A new and exciting collection from the editor of the enormously successful Life Notes and the award-winning Double Stitch. With a foreword by Marcia Ann Gillespie.
To tell the flat-footed truth is a southern saying that means to tell the naked truth. This revealing and inspiring anthology brings together twenty-seven creative spirits who through essays, interviews, poetry, and photographic images tell black women's lives. In the opening section that discusses the risks involved in sharing your life with others, Sapphire tells us about the challenges in recording her experiences when there has never been any validation that her life was important. The next section chronicles the adventure in claiming the lives of those who have been lost or neglected, such as Alice Walker's search for the real story of Zora Neale Hurston. The third part, which affirms lives of resistance, includes Audre Lorde's acclaimed essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." The final chapter, focusing on transformed lives, presents an insightful interview with Sonia Sanchez.
This wonderful collection, featuring such writers as bell hooks, Barbara Smith, Marcia Ann Gillespie, and Pearl Cleage, is testimony to a flourishing literary tradition, filled with daring women, that will inspire others to tell their own stories.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
Juanita Johnson-Bailey, a professor at the University of Georgia, lives in Macon.
Read an Excerpt
Telling Black Women's Lives
By Patricia Bell-Scott, Juanita Johnson-Bailey
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Patricia Bell-Scott
All rights reserved.
IF YOU LOSE YOUR PEN
and all you find is a broken pencil on the floor
and the pencil has no sharpener
and the sharpener is in the store
and your pocket has no money
and if you look again
and all you find is a black Bic
and the Bic you need is green
and if it appears beneath the mattress of your couch
but the couch is dirty and you suddenly want to clean
beneath the pillows
but you have no vacuum and the vacuum is in the store
and your pocket has no money
it is not your pen you are looking for
it is your tongue and those who speak with it
your grandmothers and doves and ebony spiders
hovering the corners of your throat
it is your tongue
and if you cannot find your tongue
do not go looking for the cat
you know you will not find her
she is in the neighbor's kitchen eating Friskies
she is in the neighbor's yard making love
if you cannot find your tongue do not look for it
for you are so busy looking it cannot find you
the doves are getting dizzy and your grandmothers annoyed
be still and let them find you
they will come when they are ready
and when they are
it will not matter if your pockets are empty
if you write with a green Bic or a black Bic
or the blood of your finger
you will write
you will write
To me, telling the story of my growing up years was intimately connected with the longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill that self in writing. Once that self was gone — out of my life forever — I could more easily become the me of me. It was clearly the Gloria Jean of my tormented and anguished childhood that I wanted to be rid of, the girl who was always wrong, always punished, always subjected to some humiliation or other, always crying, the girl who was to end up in a mental institution because she could not be anything but crazy, or so they told her. She was the girl who sat a hot iron on her arm pleading with them to leave her alone, the girl who wore her scar as a brand marking her madness. Even now I can hear the voices of my sisters saying "mama make Gloria stop crying." By writing the autobiography, it was not just this Gloria I would be rid of, but the past that had a hold on me, that kept me from the present. I wanted not to forget the past but to break its hold. This death in writing was to be liberatory.
Until I began to try and write an autobiography, I thought that it would be a simple task this telling of one's story. And yet I tried year after year, never writing more than a few pages. My inability to write out the story I interpreted as an indication that I was not ready to let go of the past, that I was not ready to be fully in the present. Psychologically, I considered the possibility that I had become attached to the wounds and sorrows of my childhood, that I held to them in a manner that blocked my efforts to be self-realized, whole, to be healed. A key message in Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salteaters, which tells the story of Velma's suicide attempt, her breakdown, is expressed when the healer asks her "are you sure sweetheart, that you want to be well?"
There was very clearly something blocking my ability to tell my story. Perhaps it was remembered scoldings and punishments when mama heard me saying something to a friend or stranger that she did not think should be said. Secrecy and silence — these were central issues. Secrecy about family, about what went on in the domestic household was a bond between us — was part of what made us family. There was a dread one felt about breaking that bond. And yet I could not grow inside the atmosphere of secrecy that had pervaded our lives and the lives of other families about us. Strange that I had always challenged the secrecy, always let something slip that should not be known growing up, yet as a writer staring into the solitary space of paper, I was bound, trapped in the fear that a bond is lost or broken in the telling. I did not want to be the traitor, the teller of family secrets — and yet I wanted to be a writer. Surely, I told myself, I could write a purely imaginative work — a work that would not hint at personal private realities. And so I tried. But always there were the intruding traces, those elements of real life however disguised. Claiming the freedom to grow as an imaginative writer was connected for me with having the courage to open, to be able to tell the truth of one's life as I had experienced it in writing. To talk about one's life — that I could do. To write about it, to leave a trace — that was frightening.
The longer it took me to begin the process of writing autobiography, the further removed from those memories I was becoming. Each year, a memory seemed less and less clear. I wanted not to lose the vividness, the recall, and felt an urgent need to begin the work and complete it. Yet I could not begin even though I had begun to confront some of the reasons I was blocked, as I am blocked just now in writing this piece because I am afraid to express in writing the experience that served as a catalyst for that block to move.
I had met a young Black man. We were having an affair. It is important that he was Black. He was in some mysterious way a link to this past that I had been struggling to grapple with, to name in writing. With him I remembered incidents, moments of the past that I had completely suppressed. It was as though there was something about the passion of contact that was hypnotic, that enabled me to drop barriers and thus enter fully, rather reenter those past experiences. A key aspect seemed to be the way he smelled, the combined odors of cigarettes, occasionally alcohol, and his body smells. I thought often of the phrase "scent of memory," for it was those smells that carried me back. And there were specific occasions when it was very evident that the experience of being in his company was the catalyst for this remembering.
Two specific incidents come to mind. One day in the middle of the afternoon we met at his place. We were drinking cognac and dancing to music from the radio. He was smoking cigarettes (not only do I not smoke, but I usually make an effort to avoid smoke). As we held each other dancing those mingled odors of alcohol, sweat, and cigarettes led me to say, quite without thinking about it, "Uncle Pete." It was not that I had forgotten Uncle Pete. It was more that I had forgotten the childhood experience of meeting him. He drank often, smoked cigarettes, and always on the few occasions that we met him, he held us children in tight embraces. It was the memory of those embraces — of the way I hated and longed to resist them — that I recalled.
Another day we went to a favorite park to feed ducks and parked the car in front of tall bushes. As we were sitting there, we suddenly heard the sound of an oncoming train — a sound which startled me so that it evoked another long-suppressed memory: that of crossing the train tracks in my father's car. I recalled an incident where the car stopped on the tracks and my father left us sitting there while he raised the hood of the car and worked to repair it. This is an incident that I am not certain actually happened. As a child, I had been terrified of just such an incident occurring, perhaps so terrified that it played itself out in my mind as though it had happened. These are just two ways this encounter acted as a catalyst breaking down barriers enabling me to finally write this long-desired autobiography of my childhood.
Each day I sat at the typewriter and different memories were written about in short vignettes. They came in a rush, as though they were a sudden thunderstorm. They came in a surreal, dreamlike style which made me cease to think of them as strictly autobiographical because it seemed that myth, dream, and reality had merged. There were many incidents that I would talk about with my siblings to see if they recalled them. Often we remembered together a general outline of an incident but the details were different for us. This fact was a constant reminder of the limitations of autobiography, of the extent to which autobiography is a very personal story telling — a unique recounting of events not so much as they have happened but as we remember and invent them. One memory that I would have sworn was "the truth and nothing but the truth" concerned a wagon that my brother and I shared as a child. I remembered that we played with this toy only at my grandfather's house, that we shared it, that I would ride it and my brother would push me. Yet one facet of the memory was puzzling; I remembered always returning home with bruises or scratches from this toy. When I called my mother, she said there had never been any wagon, that we had shared a red wheelbarrow, that it had always been at my grandfather's house because there were sidewalks on that part of town. We lived in the hills where there were no sidewalks. Again I was compelled to face the fiction that is a part of all retelling, remembering. I began to think of the work I was doing as both fiction and autobiography. It seemed to fall in the category of writing that Audre Lorde, in her autobiographically based work Zami, calls bio-mythography. As I wrote, I felt that I was not as concerned with accuracy of detail as I was with evoking in writing the state of mind, the spirit of a particular moment.
The longing to tell one's story and the process of telling is symbolically a gesture of longing to recover the past in such a way that one experiences both a sense of reunion and a sense of release. It was the longing for release that compelled the writing but concurrently it was the joy of reunion that enabled me to see that the act of writing one's autobiography is a way to find again that aspect of self and experience that may no longer be an actual part of one's life but is a living memory shaping and informing the present. Autobiographical writing was a way for me to evoke the particular experience of growing up southern and Black in segregated communities. It was a way to recapture the richness of southern Black culture. The need to remember and hold to the legacy of that experience and what it taught me has been all the more important since I have since lived in predominately White communities and taught at predominately White colleges. Black southern folk experience was the foundation of the life around me when I was a child; that experience no longer exists in many places where it was once all of life that we knew. Capitalism, upward mobility, assimilation of other values have all led to rapid disintegration of Black folk experience or in some cases the gradual wearing away of that experience.
Within the world of my childhood, we held onto the legacy of a distinct Black culture by listening to the elders tell their stories. Autobiography was experienced most actively in the art of telling one's story. I can recall sitting at Baba's (my grandmother on my mother's side) at 1200 Broad Street — listening to people come and recount their life experience. In those days, whenever I brought a playmate to my grandmother's house, Baba would want a brief outline of their autobiography before we would begin playing. She wanted not only to know who their people were but what their values were. It was sometimes an awesome and terrifying experience to stand answering these questions or witness another playmate being subjected to the process and yet this was the way we would come to know our own and one another's family history. It is the absence of such a tradition in my adult life that makes the written narrative of my girlhood all the more important. As the years pass and these glorious memories grow much more vague, there will remain the clarity contained within the written words.
Conceptually, the autobiography was framed in the manner of a hope chest. I remembered my mother's hope chest, with its wonderful odor of cedar and thought about her taking the most precious items and placing them there for safekeeping. Certain memories were for me a similar treasure. I wanted to place them somewhere for safekeeping. An autobiographical narrative seemed an appropriate place. Each particular incident, encounter, experience had its own story, sometimes told from the first person, sometimes told from the third person. Often I felt as though I was in a trance at my typewriter, that the shape of a particular memory was decided not by my conscious mind but by all that is dark and deep within me, unconscious but present. It was the act of making it present, bringing it into the open, so to speak, that was liberating.
From the perspective of trying to understand my psyche, it was also interesting to read the narrative in its entirety after I had completed the work. It had not occurred to me that bringing one's past, one's memories together in a complete narrative would allow one to view them from a different perspective, not as singular isolated events but as part of a continuum. Reading the completed manuscript, I felt as though I had an overview not so much of my childhood but of those experiences that were deeply imprinted in my consciousness. Significantly, that which was absent, left out, not included also was important. I was shocked to find at the end of my narrative that there were few incidents I recalled that involved my five sisters. Most of the incidents with siblings were with me and my brother. There was a sense of alienation from my sisters present in childhood, a sense of estrangement. This was reflected in the narrative. Another aspect of the completed manuscript that is interesting to me is the way in which the incidents describing adult men suggest that I feared them intensely, with the exception of my grandfather and a few old men. Writing the autobiographical narrative enabled me to look at my past from a different perspective and to use this knowledge as a means of self-growth and change in a practical way.
In the end I did not feel as though I had killed the Gloria of my childhood. Instead I had rescued her. She was no longer the enemy within, the little girl who had to be annihilated for the woman to come into being. In writing about her, I reclaimed that part of myself I had long ago rejected, left uncared for, just as she had often felt alone and uncared for as a child. Remembering was part of a cycle of reunion, a joining of fragments, "the bits and pieces of my heart" that the narrative made whole again.
The Artist as Witness
The poet, performance artist, and novelist Sapphire was born Ramona Lofton in 1950 at Fort Ord military base in California to parents who were in the army. As a young woman, she rejected her given name, choosing the gemstone Sapphire for her personal signature. By anyone's standard, her childhood was difficult. There was sexual abuse by a father who was a soldier in World War II and the Korean War, as well as emotional and physical abandonment by a mother who had herself been battered. Despite this early trauma, Sapphire has emerged as a strong, grounded, and giving woman whose words have the power of a healing hot spring.
Excerpted from Flat-Footed Truths by Patricia Bell-Scott, Juanita Johnson-Bailey. Copyright © 1998 Patricia Bell-Scott. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I: TELLING ONE'S OWN LIFE,
Self-Portraits [photo] Gilda Snowden,
If You Lose Your Pen Ruth Forman,
Writing Autobiography bell hooks,
Sapphire: The Artist as Witness Patricia Bell-Scott,
Harriet Ann Buckley: An Artist Storyteller Juanita Johnson-Bailey,
Autobiography Marita Golden,
PART II: CLAIMING LIVES LOST,
I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance [photo] Sojourner Truth,
Through the Storm, through the Night Brenda Faye Bell,
Looking for Zora Alice Walker,
The Brass Bed Pearl Cleage,
To Miss Ida Bee with Love Miriam DeCosta-Willis,
Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth's Knowing and Becoming Known,
Nell Irvin Painter,
Legacy/Repeat after Me Akasha (Gloria) Hull,
PART III: TELLING LIVES AS RESISTANCE,
Indian Blood [photo] Robbie McCauley,
I am writing this Elaine Shelly,
Poetry Is Not a Luxury Audre Lorde,
My American Herstory Pearl Cleage,
"I Had to Tell the Truth": Testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary,
Committee's Confirmation Hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas Anita F.,
Barbara Smith: A Home Girl with a Mission Patricia Bell-Scott,
In Answer to the Question: Have You Ever Considered Suicide? Kate,
PART IV: TELLING LIVES AS TRANSFORMATION,
She [photo] Wini McQueen,
Movin' and Steppin' Akasha (Gloria) Hull,
The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action Audre Lorde,
Writing Survival Valerie Jean,
Poet Sonia Sanchez: Telling What We Must Hear Juanita Johnson-Bailey,
A Poem for Flight Becky Birtha,
Also by Patricia Bell-Scott,