What did you do to us?
Did you drink our skin,
make tea from the powdered layers?
Did you weave our coffins
with hair from our own heads,
was this you?
And what of the whorls
that used to grace our fingers?
What happened to the trace of us?
Are we the ones who scream at your deathbed?
Were we the ones who said we forgive you,
who sometimes beat and call our women bitches,
tell them to fuck off and get the fuck out, who remove
our tongues to kiss men in dented corners, wake
with your name stuck in our teeth or branded on our cheek,
who tell stories of bright rooms and closed familiar hands when
we are too young or open sidewalks when we are old enough
to watch you choke us again and again while we yell,
or say nothing,
was this us?
Who were we then?
What are we becoming?
Some days we wonder what is left for us to love.
Some days we wonder what’s left of us.
You who have taken almost everything,
but this white butterfly holding onto purple
for dear life, or the sweat that comes from
bucking bales, or seeding sweet corn we planted
with hands we trace from singing
the million ways Black and Brown hearts die
and live, still we live
stories no one believes or wants to hear,
like the love that rinses our tilted tear gassed faces
into a milky caul,
or the small passing of sage our nephew bound,
juniper, yellow and red roses,
into our open hands,
true true medicine, ours to burn
and bathe in smoke,
stoke each heart and limb
for that next time fire.
You have not taken any of these things,
not the music or the beat or the drum we hollowed
from cottonwood, cut on our land, strung with animals
we soaked and dried our own selves, these skins,
the remains of our staggered breath,
we, the survivor of many, who will love and live still,
we know what you’ve done,
we’re telling who you are.
by Rae Paris (many thanks to the friend who gifted me the phrase “survivor of many”)
When I was in high school, Langston Hughes was one of two Black poets my White English teacher glossed over (the other was Gwendolyn Brooks). “A Dream Deferred”? The message in the poem was obvious, she said, and we turned the page. I’m including this moment in You, a young adult novel I’m revising, because I still remember it. It was a moment that taught me so much about power, silencing, and quiet resistance.
At the 2013 College Language Association Conference, an association “founded in 1937 by Black scholars and educators,” I was fortunate enough to attend the Langston Hughes luncheon where poet Tony Medina gave a talk on Langston Hughes and Black children. For many of us, Langston Hughes was (and continues to be) an early introduction to the sounds of Blackness in poetry, which is another way of saying Hughes’s poetry is a Black Space, a place where we can see, hear, and imagine ourselves in our lived present, our remembered past, and our possible futures. Writer Kima Jones puts it best:
Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes. He was the most important writer to me as a girl poet. His poems were the entirety of my young world.
No power for eight days. Our house was 31 degrees inside. We bounced around–a couple of nights here and there, and then spent a few days near Lake Michigan where the frozen waves made it feel as if we were on another planet.
We were finally able to get back in the house the day before New Year’s Eve. I made gumbo. It felt good to be able to cook, and to cook food from home–soul food in every way.
I was happy to be eating solid food.
I was happy not to have any more anesthesia in my system.
Yesterday, I had my post-op appointment. The super surgeon was all tan from spending time in the sun somewhere. I didn’t ask where, but for a second I regretted not going to sun, and I think I was a little resentful, maybe not resentful, but maybe for a moment I thought, hey, shouldn’t you be researching thyroid cancer all the time? I gloated about MSU’s Rose Bowl win as if I know anything about football, and then it was time for business. He reviewed the pathology report, went over things line by line. My cancerous nodule was .8 centimeters. If it was over 1 centimeter I would have needed radiation. He drew a picture of how small it was:I affectionately call it the tiny death planet of hell.
He said it was the best case scenario, stage 1 Papillary thyroid cancer, no high-risk features, 1-2% chance of recurrence. “We consider you cured,” he said.
But there are follow-ups. Just to be safe. An ultrasound in six months, another one in a year. And then blood tests forever.
But cured. Okay.
An old, dear friend from high school wrote to me and told me about his cousin who had thyroid cancer, how the cancer (much more advanced than mine) came back twice, how she kept fighting and did what she needed to do, including going to see a shaman in South America, until it was gone, how she incorporated her neck scar into her Halloween costume.
Another friend, Lillian Reeves, whose mother died of breast cancer just a year ago sent me a message. One of the many powerful things she told me was this: “And finally, there is the task, and the very hard task, of embracing the beauty and the betrayal of life going on.”
They call thyroid cancer the “good cancer” because of the high survival rate, especially when it’s caught early. All of this is great. It really is. But it’s still cancer.
This is the part I couldn’t put in when I first wrote this:
Before I saw the surgeon, I had to get my blood drawn to make sure my calcium level is okay. Who knew there are four glands behind your thyroid that control calcium? Who knew that calcium isn’t just about bones, how important it is for our nervous and muscular systems?
During a thyroidectomy the parathyroid glands can sometimes be removed because of their proximity. Sometimes people have to take calcium pills forever. As a precaution, I’ve had to take six a day. I hate the calcium pills. They are for horses. (Interesting side note: Richard Owen first identified the parathyroid glands in a rhinoceros.)
I was sitting, waiting for them to call my name to get my blood drawn, Django sitting next to me, when I started to cry. Shit. I wasn’t prepared for this, this sudden welling up, of what? Django was looking at his phone. I told myself to stop it. Everything was okay. I was fine. It could’ve been worse. Over the past month, I saw people being wheeled in the hallways where it was evident it was worse. My surgery was in the children’s hospital where I heard and saw children who aren’t supposed to be sick, children who are supposed to be children somewhere else, not in a hospital. I tried to pretend as if I wasn’t crying, but the tears kept coming. Shit. Fuck. I’m fine.
It wasn’t working.
“So I think, maybe, I still have some trauma from the surgery, from this place.”
Django looked up, saw my face, put his hand on mine. “Of course you do. It’s okay.”
They called my name. “Sorry for the wait. How are you?”
My calcium level is fine. I can wean myself off the horse pills to just one or two a day for overall bone health. Everything’s fine.
I want to believe in what “cured” is supposed to mean, but as long as there’s a chance of recurrence, however low, I’ll worry. I’ll worry for the next six months and I’ll worry for the next year. Maybe I’ll worry a little less after next year.
A few weeks earlier, after my pre-op appointment I needed music, so we went to Encore Records on Liberty Street. I bought a couple of Nina Simone albums. When I was looking through the bins, I remembered an older friend of ours once describing hearing Nina Simone perform ages ago in a small club in London, the magic of it, the awe and intensity. I never felt compelled to buy any of her records. Her voice always felt too heavy for me, not something I’d want to throw on and listen to, but after the pre-op in which I learned about the worst possible things that can happen during surgery I thought, Okay, maybe I’m ready to hear you now. After the post-op, we went to Encore again and I bought a few more of her records. One is a 1980 reissue of Here Comes the Sun, which I fell into as soon as we got home.
My husband asked me why Nina Simone, why was I suddenly buying her records? I told him I didn’t know.
“Something about her voice goes with cancer,” I said.
“Is that how she died?”
I didn’t know, so I looked it up. She died of breast cancer when she was seventy years old. I ordered her autobiography.
Tonight we get more snow. Early Friday morning, the day we drove to Ann Arbor for the post-op, it was -9 degrees. Weather conditions over the next few days are such that people are using words like “polar vortex,” “frostbite,” “dangerous conditions,” and “bitter cold.”
Michigan doesn’t get many days of sun a year. Since living here, Ray Bradbury’s brutal story “All Summer in a Day” has taken on even more meaning. When we were at Lake Michigan, we got to experience one of those rare sunny winter days, a visible sun setting beyond frozen waves. It’s already been a long, long winter. Of course I miss the sun. But over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate the varying degrees of brightness in a gray day, and “cured,” what this word is supposed to mean, is a heavy, warm thing, like someone’s hand resting on top of yours. Or Nina Simone’s voice.
A week ago today, I was in the hospital having surgery for thyroid cancer. It had taken a long time to get to this point where the anesthesiologist was suddenly saying, “So I’m going to put the oxygen mask on you now.”
Today is my father’s birthday. I had the surgery three days after the two-year anniversary of his death.
I thought I would have to wait until this past Monday to find out the results of the pathology report, the results that would tell me whether or not I did in fact have cancer, and whether or not I would have to do radiation to kill any remaining cancerous cells. The doctor called me last Friday and let me know what they found was indeed cancerous, but they caught it in time and it was small enough so I don’t have to do radiation.
I thought I would write something longer about all of this, but each time I try to write I only get to one or two possible sentences:
The first doctor tells me my neck is enlarged.
When the doctor inserts the needle for the biopsy….
And then nothing but the blank page and I get tired just thinking about the journey that led to the first incision. Clearly, it’s still too soon.
All I can say today is how thankful I am for this life, for my family, for my mother who has been praying for me constantly, for my niece who sent me a handwritten card complete with all of her perfect misspellings that had me in tears: “I relly, relly, relly hope you fell better. Is Uncle Jango crying?” for all the love I have in my life, for my partner (correct spelling, Django) who is everything.
Today, my great aunt on the Jamaican side of the family enlisted a small group of family and friends to conduct a thinking Reiki for me and my husband. Auntie Glo is in her nineties and still teaches yoga. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to say “no” to Auntie Glo. In an email she explains what a thinking Reiki means: “As with practicing Reiki, you all know that in the thinking Reiki we each focus our thoughts on the receiver, [Me], and her present issues, and on Django and the calls on his energies to help her to heal. The meditation helps each of us to keep our thinking focused. Each of us writes in our own way and so we might make the meditation practice around the process of creating a piece of writing –a poem, a blessing a bouquet of healing thoughts, etc. This is an individual effort and it is up to you whether or not you care to share it.”
So from 3:00 to 3:30 this afternoon, family and friends sent healing energy from Jamaica, Canada, D.C., California.
Such a simple, loving gift: Today, we are all going to think about you at the same time.
I don’t know anything about Reiki, but I figured if people were sending healing thoughts my way, the least I could do was try to be open. At 3:00, I followed Auntie Glo’s detailed instructions that came after her initial explanation. I thought about the past couple of years. I thought about what it means to grieve—a person, or a piece of one’s own body, how it can feel the same. I thought about hospitals and doctors and needles and fear. And I began to release all of it.From my journal: I release each pound of fury. I release each dying cell. I release each memory of death, each death of memory. I release… I release…I release…
And I’m thankful for Black women, like Audre Lorde and dream hampton, whose words have kept me steady.
“We are learning by heart what has never been taught.” Audre Lorde
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is doing a resurrection of Audre Lorde. Today, I happened to listen to Lex read from Lorde’s poem “Call.”
Around 4:00 a.m. on Sunday, five days after the surgery, the power went out in our house. This was the result of an ice storm that hit mid-Michigan. I’m from California. I’ve never been in an ice storm. It’s devastatingly beautiful. The trees encased in ice become weighted down. I forget what an inch of ice is supposed to feel like on a live wire—someone told me the other day but I forgot. It’s a lot, hundreds of pounds maybe. We stayed in our house the first couple of days without power, our conversations interrupted by the breaking of branches of old trees in our front and back yard. It’s hard to describe this sound. The same friend who told me about the weight of ice described it as a “pop and a hiss.” It’s devastating, pieces of trees that have spent so many years forming gone in an instant. But in true Midwest form, my neighbor says, ”Oh, they’ll regenerate.” Because that’s what happens. Life goes on.
It’s also beautiful. When I see all of these plants encased in ice it almost makes me believe we can preserve things. Maybe come spring everything will be okay. Like a dork, I think of Han Solo frozen just waiting to be melted. Of course, that’s not how it works. Plants and people die. But life still goes on. People do live on inside us. I believe in body memory, in what gets passed down from one generation to the next. Blood and breath. If we’re lucky, we might even have their words, like the index cards my father used to mail me with rhyming poems and short notes I thought were so silly then, but which now hang above my writing desk at home.
“Daughters who don’t return phone calls never grow up to be writers.”
Even now in Michigan, many remain without power. We had to leave our house because it was too cold for me to continue the recovery I needed to do. We have the means to be in a hotel room. It’s not the Christmas I thought we would have, but I’m here, we’re here together, and we continue to receive healing light and love from friends and family. It’s more than enough. It will always be more than enough.
In the late eighties, way back when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I took a class with Barbara Christian who was the first person to provide a scholarly treatment of contemporary African American women’s literature. She was also “the first black woman to be granted tenure at Berkeley (1978) and the first in the UC system to be promoted to full professor (1986).” I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I’d heard was she was a good teacher. The packed classroom, crowded mostly with other Black students, was a testament to this (this was before foolios dismantled affirmative action). Of course the memory is hazy but some things remain clear. I remember sitting on the floor because there were no chairs available, and I remember her presence in the classroom. She spoke with the authority of someone who knew their scholarly work/the work of literature, the recovering/restoring of Black female narratives mattered. And it mattered that we were all there, together in a predominantly Black space, listening to her, a Black female professor at a prominent university. It all mattered. I sat on the floor, taking notes and didn’t stop until the class ended. But in the middle of her lecture I wanted to cry. I was angry and overwhelmed. Why hadn’t I been taught any of this in high school? In four years not one book by an African American woman (or Chicana/Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous…). Not a one. Zero. The few books I read by Black women happened outside of school.
Much has been written about what this silence in curriculum can communicate to students who hold little power, and recently in the case of the courageous high school students in Tucson’s now dismantled Mexican American Studies program we’ve seen the power of what representation in curriculum can have on students’ sense of self and on their desire to learn. What this silence in my high school curriculum communicated to me, a Black girl who at times thought she might want to be a writer without really knowing what this meant: Good luck with that.
At the time of Barbara Christian’s class, I hadn’t yet made the commitment to the writing life. Again, I had no idea what this meant. But my exposure to Christian’s work had a profound impact on my ability to imagine a space I might inhabit, a space that others had been carving out for years. Christian’s work along with scholars/writers like her continue to inform both my creative writing/scholarship.Christian writes:
“The question as to who the critic is and how that affects her/his interpretation was very much on my mind when I put together Black Feminist Criticism in 1983-1984. In thinking about my own attempts to do such criticism, I increasingly felt that critics needed to let go of their distanced and false stance of objectivity and to expose their own point of view—the tangle of background, influences, political perspectives, training, situations that helped form and inform their interpretations. Inspired by feminist discussions about objectivity and subjectivity, I constructed an introduction to my volume that, rather than the usual formal introduction found in most lit crit books, was intended to introduce me in my specific context. It was a personalized way of indicating some of my biases, not the least of which was the fact that the literature I chose to study was central to an understanding of my own life, and not only an intellectual pursuit. Such exposure would, I thought, help the reader to evaluate more effectively the choices I had made about the language I used, the specific issues I approached, the particular writers I emphasized. By then I realized I did not want to write about every contemporary Afro-American woman writer—some did not speak to me—and that the extent of my own personal involvement with the writer’s work was one aspect of my doing black feminist criticism.”
In this same essay, written in 1989, Christian asks a series of questions I still find relevant:
“Does history teach us anything about the relationship between ideas, language, and practice? By 2000 will our voices sound like women’s voices, black women’s voices to anyone?”
Since the eighties, much has changed for Black women writers, and for women writers as a whole. And yet much remains the same. Take, for example, VIDA’s 2011 numbers illustrating the lack of women in major publications, numbers that aren’t broken down by race. Knowing these numbers would be helpful to show to people who believe all things are equal, but many of the responses to the VIDA count demonstrate even when we have numbers people will find all kinds of reasons (other than sexism or racism) as to why White women and people of color aren’t getting published or reviewed. (Recently, Roxane Gay did the difficult work of compiling this list.)
But here are some numbers for people who like numbers. This spring (2012), I taught a course which focused on Black women’s short fiction, mostly recent collections. In the first week, I asked students to make a list of all the Black women fiction writers they had read. It was a predominantly White class of about forty students, mostly third and fourth year. There were four visible students of color–three Black, one Asian. Everyone struggled with listing Black women writers. There was nervous laughter, a few uncomfortable looks, but also a sincere desire to remember something, anything, they had read by a Black woman author. They asked if they could list poets and playwrights. List whatever names you know, I said. They were broken into ten groups of about four. The number in parenthesis is the total number of times the author’s name was listed.
Here’s their list:
Maya Angelou (7)
Alice Walker (7—listed twice in one group)
Toni Morrison (5)
Octavia Butler (5—listed twice in one group)
Zora Neale Hurston (4)
Assata Shakur (2)
Edwidge Danticat (1)
Suzan-Lori Parks (1)
Gwendolyn Brooks (1)
Nnedi Okorafor (1)
Phyllis Wheatley (1)
Nikki Grimes (1)
Brenda Woods (1)
Lorraine Hansberry (1)
In one group, two people specified they hadn’t read any books by any Black women. The writers my class listed are so important. These writers names would have been absent from the dominant curriculum not too long ago. I remember when they were absent. My ability to do the work I do is a result of pathways these writers forged and continue to create. But there are so many more of us writing. How can we create more bridges between past, present, and future Black women writers? For those of us in positions of privilege and power in universities, or elsewhere, how can we create spaces for Black women’s writing?
So Black Space.
I’ve been thinking for some time about how little work exists on Black women’s short fiction, particularly recent collections. So far I’ve only been able to find one annotated bibliography of short fiction by Black writers (men and women), which was compiled in 1978. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to create accessible resources for writers and readers, while also trying to balance the time I need to give to my own writing. The University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gaps, a site dedicated to “women writers and artists of color” is an incredible resource and was an important starting point, but I wanted a space focused solely on Black women’s writing. In 2012, I organized a panel at AWP that focused on Black women’s contemporary short fiction: “On the Move: Contemporary African American Women’s Literary Fiction,” which was moderated by Dr. Terrion Williamson. Spring 2012, I taught a course on Black women’s short fiction. I knew I wanted this blog (or something) to be one of the results of the course. I also wanted student writing/projects to be a resource for readers, writers, and scholars. More about that here. And I wanted Black Space to be a space where both my critical and creative selves could join with other critical/creative selves. What else Black Space can be I’m still figuring out with the help of really wonderful students, other Black women writers, and patient tech folks.
Hopefully, Black Space can be a resource as well, a space where questions can be asked and answered. I’m starting the conversation from a place that recognizes Black women’s literature and Black women’s identities are not monolithic or static, but ever-shifting terrains. I’m interested in the multiplicity of ways we’re defining ourselves, what it means to us to be called Black women writers, and/or African American women writers. What does it mean to write in this post civil rights, and supposed post-race era? As a child of parents who left New Orleans during segregation and headed West, I’m interested in the stories that come out of our various migrations, particularly for those of us who came of age during the hip hop era. What are we writing about? How does audience impact our work? How are others talking about our work? What do we think about the critical reception, or lack thereof? As students, writers, and scholars in an age of rapidly changing technology, what’s the best way to research and present our findings about Black women writers? Who’s teaching our stories? What resources can we share? What types of bridges can we create between those of us writing about our work and those of us creating the work? As Terrion asked at the close of our panel at AWP: “What are we moving from and what are we moving toward?”
Terrion’s question echoes a similar question Barbara Christian asked in 1989:
“What do we want to do anyway and for whom do we think we’re doing it?”
The Black Queer Adventures is a new zine that will share stories, artwork, interviews, essays, poetry from Black Queer/Trans people about their experiences related to Blackness, Gender and Sexuality, and other intersectionalities...