Ancestors: A Poetic Reminder by Nikita Gill

ANCESTORS

Your ancestors did not survive
everything that nearly ended them
for you to shrink yourself
to make someone else
comfortable.

This sacrifice is your warcry, be loud,
be everything and make them proud.

— Nikita Gill

 

 

Photograph by Jamaica Gilmer for TBP

Gabourey Sidibe takes on Nina Simone’s Four Women in her directorial debut of the film adaptation of the song which she has named, The Tale of Four. We’ve seen the likes of Jill Scott, Ledisi and other greats take on the song with their pounding and commanding vocals but never have we seen it iterated like this. In an interview on ABC’s The View, Sidibe talks candidly about her reasons for getting behind the camera and about her choice to depict this story in  particular. Take a look and ponder her perspective of how these four women’s stories play out on the screen. Regardless to whatever critiques, good or bad, it is very good to see more black women’s stories added to the conversation.

 

Photo Credit: Slate.Com

It was so intriguing to hear Maya Angelou talk about how, once she became mute after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent death of her abuser, she would hide under her grandmother’s house and read the poetry of Shakespeare. She accredits his poetry as part of the sequence of experiences that lured her back to audible, vocal, self expression. He offered her something and, as unlikely as it may originally seem, reading his words caused her young mind to think that Shakespeare must have been a Black girl, from the south, who had been molested. His words in Sonnet 29 so moved to her heart, whispering familiarity that reassured her that she was understood in how she was feeling and, in so doing, comforted her, informing her that she was not alone. An ancient white man did that for her with is words. And an elder lioness of a woman did that for me with hers.

The first time I sat inside of the pages of Ntozake Shange’s work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, I felt a rushing flood of so many emotions and I simply could  not contain, I could not stand, my own self. I couldn’t believe that this piece of work was real, legitimate even. How could someone else get all the things so right and then say them aloud, and print them in a book for everyone to read over and over again? Talk about giving voice to power!

somebody/ anybody

sing a black girl’s song bring her out

to know herself

to know you

she’s been dead so long

closed in silence so long

she doesn’t know the sound

of her own voice

her infinite beauty

This choreopoem is layered and loaded with themes, words, sounds, songs, movements and colors that, together, are Shange’s curation of some of the experiences of black girlhood and black womanhood. When it debuted in bars in California in the early 1970’s with just herself and a partner, to its opening on Broadway in September of 1976 and even still now, today in 2017, it resonates with Black women who encounter it; Shange’s masterpiece arrests, affirms, and activates us powerfully.

Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey in 1948. Her mother was an educator and psychiatric social worker, her dad, a surgeon. She and her three siblings were born into the black elite of that time, having access to the likes of W.E.B Dubois, Dizzie Gillespie and Paul Robeson and, later, attending Ivy League schools. It was later, as a young adult that she took a Zulu name, given to her by two South African exiles, Ntozake (she who comes with her own things) Shange (she who walks like a lion). How appropriate for a woman who told our stories so fiercely and fearlessly.

Much of her writing derived from the experiences of her life. While for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is her best known work, it is by far not the only work in Shange’s canon. Other works bearing her mark include Betsey Brown, Some Sing, Some Cry, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane and even some children’s books including one on Coretta Scott King. We cheat ourselves by stopping at just one of her works. We miss out on the whole experience of how she sees the world and what she thinks we should do with it. She’s spent her career writing black women and girls, and other women of color, onto pages and stages creatively and thoughtfully. We can be seen and heard and felt through her pen. One might say that she was one among the originators of what Ava DuVernay has spoken of as “black subjectivity” where black people are the subject, the center of the work. She has written about our pain, joy, conflict, struggle and survival. She has told our stories loud and true and the world has had no choice but to open up and make room for her, make room for all of us.

Photo Credit: Sylvia Plachy, found on The New Yorker

Teacher took her place at the front of the room and stood  poised and eager to share all that life had endowed to her during their journey together thus far. She did not stand behind a podium. She did not center her body in alignment with the other spatial elements of the room. She stood off a bit to the left, confident that she was right and affirmed in the ways the world had unfolded itself before her, revealing the truth even though everyone else was convinced they already knew it. She did not ascribe to the norms and conventions that so often box us in as we try with all our might to define ourselves by a system that was never meant to accommodate or even hold us. That is what her lessons are often about; how to position ourselves to think and how to activate our way out of said systems by dismantling them.

She opens her lecture with the statement, “Patriarchy has no gender”, putting everyone on notice and positioning us all to pick up mirrors and turn them on ourselves– in order that we may see clearly how we have upheld and participated in the measures of oppression–before we pick up picket signs in peaceful protest perpetuating tyrannical “ideals” by only marking time, but never truly gaining any ground in the march for change. There is no room for presumption here. Teacher implores us to dig deeper in order to dismantle.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins but known best by her pen name, derived from her maternal great grandmother, bell hooks is a wonder and a champion. Teacher, writer, social activist, feminist theorist, poet, thinker, this woman is a living monument, an example of the change we can inspire if we dare to be bold and educate ourselves about the world we live in and then put our hand to the plow to uproot the wild weeds characteristic of a culture of domination.

I want to sit in awe of her, and admire her. I want to stay at her feet and assume the position of learner for all my days because she tells the truth and she tells it plain. It has always been her goal to make her truth available to everyone who dared tune in, to not belabor her audience with the conventions of academia which often perpetuate their own systems of oppression. But she doesn’t want to be pedestaled. She does not want emblems of her glory blazing in our skies. She wants us to link arms with her and her colleagues and do the work. She wants us to experience true freedom but is so keenly aware that we will never enjoy that feast unless and until we get real about the society in which we live and the pillars of sexism, patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy and classicism upon which it is built, which creates a hierarchy that reduces to the bottom everyone who “doesn’t fit” its ideals. She makes me want to ask another question, think past the surface, be bold in my anger and search for its roots, disrupt, theorize, start conversations and never settle. I just believe that she has seen some things and she possesses a knowing that if we listen to her closely, we can actually get us closer to the reality we seek. And although closer is not the goal, closer will be the start our daughters, little nieces, little cousins, and little sisters will begin with. The distance we put between them and the goal has been shortened for us because of the work of the great mind of bell hooks. So, what are we going to do now?

 

To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy. In that world, the making and drinking of lemonade will be a fresh and zestful delight, a real life mixture of the bitter and the sweet, and not a measure of our capacity to endure pain, but rather a celebration of our moving beyond pain.

Born black and female.

Carl and Nanny’s fourth baby.

Once the wife of Robert.

Activist.

Thinker.

Writer.

Playwright.

Intellectual revolutionary.

Forever young, gifted and black.

Lorraine Hansberry.

It all matters. Every single subtlety of her life matters. It all matters most because it is the stuff of which her activism was created and propelled. As many now know, A Raisin in the Sun, the play she was most famous for, as it garnered her the title of first black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway in 1959, was born of her life. Heavily autobiographical in nature, A Raisin in the Sun is a picture of a moment in Lorraine Hansberry’s life when her family integrated a white neighborhood with a restrictive policies prohibiting them from doing so. Amid violent protests and harassment, the Hansberry family refused to move until they were forced to do so after the matter had been settled in court. This journey started for the family when Lorraine was 8 years old. It all matters.

Her parents were social change agents and fought fearlessly to see equal rights for themselves and their people. Lorraine grew up to continue the work of her parents, joining political protest lines, black fist clenched around the handles of many picket signs. But she also used her writing as a means of awareness, protest and activism. Writing for the stage and the screen, A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, The Drinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers?, are just a few of the pieces she authored into platforms. Conversations were started, change happened, and she provided fuel for the fight and the revolution as she drew from the life she knew and the experiences it offered. Nothing was wasted. Everything mattered.

And today, as our great, great auntie, she remains a reminder for us to do the same; use what we have, our lives, our gifts, to make people aware, help change happen, transform the world. But it is not the change that we work toward. Working that way will weary the journey before we’re able to offer our best stuff. No, our work is to continue to look inside of ourselves for our best material and to offer, it, relentlessly, because everything matters, including our voices.

 

The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely. –Lorraine Hansberry

 

They sang lullabies, wooing us away from our insecurities and fears and hang-ups and let downs . . .

Beautiful black girl, it’s okay to have those curls, it’s okay to have brown skin, you don’t have to be of the world you’re in.

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They sang empowerment chants, strengthening us to confront the lies that have been told about us, encouraging us to face ourselves full on in the mirror again, daring us to remember and know that we are brilliant, we are beautiful, we are bold and we are better, together . . .

Now that I know the truth, time to show and prove. . . Every part of me is beautiful and I finally see, I’m a work of art, a masterpiece. . . I”ll show my picture to the world, I’m not afraid to let it show, anymore.

 

They moaned sacred hymns, original compositions, those that could only be written by black women who know what it is to be misunderstood, mistreated, left out, under appreciated, offering these words hummed out in harmony as a salve, soothing the ache, making us know it’s going to be okay; we do not stand alone . . .

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If she could dance naked under palms trees and see her reflection in the river, she would know she is beautiful. But there are no palm trees and dish water bears no image.

For the length of two hours they used God given instruments; combinations of soprano, alto, tenor, notes in between and notes not yet named, creatively syncopated and composed to confirm our existence, appreciate our presence, and give earnest unto our future . . .

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It was the ultimate act of sisterhood, a story worthy of being told with black, blocked letters on manilla colored pages, but, make no mistake, this was no fairytale. This was real, and they pounded out note upon note, line for line, putting in work to passionately make us to know it is so:

sisterhood is activism.

The Sisterhood Soundscape was an experience. The lyrics have carried me and continue to do so. I hear them in my head and I let them do their work of pushing me forward, making space for me to explore myself, love myself, be myself. We were all so captivated by the work of the remarkable, significantly impressive sisters from the North Carolina Central University Jazz Studies Program Tyra Scott, Dupresha Townsend and Natalie Wallace, under the leadership of the fierce, incomparable, gracious and giving, Lenora Zenzalai Helm.

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To these women, we offer a humble thank you, understanding that there is no gift or words we could render to accurately and appropriately honor them for the myriad ways they blessed all of us that hot summer Sunday in June. They have imprinted on our hearts the messages of sisterhood that keep echoing back to us, like an audible boomerang, relentlessly reminding us that sisterhood says

I see you,
       I stand with you,
                                     I stand for you,
       I will keep you,
                                     I celebrate you.
I will hold you up and hold you down,
      I will walk with you,
                              I will weep with you and for you,
                   you are not alone.

And so, we simply say back to them, what they beautifully cantillated out to us in sweet song, with our right fists clenched tight with conviction and pride over our heart, as our anthem unto one another, determined to stay in the fight and make it, together,

We must go on this way; getting stronger everyday, can’t be too shy to say, that I really love you, sister, I love you.

Our deep thanks to the Beyu Caffe family for supporting the wonder of the Sisterhood Soundscape!

 

Thank you to Lisa Maxwell, Citizen of the world, origin Jamaica, Daughter. Sister. Supergirl Amina’s Mother, Marketing Extraordinaire, Joy Giver, for sharing her story of the sisterhood of sharpening with us today. We are walking with a renewed warmth and nostalgia today.

My life is made possible by the sisterhood of sharpening.

I incarnated as a girl in Jamaica, born to a single mom and raised alongside my younger sister, Patrice whose father claimed me as his own. By all I accounts, I should be an expert at sisterhood. But have learned the hard way that sisterhood is not something you are born with but something you must invest in with love, honesty and vulnerability.

lisa-maxwell-img_1197My turning point moment came on April 1, 1990. It was the day my mother left Jamaica to make a better life for my sister and I. At the time, New York had a nursing shortage and recruited nurses from the Caribbean. In exchange for coming to New York, the nurse could secure her family members’ visa if she was successful after a probationary period. I was 14 years old and in the 3rd Form (aka 9thgrade), feeling a sense of doom at the prospects of my mommy leaving. What would happen to Patrice, then 8 years old and my newly teenage self? My mother had been our life blood leading up to this moment. Yes, she worked long hours and yes we were given much responsibility to ensure we went to and from school and remained home safely until she returned daily but what happens to two girls who now need to go live with their single dad when they had grown up to this point with their single mom? Would daddy really know how to take care of us? Could I trust him to advise me, prepare our uniforms for school and did he know how to cook for us? What buses would I now need to take from his home to school? And when would I hear my mommy’s voice again? As unlike today where there is a cell phone at the ready, then only rich people had phones in their homes. We had to walk two miles to the nearest payphone so the postal service was our best bet at communicating. And would I make any friends in his neighborhood as an awkward teenager? But despite all my questions, I must not cry and make my mommy feel bad about her sacrifice. I must not break down and have my little sister see me fall apart.

And so began the sharpening of self sufficiency and tending to my younger sister as there is no better teacher than being put in the seat of teacher.

From that moment on, I had to step up and think of those who needed me. We left Sangster’s International Airport in Kingston Jamaica and on the ride back to my daddy’s house, I had grew up. For two years, I had to walk in self direction. I for the first year, we were not allowed to travel outside the country based on the immigration and visa process so I saw my mom twice and she barely recognized me. Gone was the girl who would think nothing of playing and not doing homework and entered the girl who planned the task of washing uniforms, ironing them, cleaning the house, cornrowing my sister’s hair and then doing my homework. For those two years, I had to form a new sisterhood circle that helped me stay centered. It was comprised of the vision of my mommy’s sacrifice and supported by my oldest friend Claudia who lived in my mommy’s neighborhood and would travel home with me to my dad’s house on a Friday after school once a month and stay the weekend. I introduced her to my new friends, Rosemary and Shelly who lived in my dad’s neighborhood and went to the same school. Together we laughed, played, teased Patrice incessantly through chicken pox (another story) and awkward pre-teen girl moments and were a true sisterhood of sharpening. Together, we grew and loved and mourned when we lost Rosemary to lupus when she turned 20 years old. We lost touch in our twenties as mourning does something to you when you are touched by death in your early 20s. And now Claudia remains a dear friend and Patrice is one of the best people I know. Yet I look back at April 1, 1990 to July 4, 1992 as the turning point of my youth and the best teacher of my commitment to helping women and girls form deeper sisterhood connections.

Sisterhood is a living organism, a cycle of giving and taking. Sisterhood is like water: it cuts through the mess, it creates step change growth, it feeds me, it moves me and yes, it sharpens me. It even sharpened my cornrowing skills! Thank you to all my sister girlfriends. You give me life!

It is such a joy to receive stories from our readers. Each moment of sharing gives us a glimpse into some of the sweetest accounts of the lives of women all over the nation and encourages us to keep going as we draw strength from and give strength to the sisters in our own lives. Thank you, Taelor, for this offering! Keep reading for Taelor’s telling on the sisterhood of sharpening.

 

I met Ms. Tammy King in 2009. I was attending a conference for African American mothers and their children and my mother had encouraged me to enter a public speaking competition. It was an incredibly overwhelming experience; there were hundreds of people and I didn’t know anyone. Everything felt big and I felt very small.

That morning, when the entire conference room had been introduced to Ms. King, the Regional Director, I laid my eyes upon a tall, confident, poised, chic, impeccable, powerful woman; in short, she was everything I was not. She seemed superhuman. I was in complete awe of her, and though I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, she would become one of my greatest supporters.

Ms. King changed my life because she saw my potential when others didn’t, and where I saw only shortcomings, she saw promise.

She wasn’t my mother (whom has always supported me unconditionally), and she had no “obligation” to take me under her wing and into her heart the way she did. Perhaps this is why her support has resonated with me so. She fundamentally changed the way I saw myself. When I looked at her, I saw an intelligent, sharp, discerning woman, and the fact that this intelligent, sharp woman chose to encourage me with such confidence forced me to look at myself in a new light.

IMG_5221Over the next four years, I went on to occupy leadership role after leadership role with the help of Ms. King. She was by no means easy on me, and was quick to correct my mistakes. These corrections always came with a feeling of supportiveness, though. She knew just the way to encourage and this encouragement shaped me into a person I could never have foreseen becoming. Slowly, large rooms full of people that once intimidated me began to seem more comfortable, and I built really amazing relationships with people I would’ve before been nervous to approach. For giving me the opportunity to connect to myself and to those around me, I am eternally indebted to Tammy King.

I still don’t know if I see exactly what she saw in me yet, but one thing about me I do know is that I hold my head higher because of this woman. I know that there is a greater spectrum of possibilities for me because of this woman. And because of this woman, I choose to step right up to them.

For years we shielded the inner workings of our story from the public at large. Winded by the nuanced aggression towards a space that intentionally focuses on black girls and women as humane citizens, much of our time was spent quietly working and re-working our methodology. We committed to walking with black girls, women, and their families all the while building our own. But our advisors, friends, and mentors challenged us to actively engage the world on a larger scale. This is a behind the scenes glimpse of our first encounter with the One Solution media crew that will forever be held in high esteem for the way they surrounded us and said “we will not do you harm.”

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Why I Work is a web series by One Solution, sponsored by Wells Fargo featuring the personal stories of extraordinary African-Americans and the purpose that fuels their hard work. The series also aired exclusively on TV One and local Radio One stations and now lives on News One online. On a rainy day in May, a crew of producers and image makers descended on Durham, NC. We spent hours sharing personal stories about identity, pride, and discomfort. They asked me how I capture images, where I get inspired and what the process can look like in my day to day. Then suddenly the equipment was in place and the cameras were ready to roll. While their talent as a crew was clear, it was their care in capturing our story that stood out.

At The Beautiful Project we believe that making images through the lens and the pen takes depth and thoughtful boldness. The moments they took to get the shot right, to make the story clear, to push me—resonated with what TBP stands for as a community. To visually rep our commitment to black women, our friend Modupe allowed the crew to capture our Self-Care Exhibit photo shoot. And to rep the little girls we love, sweet Ahmadie hung tough in the rain as the crew captured our photo shoot.

In case you missed it you can check out the commercial below!

True thanks to you Detavio Samuels, Archie Bell, Sherina Florence, Jennifer Brown, Jonathan Yi, Marc Chenail,  and Jon O’Hara!

Deep thanks to our friends at Frontline Solutions and Beyu Caffe for the generous use of their space, to the stars of the piece Modupe Edogun and Ahmadie (and Jasmine) Bowles, and to our dope connector from the Beautiful Community Dr. Bianca Williams for giving us Detavio.

Earlier this week, we had the great pleasure of witnessing the world through the lens of women from around the country during our call to participate in our Self Care exhibit. The photographs and stories captured by our top 10 finalists brought endless smiles and warmth. We are excited to highlight the winner of our submission contest, Kiana Fleming. Her photo and interview of Aintee, her Great-Aunt won the hearts of many. Learn more about Kiana’s experience in her own words.

I interviewed my Great-Aunt, my Grandmother’s sister, who is the Matriarch of the family at age 85. We recently had a family reunion where her daughter surprised her by bringing her by. She was overwhelmed with happiness. I believe she feels most alive when she is talking to God. She takes care of herself through her unwavering faith and prayer. She has faith and her faith keeps her going, and that in itself grounds her and her life.

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“When I was young like you, Mama kept us in the church. Out of all the family, I’m the only one that went strong in it. I get up talking to him. When I go through stuff in life when I was young, I [learned not to go] to the elders, or my neighbor, or friend because it doesn’t work. People ain’t gonna understand. People got a different life to live. When you get pressured down or life [ain’t] going the way you want it to go, go somewhere quiet, maybe the bathroom, close the door and talk to God. Say, ‘I’m giving you my life, you got me here.’ I gave God my life. I talk to him. I tell God my issues. I don’t tell nobody but him. He is efficient. I let him take full control of my life. It’s in my mind and my heart.  I’ve been to the mountain top. He helped me.  He knows my heart. You just live and take care of your family. He will take care of it. I’m so happy to be here, that my daughter found it in her heart to bring me here. I wanted to shout when I saw [the family], but God kept me still. I love you Na, and now I’ma pray for you.”

Aintee has always told me I was special. I’m one of the only ones who have been able to leave St. Louis and go to college.  She always tells me to “take care of myself, listen to my parents, and if I don’t feel right in the inside to go.” I’m not very religious, but I always want her to pray for me. Not sure why. It makes me feel good and helps me. I probably will start to go to church soon. I feel like what she said is right on point for what I am going through. I am glad I was able to speak with her and see her. Some words are always right on time.

I have always loved photography.  My mother says I always had an eye for it. Photography and writing heals me. It the best way I know how to self-express and cope. It gives me joy. It’s my art, my creative. This was my expression of self-care.