Lioness Shange

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.

Joy. Suffering. Sharpening. Acceptance. Keeping. These are the pillars of sisterhood. These are the mile markers that remind us of where we’ve been, how far we’ve yet to go, and call up who was there to witness the journey.

Since the early part of the summer we have made space for black women and girls to tell stories recalling and detailing experiences they’ve shared with other black women and girls around the themes of joy, suffering, sharpening, acceptance, and keeping, tenets of The Sisterhood Creed, used by its members as the governing document for relating to women in The Beautiful Project and the world at large. We are so grateful for the many women who responded, using vulnerability as a vehicle to share honest accounts of courage, tenderness, strength and growth with all of us. We’ve learned so much, privileged to sit in the seat of the listener. Real sisterhood, the kind that endures, is not easy. But when its real, it’s sweeter than sweet and it moves you, bone deep. If, by chance, you missed any of the stories featured on our site, please, put on your favorite playlist, grab a cup of tea, then go back and take some time to read through them. It will be time well spent.

As we close out this campaign, we are clear that our commitment to the Creed endures. We hope that these stories have served as a tool, reminding us all of just how important and healing and necessary the sisterhood really is. We hope that you will continue to come back to the Creed and truly allow it to govern your interactions with all black women and girls. Use the chart to focus in on your personal sisterhood and figure out how to cultivate a community among them that serves and protects everyone involved. We are kindred, not alien. We are more alike than we are different. And we are here, available to love and hold one another up as we make our way through this thing called life, unified. We are so much better together.

It is our joy and honor to share a sisterhood story from Shawnda Chapman Brown of Brooklyn, NY, Research Analyst / Social Justice Advocate/ Jamaica’s Mom. She’s the realest. Keep reading below to find out why we think so and see if you don’t agree. We salute you, Shawnda.

My friend Felicia and I still laugh about the time she had to get me out of jail.

The episode lives in infamy alongside the time I helped her harass her boyfriend’s girlfriend at the mall, and the events that followed her introduction to the magical combination of vodka and orange soda. But little does she know, I had wandered into one of the darkest holes of my life and wouldn’t have found my way out of it without her.

I think I was in shock. I sat there on the cold cement floor for hours before I’d even thought of making my call. Who exactly would I call? What exactly would I say? And how exactly did I get here?

It was after midnight and I was in a holding tank that was buzzing with activity. One by one a steady stream of women, like myself in some way or another, got up to make their calls. We’d all found ourselves on the other side of freedom and desperately required some assistance. The cacophony of voices echoing throughout the room made it difficult to hear or be heard on the speakerphone in the center of the cell.

shawnda2016I’d always thought that many things were possible for my life. Marrying Idris Elba – eh maybe. But becoming a victim of domestic violence – not a chance in hell! After all, I’d always prided myself on being a strong woman. To feel better, I would say that my partner and I had been fighting, implying that I had a choice and that most of all, I was no victim. In actuality however, I had been getting my ass kicked with dizzying regularity for months. One evening, I was head butted so hard that both of my eyes turned black. In fact, I’d been beaten so severely that I suffered from spells of vertigo for years after the relationship ended. I suffered mostly in silence.

One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do was to pick myself up from that floor, out of my anger, and out of my shame to call for help – to admit that I needed help. When I did, I called Felicia.

The room quieted as I gathered myself and made my way over to the phone. My pants were torn on one side from waist to hip, skin and panties exposed.

“Hello?”

“Hey Felicia – It’s Shawn.”

“Oh hey girl.” Her voice was like a hug, and I desperately needed one.

“What’s happening? – I’m surprised you’re up.”

“I’m watching a documentary, Bowling for Columbine – have you seen this shit?” she asked.

Our friendship has always had an interminable quality, never limited by time or space. As such, we cackled for the better part of 20 minutes about that documentary, and about being Black in America before she stopped, as if somehow she’d forgotten her manners.

“Wait, what are you doing? – I don’t recognize this number”

“So uh yeah – I’m in Jail”

“JAIL?’

“Yes bitch – jail!” I declared.

“Why in the hell didn’t you interrupt me?” she demanded in response.

As mascara stained tears slid down the red lump beneath my eye, I took a few breaths and began to explain. It was my partner’s birthday. We had plans. I baked a cake from scratch. Scratch. Three layers, red velvet. I decorated it with fresh flowers. Used my last money to buy a present. My very last. He stood me up. Came home to change after midnight. Going to the strip club. So he said. Punched me in my eye when I protested. Like a man. Choked me. Pressed my face to the ground. Wasn’t the first time. Who the hell did I think I was? Police came. Handcuffed me when I refused to talk. They didn’t understand, I couldn’t talk. His family survived on the money he sent home each month. It was literally how they ate. I couldn’t talk. Threatened to kill his ass if he put another hand on me though. Didn’t want him to go to jail. Just wanted him to leave. Instead, I was charged with a Second Degree Felony.

“Damn! Don’t worry girl – I got you!” she assured.

And she did.

As I made my way back to my chilly spot on the floor, the buzzing resumed. Having overheard the entire conversation, the pretty chocolate girl sitting beside me looked up and smiled. “Your ass is crazy” she said “and don’t nobody know it.” We both laughed. She was right.

It’s clear to me now, that in that moment, love and sisterhood saved me. It healed me. It allowed me the space to be flawed, and confused, and human.

Not only did my friend not judge me – she sat down with me in the middle of my mess and helped me to sort everything out. During that tumultuous time we danced, we ate too much, we laughed at stupid things, we learned to make proper cocktails and I learned how to walk away.

Only recently have I been able to understand the true magnitude of that gift. Sisterhood is like a river flowing over and around you, sustaining you, filling in the gaps, allowing you to rest, polishing you, lifting you up and pushing you forward when you are unable to do it on your own. To Felicia and all of the other remarkable sisters that have poured into my river – I am here because of you, I am a better woman because of you and I am forever grateful.

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.

We are very grateful for all of the stories we’ve received about sisterhood. Thank you to everyone who submitted to our Sisterhood Storytelling Series. Today, we share a great story from Tracy Howell. Enjoy!

It was 2005 went I met Amada. A friend of mine whom I worked with referred me to her as a great hairstylist.

My first time meeting her was very routine; getting to know her name and how I would like for her to do my hair. I started going to her about once a month, and gradually as the years went by it increased to weekly appointments. Over the course of the years I really learned her personality and what makes her tick, what she liked and didn’t like. I also went on some lunch outings to get to know her better including attending her wedding, where my daughter served as a hostesses. Tracy Howell imgThe one thing I’ve noticed over developing my relationship with her is the one thing we have in common with each other, and that is the desire to want more and the inability to stand BS.

We both can talk to each other about crazy stuff.

I can even say to her things I wouldn’t DARE tell another and she would never judge me. Instead,  she might even beat my story out by telling me something even crazier.

We’ve cried many times just talking and frustrated about our personal lives, being a mother, the struggle to get ahead, and the struggle of not having to struggle. But every single time we have a conversation and we are at the end of that conversation,

I feel like the battle may have not have been won,

but I am ready to take it on.

We energize each other often, but opposite of that we sometimes are just as tired with each other struggles, but never will we say anything about it. We just end the conversation by saying, “Holla at you later girl.” You know when we call each other we can detect what kind of mood we are in because we start our phone conversation off with,

“Girlll, Whatcha ya doing?”

Then we both burst into laughter.

Or she will call and say,

“Let me borrow $500,000 and I will pay you back 10 years from now.”

Again, we burst out laughing, knowing neither one of us has that kind of money.

Some days we can burst into song in the salon, dancing, and smiling all day while both of us are waiting for one another to say “I’m hungry. What we eating today?”

She knows what I’m thinking and I know what she’s thinking.

I never have to be professional.

I never have to be mommy.

I never have to be anything but myself with her.

No multiple hats to wear.

Sometimes we can go days or weeks without talking, but can pick back up just like it was yesterday.

She’s my sister at heart and together we stand!

Today, we are happy to share Donna-Marie Winn’s beautiful story about sisterhood of acceptance. Enjoy!

“Come to my house this Friday, so you can meet your NC daddy,” she said as we walked down the cavernous, glistening halls of the NC legislative building.

My mind bristled. “What? Wait. You don’t know me. My daddy lives in Dallas.” So, in my most deferential, always-respect-your-elders voice I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to.”

Truth be told, I thought her statement was weird. She knew nothing about me. Well, almost nothing. We’d met a mere several months ago. She chaired a committee on Youth Violence Prevention, and I had somehow managed to get on her committee. She ran that committee with a joy, healthy skepticism and authority that left me practically speechless, until she called on me.

I noticed that with every passing meeting she began to call on me more and more until after a while, it only took a “look” from her to know that it had been too long since I’d added my voice to the conversation. Soon we began to talk after the sessions, just light chit-chat.

“Where are you from?”

New Orleans.

“How did you get to Duke?”

A job after finishing my degree at UNC-CHapel Hill.

“Do you have family in North Carolina?”

I don’t really have family west of the Mississippi.

Hot fried fish. Hearty, belly laughs. Corn. Kind touches. Potatoes. Political insights. Desserts. Dirty jokes. All of these were ingredients of my first meal in her home that Friday and countless other meals to follow.

Donna-MarieTo be clear, I wasn’t her only “daughter,” she had many. Her heart was so vast that she would have had many more daughters if there were more hours in the day. “This is my daughter, Dr. Donna-Marie Winn.” Always my whole name. Always my title. She’d say it boldly and often, anytime and anywhere, always evoking feelings of warmth and deep pride within me. She’d even brazenly claim me as her daughter in front of her church congregation and my biological mother. Both situations required further explanation afterwards.

That she decided to claim me as her own changed my life. Being showered with her protection, affection, connection, and correction did that even for a 30-something year old, strong-willed woman like me. It was because she accepted me fully into her life that NC began to feel like home. I began to claim myself more fully. I began to feel a more urgent, internal push to live my purpose out loud.

It has been nearly 20 years since Senator Jeanne Hopkins Lucas claimed me for the first time and nearly 9 years since she did it for the last. She made her transition on her own terms — with as much caring, intellectual clarity, and compassion as only she could do. I was blessed to be there to bear witness as she slowly turned her gaze towards the hereafter.

My “You-don’t-know-me’s!” stopped that first Friday night, before I left her home. My “Why-me’s?” Have virtually subsided. But, my “Thank-God-you-chose-me’s” will continue. Forever.

Many thanks to Yana for sharing her witty and honest story about a sisterhood that embodies all 5 tenets: joy, sharpening, suffering, keeping, and acceptance.

So,  what if you have been fortunate to have a friend that embodies all five of the tenets?

When I first met her, she instantly celebrated me and shared in my joy. I had never met anyone so generous.

“You’re gorgeous!” she said.

“I loved you’re seminar.” she said.

I was blown away. Like, “Harpo, who dis woman?”

Yana Conner imgLittle did I know that her generous spirit would soon sharpen my not so generous spirit, that wrestled to affirm and compliment those around me in fear that I would disappear.

I can’t tell them that I love their voice because I fear that mine will become unheard.

I can’t tell them that I love their style because I honestly believe that mine is subpar.

However, this generous women says,

“I love your style”

and

“My homie can sing?!”

And to sing with my generous friend and not against her is the sweetest thing. Because when I sing with her there is no fear that I will be unheard because I know that with her I am loved.

With her I am accepted.

And with her I am known.

For all three “withs” to be true is truly a gift because if you haven’t already noticed yo girl got some issues! And wouldn’t you know it, this generous woman has entered into my suffering to provide comfort, wisdom, truth and correction.

I couldn’t ask for a better friend…a better sister.

I think I’ll keep her.

I’ll definitely keep her knowing that she too has chosen to keep me.

#WordIsBondSon

Sisterhood of Sharpening: Presence of a woman who stood by and loved you up, correcting your messiness with grace, dealing with you in honesty, even when it required that she say the hard things, all toward your growth and well being. Today we share Erica Everett’s sisterhood story of sharpening. Enjoy!

 
Erica Everette img

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. Proverbs 27:17

A dear friend of mine has sharpened me through the influence of her actions, relationships, and words from the heart.

Alexis has been a wonderful friend.

We met in our first year of college, when we were each seeking out new friends, so it worked. I quickly learned that she was a very hard working, intelligent and kind person. We were able to work together on a project that she started. I think that’s where the sharpening began. I saw her do work that was important, impactful and meaningful. It sharpened me to think about what kind of work could I do that would be meaningful, impactful and important? That’s what started me thinking about the pathway that I chose, which was to be an educator.

So, when our friendship started, I could quickly see that she was a positive force in my life. 

As we became closer friends while roommates, what I noticed about Alexis was that she took great care in her friendships. She was really intentional about the way she spoke to people, treated people, and supported people. She was really intentional about showing people she loved them, and giving her love away. She was very free in that, and it allowed me, as well, to be free in reciprocating in our friendship. I think because we had trust in our friendship, I was able to value her opinion and accept it, and know that her feedback was always coming from a good place. When it came time to think about other relationships in my life that weren’t going as well, and she gave me some honest feedback, I took to heart what she said.

I thought about the advice she gave me, to be myself around the people who loved me, no matter what.

I realized I needed to be who I was with the people that loved me all the time. I think her words influenced my thoughts while I was in a challenging relationship; gave me the courage to freely exit that relationship, and helped me to realize what to do when I got into my next relationship. Her advice to me has been valuable and has sharpened me over the years.

When we allow people to impact our lives, and speak into our lives, we give them a tremendous amount of power.

Alexis is a true friend who has had such an impact on helping me to become the person who I am today. Alexis was the friend I needed at the moment I met her.  She set the tone for the kind of friend I would want in the future. I wanted someone who was chasing after their dreams and goals, was supportive, and fun.

I’m thankful for our friendship because she helped to sharpen me in a time when I appeared to have everything together on the outside, but I needed a friend to help sharpen me and to actually become the person I needed to be.

Sisterhood of Acceptance: Presence of a woman who chose you, and embraced you fully when she didn’t know you, or when she knew everything about you, admirable and despicable. Today’s sisterhood story comes from Eden Segbefia who tells a sweet story about acceptance and friendship. Take a listen.

Eden is 14 years old and is a student at Riverside High School. Be sure to check out the rest of The Sisterhood Storytelling Series in our Gallery.  We are still accepting submissions! Check here for guidelines.