“Powering Our Future through Building on Our Past”

2015Gala-2 On Saturday, April 11, the Black Graduate Student Association held an awards ceremony I was unfortunately unable to attend. These are thoughts (with a few additions) I was having this past Tuesday, which I recorded and sent to them.


It’s Tuesday.

I wish it were Saturday. I wish I could be where y’all are right now, all dressed up, beautiful together, but I’m in Minneapolis, Minnesota for a writer’s conference. Not only that, but Prince will have played in Detroit on Thursday so something’s not right with this picture.

The last time I was in Minnesota I had just finished my very White MFA program. I’d been awarded a writing residency on the shore of Lake Superior. Joan Drury, a White woman founded this residency, Norcroft, to create a needed space for women who write. Each bedroom was named after a woman writer. I had the Audre Lorde room. A key component of this residency was silence. We couldn’t speak to the other women at the residency until 4:00 each afternoon, so most of the day we spent in necessary silence that allowed me to write and go inward in ways I hadn’t been able to do, in ways I’ve only realized recently would prepare me for future work. It was also at this residency that I stumbled upon Houston Baker’s Workings of the Spirit: Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing, which gave me language for work I was just falling into seriously. These feel like extra details but I’m thinking about place and space, silence and protection right now on this particular mournful Tuesday where video of lying White cop Michael Slager shooting Walter Lamer Scott in the back eight times is everyplace I look.

To get to this writing residency, I flew into and out of Duluth, Minnesota. I had never heard of Duluth, Minnesota. Who and what is Duluth, Minnesota? I’m sure Duluth is, does, and has many things, but one thing it definitely owns is the 1920 lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. I learned about their execution in a book I bought while I was at the residency, and when my writing residency finished and I had to spend another night in Duluth I walked around town with slightly different eyes, up to where White townsmen dragged, beat, and hung three young Black men who came to Duluth as part of a traveling circus and found themselves at the end of a rape accusation.

We know the truth. We knew the story of Walter Scott’s murder before they handed it to us. It’s only the small details that sometimes change.

In Duluth, the lynching corner is just a corner. I stood near an empty lot, where a memorial would be built later that fall, a memorial I hope to one day see, and I thought about place and history, story and fictions. I thought about traces traumatic events might leave in a place. I thought about historical trauma and personal trauma and the blurry line between, and the ways many of us, myself included, construct our lives around silences and the weight of this silence on our bodies, on our communities. Mostly, I thought about the boys whose lives they stole: Elias, Elmer, and Isaac. I thought about their families, how long it took for them to find out their sons and brothers were dead. I thought about future lives lost. How do you go on? How do we go on? I felt silly for standing in a place I wasn’t even sure was the right spot. I felt silly for wanting to feel something more than the nothing I felt, which I’ve come to understand isn’t nothing but more like the “circles and circles of sorrow” Nel feels at the end of Sula, like the circles and circles of sorrow I feel on this particular day of mourning which is just another Tuesday in this country.

After I went to the lynching corner, I walked down the main street, and in a store window I saw a poster for an event commemorating the lynching. It just so happened the weekend I was in Duluth was the anniversary weekend of the lynching and Duluth was holding a read-in of the book I had bought when I was at the residency. I went inside the store and asked the White woman behind the counter if I could have the poster. She’d been talking to another White woman. There was that uncomfortable pause that occurs with White people when a person of color makes race visible. I smiled. She didn’t ask my reason for wanting it. She said okay. I don’t know what I would’ve done or said if she’d said no. I said thank you. I kept smiling and turned my back to the women in order to peel the poster from the window. photo-30

We don’t know the stories of murdered cis and trans Black women as well as we should: Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, Shereese Francis, Megan Hockaday, Aiyanna Jones, Aura Rosser, Tanisha Anderson, Islan Nettles, Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard, Goddess Edwards. I can’t keep up with names of our dead.

Before I went to the read-in I had a beer at a bar next door to the theater. I talked to a young White guy from Duluth. We talked about writing. I told him about the writing residency for women. I think we talked about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and Edgar Allen Poe. White male writers. I might have mentioned Toni Morrison. I didn’t want to talk about race with him. I didn’t want to talk about the reading of the lynching happening right next door. I didn’t want to know if he knew any stories that had been passed down in his family or other families. I didn’t want to know if I was talking to someone whose great great grandfather was one of the descendants of the grinning staring White people in the famous postcard where Elmer’s and Elias’s broken bodies hang from a light pole and where Isaac’s body lies face down on the ground because his body was hung so high he wouldn’t fit in the photo otherwise. I finished my beer, happy to be a little numb, and went to the read-in and listened to a loving community from Duluth read the story of the lynching out loud.

At this conference where I am, I’ll be talking about race and creative writing pedagogy and practice with three other Black women. This is work I care deeply about, but I don’t care much about this particular conference, which is AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, but which some people refer to as the All White People conference. This conference, which costs a sick amount of money to attend, is not why I write. I’m here for community, for the people I’ve met online who I’m looking forward to knowing in person, to writers I know but haven’t seen for too long. Community is why I’m here, and also why it kills me I can’t be where you are to accept this honor from you because you and your work, us, matters most to me.

So when I get an email from Justin that says “people like you help us to understand that we are not alone in this journey” it makes me pause and take stock of what it is I’ve actually done, which I don’t believe is enough. It makes me wonder again what I’m doing at this conference, where I’m putting my energy, and it makes me commit to do more, to continue thinking about place and space, silence and protection, and the role of writing, poetry, and spirit in this work. “The work ‘protects,’” says Toni Morrison in a recent beautiful interview. ‘It’s a serious protection: emotionally, even intellectually, from the world.’” I’m trying to believe this. I’m continuing to think about Black Spaces we inherit, create and transform together, Black Spaces we make that can serve as both sword and shield in and outside of these institutions on any particular Tuesday.

Thank you so much for this recognition. It reminds me whatever it is I’ve done I can’t do without our loving, collective community, nor can I do it without the specific love I live with every day, the love that makes me tea in the morning and sometimes packs me a lunch to take to work. This recognition is really recognition of all of us, the living and the dead. It’s a recognition of our past and of a possible future we’re creating together.

3 comments on ““Powering Our Future through Building on Our Past”

  1. kaielz says:


    Was wondering if I could publish this in our digital daily edition of the Chicago Defender newspaper? Please let me know and I can run it in our 6 pm edition or Tuesday mornings’.

    Kai EL’ Zabar Executive Director Chicago Defender kelzabar@chicagodefender.com 312.225.2400

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s