Gwendolyn Brooks: In Her Honor

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), detail of The Furious Flower Portrait Quilt, 2004. Mixed media collage on canvas. Artist: Malaika Favorite. Card from my collection.

Like the Rita Dove piece I blogged about several months ago, the Gwendolyn Brooks portrait above is part of a 24-poet/panel masterpiece by mixed media artist Malaika Favorite which honors the history of African American poetry. The work was commissioned for Furious Flower, a conference held every decade (since 1994), that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages African American poetry and poetic voices.

Brooks (1917-2000) was a prolific writer with one novel and more than 20 volumes of poetry to her credit. She was the first Black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, now called U.S. Poet Laureate (1985-1986), and the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Her book Annie Allen won for the best volume of verse published in 1950.

Sometime between the ages of 13 and 14, I fell in love with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I gained access to these poets (and many others) through the book collections of my older brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks was my favorite. I still know by heart “To Be in Love,” the first poem I read by her:

To be in love
is to touch with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
you know you are tasting together
the winter, or light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
because your pulse must not say
what must not be said.

When he
shuts a door—

Is not there—
Your arms are water.

And you are free
with a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth,
to touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize,
is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
into the commonest ash.

I was “mesmerized” by the way she crafted language. I recall being moved by particular phrases–

you are the beautiful half/of a golden hurt

free/with a ghastly freedom

the Column of Gold/into the commonest ash.

And I was intrigued by how she used opposites and negatives to convey the beauty and pain of love and evoke a powerful sense of loss.

My own (early) poetry was very much influenced by Brooks.

Brooks would have been 101 on June 7, so in her honor, I invite you to read about her contributions to American literature as well as some of her poetry. To get started, see the links below:

“He Comes Walking”

During my prayer and meditation period this morning, I ran across a Sheila Walsh quote printed in my Women of Faith Study Bible, a couple of pages away from the psalm I was studying. I am moved to share it here:

When emotions beat against our souls like wave after wave in the worst of a storm, there is nowhere to turn but to Christ. As I sit for a while and think about Him, I hear the loneliest words in the world: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). On that brutal tree Christ embraced total isolation so that you and I never have to be alone. I am learning that doesn’t mean that life will be free of pain; it means that in the midst of the darkest night, He comes walking. Along the bleakest hospital corridors, He comes walking. When you think the world has left you all alone, listen closely. He comes walking. –Sheila Walsh

It is natural for us to feel alone when we’re struggling with everything that comes against us, when we’re desperately seeking answers that make sense. Rest assured. Things are not as hellish as they seem. We are not alone. Christ our Strength is walking with us, standing us upright, carrying us through.

I hope Walsh’s words rest deep within your soul. I hope when you are in the darkest places of human loneliness–where it seems no one knows or understands–you will remember Christ. He is well acquainted with human suffering. His light penetrates. His love and comfort reach even there.

He comes walking…

Everyday Fierce

Can you imagine walking through a fish market and encountering a woman who is so content, so fierce that her smile captivates you, even as she’s slinging a knife and her hands are covered in blood and guts?

When my photographer friend, Gale D, traveled to Mumbai some years ago, that is exactly who she encountered. The woman, “who was cutting baby sharks, had an incredible smile and a beauty that did not match her surroundings” or the task she had undertaken.

“Fierce Woman” by Gale D.

When she saw the description for the “Fierce Woman: Photo Inspiration” swap in the A Thousand Words group on swap-bot Gale knew she would use this image. The swap, just like the others I’d hosted in the past, required that individuals pair an inspirational quote by a woman with a complementary photograph. Gale felt Jennifer Lee’s quote captured the experience and the photo:

Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.

This quote has been attributed (by some) to Lee, noted for directing Disney’s Frozen, but I haven’t been able to find any information on when and where she said this.

What I appreciate about the pairing of the photo with the quote is that it speaks against the usual narrative that our pursuits must be grand or lead to magnificent outcomes, that they must involve an encounter with and a conquering of our fears. The woman in the photo shows us that even the mundane moments of everyday life require fearlessness, passion, and fire.

Vote: New Blog?

My hubby recently uncovered a treasure trove of writings, photographs, and journals from my early life. As I was looking through everything, it seemed a waste to just have things sit in folders and notebooks, unread.

I enjoyed revisiting younger me and reconnecting with her, so I’ve been thinking about starting another blog to allow her to speak–without the intrusions of “present” me.

It is absolutely insane for me to even consider another blog. I have to steal time for this one.  But summer always makes me feel like I can conquer all–including time.

So what do you think? Should my early musings get their own blog? Or should I make it a regular feature–twice monthly, maybe–of my current blog? Or leave it alone altogether?

Vote below.

“My Hair Is Not an Apology”

ENSEIGNE AFRICAINE. “Coiffeur de Dames,” Cotonou, Benin. Photographed by Lionel Adenis (Postcard from my collection. Purchased).

Every semester I choose a “theme” for my first year writing courses. The past semester’s focus–one word–misogynoir.

Misogynoir is an amalgam of the word “misogyny” (dislike or contempt for women) and “noir,” the French word for “black.”

Moya Bailey coined the term to “describe the racialized misogyny aimed at black women.” But many were writing and thinking about misogynoir long before there was a word for it. In fact, I recall writing an essay in junior high about intra-racism and the experiences of darker hued Black women in New Orleans. Basically, all the work of my “professional life” is a response to misogynoir.

In my classes, our goal was to find constructive strategies to cope with and combat the effects of misogynoir. Discussions covered many topics: images of black women in the media–including social media; representations of black women in music, film, art, literature; controlling images of black women; black women’s invisibility; politics; health and housing disparities; police brutality; systemic biases and treatment. The list goes on and on and on.

Obviously, there was no way we could cover all the topics, particularly since new issues emerge(d) frequently. But it was interesting  to note how often black women’s hair entered the conversation.

Of all things.

Books have been written about it. Documentaries filmed. Policy written. Memes created. Regular discussions held around the dinner table and on social media.

Black women’s hair.  

Little black girls are removed from classrooms. Nursing students are “forced” out of programs. Professional women are fired. Because of  hair. Because of hair. Because of hair.

Let that sink in.

Black women are targeted when we refuse to press or relax our hair, when we insist on loving our natural selves–including our hair–when we reject conformity in favor of self-love, when we shun the European “standard” of beauty because we know there are countless ways to be beautiful.

I’m not sure other women are advised [urged] to damage their hair to make it [read: themselves] more presentable, or told their hair is intimidating.

Does this happen to non-Black women?

When they were undergraduates, my [former] students, Lauren and Jasmin, performed a powerful piece on this very topic. Take a listen.