.  So, I sat up front – close – where you have to pay attention; to each word; to each sentence; to each syllable, to each pause.

Renée was inspired by Nikki, Maya, Lucille, Toni, Gwendolyn.  Black women writers whose first names are enough. Yet, Renée inspired Nikki who wrote her a “fan” letter.

And both, Renée and Nikki have inspired me. 

Nikki is so generous; we all feel like she is our friend – that we know her.  She is extraordinarily kind.  Students in her class, I hope, realize what a gift they have been given.  I remember “meeting” Nikki in 1990 at the University of Iowa.  She signed the program for me — in pencil! And I just found it today. Carrying it around for decades — a piece of hope, a symbol of inspiration.

And I have been blessed by her writing – her courageous, blunt, to the point, not mincing words writing – for a long time.

I am working on my next book — a book emerging from 40 years of personal journals – a deeply personal work, but one founded in the same principles that Renée shared.  I am literally “piercing myself together,” from journal entries, from letters to God, from letters to Love, from letters to friends, from letters to and from lovers. And Renée, unknowingly, inspired me to continue on the difficult and arduous task of birthing not only a literary work, but also myself.  Like a doula, she coached without coaching; affirmed without affirming; did without doing.  She provided permission through herself, as an example, confirming that it is ok to speak, to share, to sanction, to stir, even if alone, because there are others, also alone, who are waiting for us so that they too can be and be seen, because, ultimately, we are never alone.

So, thank you, Nikki, Maya, Gwendolyn (who my mother met and she gave my mother an autographed copy of her Young Poet’s Primer for me — I found my thank you letter to her written in 1985):

Alice, and Renée. Your first names carry the weight of ancestors and a legacy of the power of Black women (http://menahprattclarke.com/2019/03/03/for-black-womens-history-month-when-a-black-woman-walks-into-a-room/)

Thank you for your inspiration. And reminding us that we are more than pieces and parts, but can be whole quilts, even though we have been stitched together with sharp needles, thread by thread.

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