Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Circle of Sisters Bearing Words, Bearing Witness

Review by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Through their work, literary, ambitious Black women writers remember and tell. They bear witness to their lives and the lives of other African Americans. Whether they are crafting fiction or nonfiction, these women tell truths - not one truth, but the many truths that together form the diverse experiences of Black American womanhood. Two books, one a memoir and the other a collection of short essays by Black women writers, work in this tradition. Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers, edited by Joanne Veal Gabbin, is an anthology of first-person essays crafted by academicians.

According to these sisters, the Ivory Tower has historically been hostile to the presence of Black women educators. In response to consistent subjugation and" othering" by the dominant gaze of their less-than-collegial university colleagues, these women come together to gaze lovingly upon each other at a regular retreat established by Gabbin called the Wintergreen Women Writers' Collective.

In the first essay of the collection, "A Distant Star Called Possibility," Nikki Giovanni says this about Wintergreen:

"We played cards, swam,
walked in the woods (dodging the bears),
read poetry to the group,
cooked and ate,
and it was great.
It was supposed to be a onetime thing,
but we all said: Let's do it again.
And we have been doing it for the last twenty years ...
It is a safe place.
To relax.
To be surrounded by love.
To be.
A haven.
Where we cheer each other on...
riding the night winds,
our hearts skip across the clouds,
coming to rest on a distant star called possibility;
we arrive at Wintergreen.
Good for us."

By contributing their personal truths to one book, these women open wide the sacred circle of female bonding and include us all in the reassuring rhythms of female talk. Many of the anthology's contributors were firsts or among the firsts in their departments or even among the entire college faculty. Isolation, marginalization and the struggle to secure full-time tenure-track work without the benefit of mentors within the university system compelled the contributors to come together at Wintergreen and be reaffirmed.

But for the contributors to this collection, their journeys to a professional life of engagement with words, ideas and their own work as writers began much sooner than their first trips to Wintergreen. These narratives document pivotal moments in their own lives that led them to the writer's life. For some, those moments were violent, such as the time in 1950 that Gabbin "could not have seen the metal pipe that [a white boy] took from behind his back and crashed into my head" or when, in 1954, an adult raged at a young Janus Adams for integrating the local school: "She spat at me and tore my dress." Some of those moments are also beautiful, as when Nikky Finney's Grandmother Beulah gave her"the hands and heart to be a poet" or Paule Marshall's mother's friends would gather at the kitchen table and talk as "a kind of magic rite, a form of juju ..." And sometimes, those pivotal moments are as banal as Kendra Hamilton's "six week writing assignment, the kind tenth-grade teachers hand out every day" or the Friday evening in 1995 that Marilyn Sanders Mobley"decided to clean my closet."

Together, the 25 contributors, including Toi Derricotte, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans and Opal Moore, have generated a line of narratives that forms a circle, what Karla FC Holloway calls in her essay "a sanctuary of my own making. Words like a womb." Indeed, there is an impulse in the work collected in Shaping Memories that insists on rebirth.

Eisa is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning and lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.
Reprinted from the Spring, 2011 issue of The Crisis, p34

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