I first wrote at six months old. Apparently, my mother’s mother was ill. And momma, who was in Philadelphia, was writing a letter to her mother in Edgefield, South Carolina. Momma, wanting to send her something of her granddaughter, put a pencil in my little hand and had me make marks on that letter, which my grandmother was pleased as punch to receive. So yeah, I’ve been writing a long time. My mother and grandmother first taught me. They remain with me still, guiding my hand, pleased as punch.
October is Black History Month in the UK. As we celebrate the glorious colours of autumn, so we also celebrate the grandness of our history. The turning of the leaves echoes the passing of time, their brilliance and myriad colours reminding us of our need to recognise and honour our past, to live our lives boldly before the inevitable letting go.
In this year’s Black History Month theme, we salute our sisters.
As a Black woman I have been engaged in teaching, learning, performing, and writing about Black women all my life. I consider it an honour and a privilege, not to mention a huge responsibility, to be alive at this time in the world. Black women from many cultures and countries have shaped me. I have been nurtured by scholars and novelists. Taught by healers and singers. Mentored by theatre directors and poets. Sponsored by entrepreneurs and activists. I am held in a delicate network of communal love and respect.
We pause and salute our sisters because we are too often forgotten. Malcolm X once said that the Black woman is the most disrespected person in America. If you look at the statistics on health, wealth, employment, pay gaps and poverty in the US, this statement remains true. And for us in the UK, the parallels with America are strong. For Malcolm, the disrespect included these material realities but was not limited to them. Malcolm was also pointing to the symbolic fashioning of the Black woman in the west’s cultural landscape. The Black woman as harridan or hoe. The Black woman as an object needing no civil protection or consideration of her feminine vulnerabilities. These social constructions arise from slavery and have been reproduced and spread over generations. I hope that my contributions to education, storytelling, and community development challenge and resist the tired old tropes that still clog up our perceptions of Black womanhood.
People often ask me where do I get my ideas? How do I write?
For me there is no shortage of ideas. I have always loved history and research into past lives and events. My writing allows me to indulge these passions. I also find that characters will come to me if I give myself the space to listen. I will hear in my mind, a bit of dialogue, or see in my mind a particular setting or landscape. I have learned to honour these sounds and images and see where they take me. I always study my craft as well. look to be a better writer than the last time I wrote a piece, and this is what I treasure about Vanitas Arts. They have helped me to improve my writing, my performance skills, and my confidence in myself as a creative. Through the mentorship of Amanda Huxtable and Shirley Harris of Vanitas Arts I have learned how to think as a digital storyteller, to write immersively, and perform with greater grace and precision than before. Vanitas Arts is a safe space to be both held safely and pushed artistically. A place to be nurtured, yet challenged in ways that is consistent with true art.
My first writing for Vanitas Arts was an Audio Drama titled I Leave You Love, the life and legacy of Mary MacLeod Bethune. An educator, the founder of Bethune Cookman college - one of the most famous of the historically black colleges in the US, I found myself compelled to write about her life and ideas, to articulate how she balanced ideas of Black self-sufficiency alongside ideas of racial integration. In addition to writing the work I was given the opportunity to perform the role of Mary in a podcast. Subsequently, I was asked to write about Drag King Gladys Bentley as part of a series of Audio Dramas called Persons of Interest which showcase the little-known stories of Black queer jazz musicians from the Harlem Renaissance through to WWII. In You’re Somethin’ Else, Gladys, I had the pleasure once again of not only writing the script but also performing the role of Gladys. These two women of the same generation, the same race, same nation, couldn’t be more different.
Mary MacLeod Bethune helped lay the foundations for the civil rights movement in America and advised presidents. Gladys Bentley was a singer, pianist and Drag King persecuted for being a lesbian during the McCarthy era. Both broke the boundaries of convention. Both have left a legacy of resistance and resilience in the face of oppression. I’m grateful for the opportunity to remember these women and re-tell their stories in ways that make you curious to know more. I hope, too, that they inspire you to reach for freedom.
Whether we are scholars like Kimberley Crenshaw, or Isabel Wilkinson, or novelists like Toni Morrison, Andrea Levy, Desiree Reynolds - we seek to define and claim freedom for ourselves and others. Maybe we write for children, like Malorie Blackman, or we are poets, like Jean Binta Breeze or Jackie Kay. Then there are playwrights like Lynn Nottage and Suzi Lori Parks in the US, and others, like debbie tucker green and Natasha Gordon in the UK. Our writing always demonstrates the unique energy we inhabit by being black and female in a world that, would rather we just shut up, give up and labour for free.
Our perspective allows us to see from outside the citadels of power. We watch as some succumb to the demands of what the citadel insists, we must leave behind before entering.
For some of us the price of entry into the citadel is too high. Not because we are virtue signalling, but because we know that whatever gift we have, it is not ours. It is our ancestors’.
Listen to You’re Somethin’ Else, Gladys and the Persons of Interest Audio Drama series here.