A close friend of mine recently endured a traumatic life experience that led her down an unconventionally painful path. In order to recover, she moved across the country and started a new life from the ground up. She shared with me, all the ups and downs she’s faced over the last 3 years. Her story, though uncommon, is extremely powerful, having the potential to inspire young Black women coming from a similar background. She then told me that she planned to write a book about her experiences, with the intention of saving people from going through what she’s dealt with. I’m not going to give the story away here. You’ll have to buy the book!
However, I wanted to highlight our conversation because it led to a larger one about how powerful writing is. As Black women writers, she and I have both been to the point where writing was our salvation. When we couldn’t depend on people, when no one would listen, when the pain seemed to much, when the joy was evaded, with the pleasure was marginalized, and when the injustice was overwhelming, writing was there to guide us through. Our writing, whether in the forms of poetry, prose or first person narratives, brought us not only comfort but power.
When the world seemed to beat us down, our words built us back up. No one could stop us from creating. No one could dare stand in the path of our stories. And because our stories are often interconnected, our words comforted other Black women that hadn’t yet found a way to express their thoughts.
I remember one time in Syracuse, NY, I performed a poem about religion, women, sexual abuse and how women are viewed in society. After the performance, I was called to attend a meeting with the poetry group that hosted the event. At that meeting, I could tell some people were uncomfortable with my piece. However, one woman came up to me in front of the whole group saying,” Thank you. Thank you for telling my story. I’ve always felt this way but just didn’t know how to say it. I didn’t have the words but you did it for me.”
Those words that I penned were not directed specifically towards her, yet still rendered specific results. They brought healing, understanding and power. There is power in hearing words that connect with your experiences, along with your spirit. It reaffirms who you are. It shows that you’re not alone, that you’re not imagining things. It also gives you the support to realize that your life, your story is important.
This is how I felt the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison. This is how I felt the first time I listened to Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album.
Each word reaffirmed my life, my power, my agency. Words can change how people view the world and how they view themselves within it. Perhaps, this is why my favorite quote from Maya Angelou echoes forever in my ears,
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”
Words get into you. Writers please know that your words have power, that when you write, you’re adding to the world. No matter how small you perceive yourself to be, you can reaffirm life, call truth to power and build new foundations. You can also destroy, tear down and suppress.
But know that you have this power and do not underestimate it. Use it wisely, strategically and hopefully for a good cause.
Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com.
Growing up as a Black girl writer, various books and writers sustained me. One such writer was Zora Neale Hurston. I lived by her. Her robust unveiling of Black human experiences were the literary nourishment to my young mind. I read over and over again her short story, The Gilded Six Bits.It was like I was there. I could feel the spirited home of Missie May and Joe. I could taste the molasses kisses Joe bought for their new born baby boy. I was literally wrapped up in the entire story.
Yet what intrigued me the most about Zora as a writer was her free spirit. As a folklorist and anthropologist, she saw the world and soaked up its wonders. This captivated me. As I grew older, the list of Black women writers that ruled my universe expanded. In college I was enamored with Ntozake Shange, then in graduate school mesmerized by June Jordan. They all knew a part of my soul, they all held pieces of me in their words. It was a long running connectedness. With each page turned, I saw myself.
When it seemed like the world had turned against me or had become lopsided, they turned it right side up again. Through their writings they let me know, that the things I’m seeing and experiencing are real. Most of all I learned that I had the right to tell my truth, no matter how often its existence may be denied and its fullness unsuccessfully subdued.
This edging out is a tradition of oppression, while the ability to rise even in its midst is a signature testament to the dynamic tradition of literary inspired liberation through Black women writers.
Here are some quotes from legendary Black women writers that can be used as continual tools for learning, growth, confidence and fearlessness.
1. “It’s no use of talking unless people understand what you say.” -Zora Neale Hurston
2. “No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.” – bell hooks
3. “I’m a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people’s lives.” -Ntozake Shange
4. “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde
5. “We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings.” – Maya Angelou
6. “I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.” -Alice Walker
7. “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison
8. “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” -Toni Morrison
9. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
10. “Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it.” – Toni Morrison
11. “Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.” – Patricia Hill Collins
12. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
13. “Writing can be a lifeline, especially when your existence has been denied, especially when you have been left on the margins, especially when your life and process of growth have been subjected to attempts at strangulation.” ― Micere Githae Mugo
14. “Sure you can do anything when talking or writing, it’s not like living when you can only do what you doing.” ― Sapphire
15. “A writer should get as much education as possible, but just going to school is not enough; if it were, all owners of doctorates would be inspired writers.” – Gwendolyn Brooks
16. “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ― Octavia E. Butler
17. “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think.” -Ntozake Shange
18. “Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritism, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain is broken, the chain is broken.” – Anna Julia Cooper
19. “I don’t want to be limited or ghettoized in any way.” -Sista Soulja
20. “Discomfort is always a necessary part of enlightenment.” ― Pearl Cleage
21. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” -Maya Angelou
22. “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
23. “Many times, what people call ‘writer’s block’ is the confusion that happens when a writer has a great idea, but their writing skill is not up to the task of putting that idea down on paper. I think that learning the craft of writing is critical.” -Pearl Cleage
24. “Shakespeare wrote about love. I write about love. Shakespeare wrote about gang warfare, family feuds and revenge. I write about all the same things.” -Sister Souljah
25. “Putting words on paper regularly is part of the necessary discipline of writing.” -Pearl Cleage
26. “Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.” -Alice Walker
27. “You must be unintimidated by your own thoughts because if you write with someone looking over you shoulder, you’ll never write.” ― Nikki Giovanni
28. “Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” ― Nikki Giovanni
29. “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” -Lorraine Hansberry
30. “People who want to write either do it or they don’t. At last I began to say that my most important talent – or habit – was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.” ― Octavia E. Butler
31. “People wish to be poets more than they wish to write poetry, and that’s a mistake. One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated.” –Lucille Clifton
32. “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” ― June Jordan
33. “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” -Angela Davis
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Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of Our Legaci Press and the National Black Cultural Information Trust. To reach JAM, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jessica @JAMAiwuyor.
While riding the tides of turmoil, Black identity can seem overwhelming. We are cloaked in a wondrous mystic that the world both consumes and rejects. Yet, still a dancing spirit overrides hopelessness. The inner joy of elder generations that proclaimed, “The world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away,” resounds more than ever.
I’ve felt this throughout my childhood.
During summer break, my mother made me read books to keep my mind sharp. History books and short stories were among my favorites. There was one book in particular called, Eyewitness Negro History. My eyes widened as I read about revolts, the Great Migration and anything Zora wrote.
Church also played a crucial role in crafting the vividness of black identity.
Before church service, the elders would sing old negro spirituals, the kind you don’t hear anymore. The really old ones. Though I hated going to church so early, I secretly loved this part. “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”, “He’s A Lily In The Valley”, “You Don’t Know What The Lawd Tole’ Me”, “Come On In the Room” and “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”
On some songs, before every verse an elder sings the first few lines and then everyone joins in. You won’t find this on television. It isn’t for entertainment or show, it was just what we did.
Even then, I saw that we danced on the edge of the world.
I loved it all. It made me feel eternal. Connected. It was history. It was spirit. It was us. It was Blackness. There was no “proper” talk or no code switching.
“Jesus is my docta’ and he writes out alla my ‘scriptions.”
“The angels in heaven done signed my name.”
I was listening to a lively spiritual people.
Yet, this inner force was more than religion.
It was jazz, funk, soul, theater, poetry, story, dance and all the moving energies.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
It was us still building for tomorrow. But until then, we stand on the edge of the world and dance.
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Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
In many stages of our lives we must create spaces for ourselves and speak truths in the face of stark opposition. As a writer that touches on controversial issues concerning race, ethnicity and sexism, I often experience this. However, Audre Lorde’s A Litany Survival reminds us that fear isn’t necessarily the worst that can happen.
Chances are you’re going to face fear even when you’re silent. Chances are oppression is not going to subside because you didn’t “talk back” or because you were “well behaved.” So don’t let the popular or mainstream worldview silence you. If you have something important to say, say it. Add your thoughts to history’s pages so future generations can say that you spoke up when no one else would.
A LITANY FOR SURVIVAL
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive – Audre Lorde
Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.