Doodling Purple | “Sitting on a Bus with Strangers”

I was a bus rider for several years, but, with the exception of taking the streetcars in New Orleans for fun, it’s been a long, long time since I rode a city bus anywhere. 

I kind of miss the almost quiet commute. Traffic and road construction were someone else’s concern, so I took the time to grade papers, review lecture notes, daydream, or rest.

I especially enjoyed people-watching: mothers with babies struggling to load strollers onto the bus and the ever-present kind gentlemen who assisted them; school kids chatting about their day or “clowning” each other; men and women in business attire leaving their work behind and mentally planning dinner or a night out. The chance meet-up of neighbors and friends, excitedly greeting each other.

There were always crazy, interesting, and [sometimes] scary stories to report after a ride on the bus.

The latest postcard from Fran B, my Love Notes pal, reminded me of those bus rides and the many stories that were part of the experience. The postcard features the poem “Sitting on a Bus with Strangers” by Teresa Wyeth. The poem is part of Indiana’s Shared Spaces/Shared Voices public art project that infused Indianapolis’ public transportation system with literary art and spoken word performances written by Indiana writers. 

About the Image: The top image is one of the photo art pieces I crafted from the mums I shot at the end of September. You can see more mums art in last week’s [not-so] #WordlessWednesday post.

Guest Post | “Hear Me Roar” by Liv Grace

Today’s guest post for our series on living Black in the United States was written by up-and-coming performance phenom, Liv Grace. Liv Grace graduated from high school a couple of weeks ago, and she is already making her mark in this world. In this post, she shares a little about her music journey and her song and music video, “Hear Me Roar,” which she wrote in protest  of police brutality and racial injustice in the USA. Be sure to watch the video. 


Yoooooo! My name is Liv Grace, and amongst many other things I am a singer, songwriter, and producer. I’ve always been a lover of music and the arts. I’ve loved making music, writing, and editing films since the day I found out my Nintendo 3DS had a video camera. I started writing poetry and fictional stories around the fifth grade. I’ve been singing in choirs since I was really young. I’ve harmonized on praise teams all throughout middle and high school, and I’ve been “belting it out” in school musicals for the past five years.

What I love most about music is its ability to bring people together and make them feel something. A simple melody has the power to make us feel a plethora of emotions and a lyric can help us see the world through someone else’s eyes. I’ve always loved the feeling I get when I listen to music and I like being able to give that feeling to others.

I’ve always been composing harmonies. I remember watching a video of young Ariana Grande when I was in middle school singing into a microphone connected to a guitar looping pedal, layering harmonies and singing over it. I was mesmerized, and immediately I knew I had to try it. Unfortunately, my middle school allowance was not large enough to purchase a professional guitar looper and trying to convince my parents to purchase a $100 guitar looper for me—a twelve-year-old with no guitar—was surprisingly difficult. I decided to do the next best thing and downloaded a free beatbox looping app on my phone. I picked a random song from my iTunes playlists, listened to it on repeat and recreated the instrumental with only my voice on loop. My obsession with arranging and recreating harmonies ran wild from there. I found myself recreating Broadway cast albums and singing all of the parts. I’d post small clips of me harmonizing with myself and singing covers on Instagram.

In my junior year of high school, I decided it was time to start creating my own music. This was daunting, yet exciting. Ironically, around that same time my dad, brother, and I stumbled across a space connected to the Hirshhorn Museum called ARTLAB+. That space literally changed my life. In fact, the only reason I actually completed my very first song was because I needed it to apply and audition for one of their arts programs. I was accepted, but didn’t go in with high hopes. I showed up, I sang it, and they loved it! It was at that moment that I realized this thing I’d been doing as a therapeutic hobby was something I was actually good at! I’ve been writing melodies, producing instrumentals, and composing harmonies ever since.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

At the beginning of the shelter-in-place [to flatten the curve of COVID-19], there was a moment when nobody in the US knew what was going on or how to deal with it. My school extended our spring break while administrators and teachers worked on an action plan, so there was this huge chunk of time in which I was able to focus on things that made me happy. I’d started a music account on Instagram earlier in the year, but rarely posted on it due to lack of time. Now, I had what felt like all the time in the world!

Like many others, I began to use this surplus of time to focus on things that I genuinely enjoy and to learn new things. I finally had enough time to pour into one of my passions—music. I started actively posting on Instagram and from this the opportunity arose through ARTLAB+ to share my creative process as a teen artist in collaboration with the Nicholson Project, an artist residency program.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

A couple days into the process [and after I’d written a song on mental health for the project], the video of George Floyd’s murder took over all forms of media. It wasn’t the first time I’d watched my people carelessly shoved to the ground by law enforcement. Every time a video comes across my feed, my heart aches, but watching George groan in pain as he yelled for his mother was the last straw. I knew I needed to use my gift to speak out. I decided my mental health song could wait and began writing “Hear Me Roar.”

When it comes to creating, I overthink everything. I spend hours writing and rewriting, trying to find the right drum pad or the perfect harmonies to accent, but with “Hear Me Roar” everything just flowed so organically. The song just came to me. The chorus popped into my head as I was soaking in a bubble bath. The next day I sat and wrote two verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, and arranged backing vocals in one sitting.  The next day I produced the instrumental and just continued tweaking throughout the week until the song was finished. I let it breathe for a little bit, listened to it about a week later and called it a wrap.

The song was done, and I loved it.

A little after the song was finalized, I decided I wanted it to be released with a music video, so I grabbed my video camera and my dad’s mini projector and pushed my bed to the other side of my room. Over a couple days I filmed, directed, and produced the video.

“Hear Me Roar” is the song I needed to hear as we mourned the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black people who lost their lives to police brutality. I needed a song that would remind me no matter how hard anybody tries, they cannot silence my voice.

We often see the tragedies and the news and feel hopeless, like our voices don’t matter. But they do! Not only do they matter, our voices have the power to move mountains and make change in the world. My hope is that “Hear Me Roar” can remind people how powerful their roars are and that they should use them to speak out on issues that matter to them. Right now, we are in great need of change and if we use our individual and collective voices, we can make that happen!

“Hear Me Roar” is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Youtube Music, Deezer, and Napster! It is also available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play Store. You can find links to all of these stores here:

A percentage of the proceeds from “Hear Me Roar” will be donated to the ARTLAB+ program.  Individuals involved in the program devote their lives to uplifting and amplifying the voices of young artists of color and provide us with equipment, professional guidance, and a loving environment to express ourselves in our own creative and unique ways. I want to help the program give the opportunities they’ve given to me to other young Black artists.

You can find me and more of what I’m up to here:

We need your voice to create change, so keep roaring!

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

#GoodTrouble

John Lewis, after arrest in Mississippi, 1961. He served 37 days in Parchman Penitentiary for ‘disorderly conduct”–using a restroom reserved for whites.

When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble [and help redeem the soul of America].  –Congressman John Lewis (February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020).

Woman Inspired! | Stella Gibbons and Carson McCullers

One of my favorite bookish swap series to host is “Literary Wisdom” on swap-bot. Through the swaps, participants select a bookish postcard and write on the back a quote which inspires them. The quote must come from imaginative literature (poetry, prose, plays)–not sacred texts, self-help books, or non-fiction. For Women’s History Month, I decided to dedicate the swaps to women writers, since, unsurprisingly, male writers often dominate the swaps.

I created swaps for the Cup and Chaucer and Book Lovers Congregate groups. Lucky me! My randomly chosen partner for both swaps was Geraldine J (Nannydino). I always enjoy receiving postcards from Geraldine. Not only are the postcards well-selected with my varied interests and tastes in mind but the presentation of the written side of the postcard is always clean and inviting–very neat handwriting and unique placement of stickers, stamps, and postage. Somehow, Geraldine packs a lot of information on the 4×6 postcard backs, always including the date and weather.  Bonus–we have some of the same postcard collections so I get back the very postcards I love.

Now, for the literary inspiration:

Stella Gibbons (1902-1989). Photograph, Mark Gerson/National Portrait Gallery, London

Stella Gibbons was a British writer with poetry, short stories, and 25 novels to her credit. The inspired quote Geraldine chose to share comes from her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, which is a parody of the “loam and lovechild” rural genre.

Every year, in the fulness o’ summer, when the sukebind hangs heavy from the wains. . .’tes the same. And when the spring comes her hour is upon her again … ‘Tes the hand of Nature and we women cannot escape it.

What seems to be most inspiring here–besides the hilarious novel itself–is “sukebind,” a word Gibbons coined. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “sukebind” is an “imaginary plant associated with superstition, fertility, and intense rustic passion.”

Check out two of The Guardian‘s reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

If you’re interested in reading the novel, you should have no problems borrowing it from many of the e-libraries.

Carson McCullers (1917-1967). Photograph, Bettman/Corbis

Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith, also wrote in many genres–plays, essays, short stories, poetry, and (of course) novels. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her debut [though not first] novel (at the age of 23), remains her most popular work.

The inspiration Geraldine shared actually comes from McCullers’ commentary on her characters. “She felt her characters powerfully, once stating:”

I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.

And one of the inspired quotes form The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:

My advice to you is this. Do not attempt to stand alone. …The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.”

For more about Carson and her works, see the links below:

The postcards come from the collection, Postcards from Penguin Modern Classics: One Hundred Writers in One Box. I actually have the collection and mentioned it [or its lack of diversity] in a post on Eileen Chang. Despite the shortcomings of the collection, the photographs are stunning, and I’m happy to have two of the women writers “return” to me

Before I go, I leave you with a little homework. On the back of the McCullers postcard was an equally stunning fierce and inspiring woman postage stamp–featuring Elsie MacGill. If you don’t know who she is, you must do a little “research” and come back and report [in the comments] three things you’ve learned about her.

Until next time…

Joy Break 4 | Catch Some Joy

Have you ever had an encounter with an individual who was so filled with joy that it spilled onto you?

That’s how I feel every time my niece, Tiff, posts or sends pics of her escapades with her toddler. As you can see from the photo above, Tiff oozes joy. She always has, and her joy is infectious.

As for the little one, I think the moment the photo was snapped, she was working on a plan to remove the pacifier and get to those strawberries without a free hand!

Did she succeed? Did she eat all the strawberries? Based on the empty basket and the mixture of mischief and guilt on her face in this next photo–maybe so! 😀

My blogging friend, Melissa, had an experience with someone who “oozed” joy not too long ago. Click the link below to catch some joy.

He found joy standing in line…

“Montgomery on My Mind”

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in –Rosa Parks

My colleague, Dr. Ramona Hyman, always has “Montgomery” and its rich Civil Rights history “on [her] mind.” Thanks to her, I have Montgomery, Alabama on my mind too as I prepare to spend a couple of days there with her and several Huntsville educators “Revisiting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” The educators are working on integrating this piece of history into their K-12 classes. I have a different research agenda–as I’m thinking through a project on women’s involvement in critical moments in history.

Today is a perfect time to share some of the Rosa Parks postcards in my collection. I’ve had them for quite some time, but now that I’m thinking about Montgomery, it’s an appropriate time to share.

Many people know about her contribution to American civil rights and history, but just in case you don’t know–Rosa Parks is considered the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 “triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States.” The boycott lasted for more than a year and ultimately catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence. The boycotts led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on city buses.

Here are three related postcards from my collection:

The “Rosa Parks Bus” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan

From the postcard back:

Montgomery City Bus 2857. Originally built in 1948 in Pontiac, Michigan, Bus 2857 was operated by the Montgomery City Bus Lines in Montgomery, Alabama from 1954-1971. Rosa Parks was riding this bus on the evening of December 1, 1955 when she was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man. This incident sparked subsequent civil rights protests, especially the boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of a revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests in support of civil rights in the United States. The yearlong boycott kept Montgomery’s [black population] off all buses until December 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of public transportation was unconstitutional. Bus 2857 was retired and sold in 1971. After sitting for 30 years in a field, the bus was purchased by auction by The Henry Ford [Museum} and has been restored to appear as it did in 1955. The bus is now on display in the Henry Ford Museum.

You can find more details about the purchase and restoration of the bus here: Restoring the Rosa Parks Bus.

Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white man.

The postcard, featuring the familiar image of Parks being fingerprinted, comes from the Women Who Dared collection sent to me during Women’s History Month several years ago. The sender added a Parks quote:

Each person must live life as a model for others. –Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

The art above is part of the “Celebrating Women” banners that were on display at The Lower Eastside Girls Club’s Celebrate Cafe in New York City when I visited several years ago (2010, maybe?). If I remember correctly, each banner was created by a young woman who was involved in the Club.

You can find out a lot more about Rosa Parks by reading her biography on the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute website. You’ll find that she was much more than the woman who refused to give up her seat.

“A Hymn for Montgomery 55” by Ramona Hyman
from her collection, In the Sanctuary of the South

Holy, holy, holy: a hymn of praise
For prophets framing freedom
In Montgomery 55: Strange fruits marching–some
Walking, some crawling–some…

Holy, holy, holy–a hymn of praise
Emptying itself
Americans: black and white; hand in hand
Saintly sighing a freedom song of praise

Holy, holy, holy–the march raises
Into victory: freedom swells, the flag: separate
And unequal shreds into the face of anxious
Soldiers–black and white jumping the broom
Into a new day–the Civil Rights Movement begins

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.

The Final Three Sister Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, and Dorothy West

I’m wrapping up the writers from the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance postcard collection today with three women who led long  and productive literary lives–Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, and Dorothy West.

Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981)

Gwendolyn Bennett, best known for her striking poetry largely composed during the decade of the 1920s, was actively involved in African American culture and the arts community over twenty years. Following graduation form Brooklyn’s Girls High, Bennett planned to become a graphic and visual artist. She entered Teacher’s College, Columbia University, taking courses in Art Education; in 1924, she graduated from Pratt Institute. While studying art, Bennett also wrote poetry; she was soon successful in both media. In 1923 Opportunity published her poem “Heritage,” and The Crisis carried a cover which she illustrated. In August of 1926, Bennett began the “Ebony Flute,” a literary and social chit-chat column featured in Opportunity until 1928. Also in 1926, Bennett served on the editorial board of the short-lived Fire!! where “Wedding Day,” her first published short story, appeared. Despite frequent absences from New York, Bennett belonged to the close-knit Harlem Writers Guild. She was a friend and associate of such figures as Langston Hughes, Aaron and Alta Douglas, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston.   –Sandra Y. Govan

For more information on Gwendolyn Bennett’s life, writing, and art, see the following resources:

Helene Johnson (1906-1995)

Helene Johnson, like her cousin Dorothy West, was one of the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance poets. Born in Boston, she first visited New York in 1926 to accept Opportunity‘s First Honorable Mention prize for her poem “Fulfillment.”  After moving to New York in 1927, she met prominent Harlem Renaissance literary figures, including Zora Neale Hurston, who became her close friend, and Wallace Thurman. Thurman published one of her poems, “A Southern Road,” in the only issue of his journal Fire!! About one-third of Johnson’s poems treat themes of  youthful sensuality and the joy of life; racial themes dominate many others. From 1925 through the mid-1930s, Johnson’s poems appeared regularly in periodicals such as Opportunity, The Messenger, Palms, Vanity Fair, Harlem, Challenge, ,and Saturday Evening QuillAnthologists of the Harlem Renaissance have continued to include her works in their collections of Black American literature.  –T. J. Bryan

Interestingly, it was difficult finding more about Helene Johnson online.  The New York Times featured a rather detailed obituary with comments about her writing, excerpts from her poems, and the beautiful testimony of her daughter that even after the height of her literary career, she wrote a poem every day.

Dorothy West (1907-1998)

Dorothy West, one of the youngest writers drawn to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, first came to New York in 1926 because she won “some little prize in Opportunity” for her short story, “The Typewriter.” Additional short stories (which she considers the perfect literary form) appeared in Opportunity, The Messenger, Boston Post, and Saturday Evening Quill during the 1920s. In 1934 she founded and edited Challenge, a literary journal, “to permit new Negroes to make themselves heard,” and in 1937 she edited a reincarnation of that quarterly, New Challenge. Her important novel, The Living Is Easy, was published in 1948 and reissued in 1982. For a number of years she wrote  a weekly column for the Vineyard Gazette. –Phyllis Rauch Klotman

For more on Dorothy West, see  the following resources:

Initially, I was surprised to find that the brief biography on the back of the card did not mention West’s most popular novel, The Wedding, which was made into a television movie. Then, I realized the publication of the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance collection preceded the novel. That Dorothy West continued to write her entire life and that her novel was published in 1995, when she was 88 years old, is clear evidence that age should not be a hindrance in the pursuit of our goals.

Write on…

More Sister Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Johnson, Larsen, and Bonner

I am a little torn about today’s “Focus on Black” post. I want to continue sharing the wonderful cards in the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance collection, but each woman deserves much fuller treatment than I’m providing here. As I’m typing I’m reminding myself that this is my blog (aka a breakaway from the heady stuff) and not one of my courses. As much as I love the authors and texts I teach, if my blog begins to feel like a course, I might not find blogging so attractive.

Now that I’ve convinced myself…I’m back today with three more sister writers.

Georgia Douglas Johnson ( ca. 1877?-1966)

Georgia Douglas Johnson gained recognition as a poet of “The Genteel School” of writers prior to the Harlem Renaissance. Because some of her major works were published during this historic period, some historians saw her as “definitely of it, but equally definitely not in it.” She did have, however, an impact on the literati of the New Negro Movement through her “Saturday Soirees,” which she hosted regularly at her home on “S” Street in northwest Washington, DC. Born in Atlanta, she was educated at Atlanta University and at Oberlin College [in Ohio]. She moved to Washington, D.C. when her husband, Henry Lincoln Johnson, was appointed recorder of deeds by President Taft in 1909. The Johnsons immediately gravitated toward literary, political, and human rights activities along the East Coast. The abundant and kaleidoscopic nature of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s creativity is apparent in her books of poetry, her plays, and in her first love, her music. Johnson’s works appeared in books and journals from 1905 until her death.  –Winona L. Fletcher

See some of Johnson’s work here: Georgia Douglas Johnson.

Note: There is some inconsistency regarding the year Douglas was born. The Sisters collection reports 1886; other sources report ca. 1877 or 1880. Since her graduation year from Atlanta University was either 1893 or 1896, it is doubtful she was born in 1886 at the age of 7 or 10.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

Nella Larsen is one of three known Black women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. The daughter of a Danish mother and Black West Indian father, Larsen attended Fisk University, the University of Copenhagen, the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses, and the New York Public Library Training School. Her first novel, Quicksand (1928), follows Helga Crane from the South to the North, to Denmark, and back to the South. It includes themes of biracial parentage, sexuality, and class. Her second novel, Passing (1929), adds to these themes the difficulty of relationships between women, and the ability of light-skinned Blacks to “pass” for white. Both novels contain grains of autobiography; both mock superficial “race uplift” projects. Larsen’s projected third novel, for which she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, was never completed, perhaps because she was accused of plagiarizing her short story “Sanctuary,” which appeared in Forum (1930). She denied the accusation, but did not publish under her name afterward. She worked as a nurse from 1941 until her death.  –Jeannie Phoenix Laurel and Erlene Stetson

To read more about Larsen’s life, see the New York Time’s Overlooked Obituary;  Black History Now; and the Gale Group’s Biography in Context.

Marita Bonner (1899-1971)

Marita Bonner was born in Boston, attended local schools, and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1922. One of this century’s most versatile authors, Bonner published essays, dramas, short stories, and serial fiction in Opportunity and The Crisis, and won awards for both literary and musical compositions. Her collected works were posthumously published as Frye Street and Environs (1988). Although Bonner knew and worked with editors and authors of the Harlem Renaissance, she never lived in New York. She lived instead in three other cities important to African-American literary production in the early twentieth century: Boston, where she spent her childhood; Washington, D.C., where she worked for eight years and was a member of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “S” St. Salon; and above all Chicago, where she settled with her husband William Almy Occomy in 1930. Bonner’s innovative fiction about Chicago set a model for other writers, including Richard Wright, to follow.   –Joyce Flynn

For more on Marita Bonner, see Harvard’s extensive digital archives of the Marita Bonner Papers.

In my next Sisters post, I’ll wrap up the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Until then…

Live, Love, and Write Good Sentences

Poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Photo by Hans Beacham

I want to live, to love and say it well in good sentences.  –Sylvia Plath

I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can’t be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head.   –Sylvia Plath

Postcard Note: The postcard, featuring Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, came from Gina B (aka Bianca), my pen friend/literary twin in Germany. I received the postcard a day or two after talking with one of my students about her senior thesis. I’d suggested to her that she include Sylvia Plath in her discussion about Anne Sexton’s poetry. Coincidence? More than that, of course.