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Shaping Memories

Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Shaping Memories
    Book Description:

    Shaping Memoriesoffers short essays by notable black women writers on pivotal moments that strongly influenced their careers. With contributions from such figures as novelist Paule Marshall, folklorist Daryl Cumber Dance, poets Mari Evans and Camille Dungy, essayist Ethel Morgan Smith, and scholar Maryemma Graham, the anthology provides a thorough overview of the formal concerns and thematic issues facing contemporary black women writers.

    Editor Joanne Veal Gabbin offers an introduction that places these writers in the context of American literature in general and African American literature in particular. Each essay includes a headnote summarizing the writer's career and aesthetic development. In their pieces these women negotiate educational institutions and societal restrictions and find their voices despite racism, sexism, and religious chauvinism. They offer strong testimony to the power of words to heal, transform, and renew.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-471-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
    (pp. XI-XII)
    (pp. XIII-XVI)

    Every time I read the closing lines of Zora Neale Hurston’sTheir Eyes Were Watching God, I marvel at their goose-pimple-giving perfection. Janie Crawford, a forty-year-old widow, has returned home after being away for more than a year. The only man she has ever loved is dead, and she is left alone to live with her memories. As she walks past her judgmental neighbors, “the sitters and the talkers,” she senses their indignation, their tongues ripe with curiosity and speculation. At once, they resist and need the intimacy of her company. Yet, only Pheoby, Janie’s best friend, is allowed to...

  5. Women in Community

    • A Distant Star Called Possibility Wintergreen
      (pp. 3-6)

      I always envied my mother her friends. Well, I guess that’s not quite true. I did envy my mother her friends but notalways. When I was a little girl, I didn’t envy, though I did think something extraordinary was going on. Mommy had four friends and they were always around. One was Flora Alexander, whom Mommy and Gus had helped send to college. Flora’s parents had no money and didn’t think she could go to Knoxville College let alone any other school of higher education. Gus, my father, talked with Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher (Flora’s parents) and convinced them...

    • Wintergreen and Alaga Syrup A Writer’s Reflections on Memory, Writing, and Place
      (pp. 7-13)

      As a child, every time I heard the song “I’ll Take You There,” with its amazing guitar lead-in, followed by the call of its opening line, “I know a place,” and then the easy assured response, “I’ll take you there,” I used to envy the Staple Sisters—as a child in the backseat of my parents’ car, and later in dark, dancing spaces. With Pop Staples’s bass guitar line for air, surely their house must have contained everything necessary. Now, during nights like this one, while I try to understand, try to make meaning by putting words to paper, I...

    • From “Shaping the World of My Art”
      (pp. 14-21)

      In order to talk about what I believe to be some of the important early influences which shape my work, it will be necessary to take a giant step back to that stage in life when, without being conscious of it, I began the never-ending apprenticeship which is writing. It began in of all places the ground-floor kitchen of a brownstone house in Brooklyn. Let me try to recreate the setting for you. Picture if you will a large old-fashioned kitchen with a secondhand refrigerator, the kind they used to have back then in the thirties with the motor on...

    • Outside of Dreams
      (pp. 22-32)

      I met Alice Bookman when we lived in Atlanta. She was a student in my screenwriting class at a writer’s conference on St. Simon in Georgia and was completing a graduate degree in English at the University of Georgia in Athens. Alice was energetic and full of dreams about her writing. I knew right away that I wanted her to be my friend.

      I was headed to graduate school at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. My son, Marcus, was a first-year student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. During my last three months in Atlanta, my fast friendship with Alice had...

  6. Negotiating the Academy

    • The Case of the Reluctant Reader She Who Reads Last …
      (pp. 35-43)

      As might be expected of a college English teacher, from my childhood through my early adolescence through my adult life, I havealmostalways loved to read. Books were not simply my magic door, my escape, or the staples of my diet; they were my soul mates, my obsessive compulsion. Through the portals of a book I could flee Chicago’s far South Side and pound through the surf on the back of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. I could replace young Alec Ramsey and it would be me tangling my brown hands in the magnificent Arabian stallion’s flowing mane, feeling his...

    • Parting the Blue Miasma
      (pp. 44-50)

      In 1971, I was a whip-thin tomboy, often splashed with mud, twigs in my hair, brash and trash talking, always in trouble with someone over something. I loved Barbies and theBlack Stallionnovels,Flash Gordonreruns, the adventures of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Not pretty in any conventional way, though not ugly either, I was the kind of kid who makes church ladies cuss in the parish hall. I ripped my stockings and scuffed my shoes, created complex role-playing games (Superheroes! Molemen!) with the neighbor boys, got whipped for fighting and climbing trees, got roundly teased by one...

    • New Kid on the Block
      (pp. 51-59)

      Everything I needed to know about negotiating the streets of the academy I learned when I was four. Well, almost everything … My family and I had just moved from 2019 East Chase Street in a predominately black neighborhood in East Baltimore to 1804 North Broadway in a neighborhood that was in transition from white to black. We were the first black family on the block of this tree-lined boulevard that the internationally known Johns Hopkins Hospital had made famous. My parents were proud of our three-story, red-brick row house with ornamental marble facades and marble steps. On any given...

    • Obstacles or Opportunities The Wisdom to Know the Difference
      (pp. 60-70)

      Somewhere along my journey I determined that I would do my very best to turn obstacles into opportunities, that I would strive always to move from chance to choice. I’ve come to view reading literature and writing as healing balms. I read to discover new worlds and cultures unfamiliar to me. I write largely to heal myself and others who might appreciate a laying-on-of-hands. Both processes are therapeutic, even salvific. Many of the realities that I bring to life in my creative writing—playwriting—are an outgrowth of a series of defining moments that forced me to turn obstacles into...

    • The Faith Walk of Writing Connecting Head and Heart
      (pp. 71-82)

      I have loved putting pen to paper almost all of my life. Ever since my mother taught me to read and write and gave me a two-year head start on literacy in the breakfast nook of the kitchen in our Akron, Ohio, home, I have loved what could happen when the connection between head and heart flowed through my arm, down to my fingers, and into whatever writing instrument I could get my hands on. Writing was magic I could produce at any given moment and impress adults, especially my parents. But it always impressed me too. That was the...

  7. Silence … A Dangerous Luxury

    • On My Return from Exile
      (pp. 85-93)

      In retrospect, it is easy to say that my identity as a writer was present in some embryonic form from very early on, during the teen years, at least, and likely in the making long before that. Although the trajectory of my writing life resists submission to discrete benchmarks, my written voice increased in volume from what felt like an imposition of silence to an increasingly amplified resistance. The early silence was the debt I believed I owed for not measuring up, based upon the sedimented shame that is foisted upon the social other. I really did not know this...

    • Of History and Healing
      (pp. 94-101)

      The first time I ventured onto the civil rights battlefield, I was eight years old. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954Brown v. Board of Educationschool desegregation decision, I was one of the four test children selected to break New York City’sde factosegregated “neighborhood school plan.” One morning, just outside my new school, an adult raged at my trespassing on what I saw as school and she claimed as turf. She spat at me and tore my dress. I spent the entire school day like that—ripped apart, outside and within.

      “What happened to you...

    • The Conscientious Outsider
      (pp. 102-109)

      I had only been back from Ghana for about a week. I was trying to relax. We were supposed to be playing ping-pong, but I found myself explaining to a well-intentioned questioner (whose mother was of Irish decent and who was hoping to be able to enjoy with me the experience of being Irish American) that I was probably a little bit Irish, but that there wasn’t much of a record of when or how that ancestry made its way into my blood. Yes, Dungy is an Irish name. My middle name, Thornton, is Scotch. In fact, all the surnames...

    • The Mother’s Board
      (pp. 110-120)

      My sister tells the story of how, as a child, she had interpreted our denominational anthem as a document of birthright and exclusion:

      This is the Church of God in Christ …

      You can’t join in

      You’ve got to be born in it

      This is the Church of God in Christ.

      You can’t join in / You’ve got to be born in …was to her child’s mind an endorsement of her own unearned specialness. She was a part of something that had been bestowed at birth, something unearned and wonderful because of its limited access—like a country club...

  8. Spirit Houses

    • My Father’s Passage
      (pp. 123-128)

      Who I am is central to how I write and what I write; and I am the continuation of my father’s passage. I have written for as long as I have been aware of writing as a way of setting down feelings and the stuff of imaginings.

      No single living entity really influenced my life as did my father, who died two Septembers ago. An oak of a man, his five-foot-eight frame loomed taller than Kilimanjaro. He lived as if he were poured from iron, and loved his family with a vulnerability that was touching. He was indomitable to the...

    • A Blessed Life
      (pp. 129-137)

      To welcome the birth of my last child, Margaret Walker sent me a bouquet of flowers and a fuzzy blue and white stuffed animal, a lamb. The note hidden inside said, “May you be as blessed as I have been in my life. My children are my greatest treasure.” It was just the kind of affirmation I needed. I was past thirty and well into my professional teaching career and here I was, having a fourth child! The other three were still young, and the oldest had barely started school. Even my own family thought I was crazy. I was...

    • A Birth and a Death, or Everything Important Happens on Monday
      (pp. 138-141)

      I was going to be a grandmother. It had taken all too long. I gave birth to my first child, Warren Dance Jr., when I was only twenty-one, but Warren Jr. was going to be almost thirty-six when his first child was born. As excited as I was, I decided to wait until a week after the July 4, 1995, appearance of my new grand to visit him in Houston, Texas. Other members of the family were going to be there for the birth, and I wanted time to enjoy this babyall by myself, so I planned to arrive...

    • Ambrosia
      (pp. 142-152)

      It was Mama and Daddy who pushed me into the world, but it was Grandmother Beulah who gave me the hands and heart to be a poet. Beulah Butler Davenport was born in 1900 in a small rural township in South Carolina. She lived out her ninety-nine years all within a twenty-five-mile radius of her sacred birth spot. A self-sufficient farming woman most of her life, she could in one moment wring the life out of a chicken, by way of its neck, and in the next, with a great and delicate care, peel the white, spidery, bitter membrane off...

  9. What Roots Us

    • Cotton Pickin’ Authority
      (pp. 155-162)

      Authenticity. That’s the issue. How did black southerners manage to claim it in a society that devalued their very work as human beings, a society that certainly did not hear their voices on practically anything? How did they claim voice, authority, and authenticity? There was little opportunity for them to acquire it through the larger, white society, so they usually resorted to claiming it in the realm and within the earshot of relatives. Some of them acquired it through the cotton picking in which they had actually engaged as well as through the mythical history associated with cotton planting, chopping,...

    • The First Time I Saw Big Daddy Grinning
      (pp. 163-170)

      Every now and then, when I am supposed to be reading or doing research for the next chapter in my book or the next scholarly essay, a memory of some event from my distant past will surface suddenly in very vivid detail. Such intercessions have resulted in a drawer full of unfinished poems and short stories that I keep telling myself will one day form the fragmented narrative of my life. For example, in an ongoing letter to my dad (who died in 1987), I’ve tried to capture the culture shock I experienced upon entering an elite graduate school in...

    • On Gardening, or A Love Supreme
      (pp. 171-177)

      My houseplants are being caressed and nourished by soft rain today, a rare treat for them. They are seldom outside. Instead, they lived massed on a small screened-in porch from mid-spring until fall when the first frost threatens them. So this late August day as fall begins to make its presence felt and excessive sunlight is not a threat, I have put my plants on the adjoining deck so that they may exult in the sprinkle of rain and have a leaf bath, too. My plants are not exotic varieties but the average ones that any family might have: angel-wing...

    • A Very Good Year
      (pp. 178-192)

      In my fourth-grade photo, which is somewhere in one of the innumerable boxes I’ve packed over the years and put in attics or garages, I wore a burgundy plaid cotton dress, a white Peter Pan collar, and a bright orange sweater, in fact, my favorite one. Two lopsided pigtails stood out from my head like lambs’ horns. I smiled from ear to ear according to the photographer’s directions to say “cheese.” My two front teeth slightly turned in toward each other, which made them look as if they hadn’t quite settled. They were new to my face.

      I took that...

  10. A Sanctuary of Words

    • Bury the Thought
      (pp. 195-197)

      One little girl wears her Easter bonnet. Its long velvet ribbons reach the tops of her overalls. Her hat indicates a special occasion, but her jeans reveal it as ordinary.

      The women talk quietly back and forth—mostly about the babies they carry. He’s got teeth already? The men are mostly silent auditors, but all of us stretch our arms out to steady the latest walker in the group. Our conversation, even for those who just listen, helps time pass. We don’t really know each other. But we are all in the same line.

      The talk goes still when the...

    • The Death of the Mother
      (pp. 198-211)

      All her life she had feared death. Of the myriad fears which directed her life and ours, this was the most powerful. Among my earliest memories the clearest and most terrifying are the death scenes in which she wept and prayed and called us to her bedside for tearful good-byes. To this day I have no idea what malady afflicted her. She never specified what, if anything, hurt, and she never saw any doctor. There were only these episodes, which we called “having a spell.”

      She was in her early thirties then. The Great Depression was at the full, and...

    • A Remembrance
      (pp. 212-214)

      The news of his death reached me in Trinidad around midnight. I was lecturing in the country about African American literature and liberation, longevity and love, commitment and courage. I could not sleep. I got up and walked out of my hotel room into a night filled with stars. And I sat down in the park and talked to him. About the world. About his work. How grateful we all are that he walked on the earth, that he breathed, that he preached, that he came toward us baptizing us with his holy words. And some of us were saved...

    • The Night I Stopped Singing like Billie Holiday
      (pp. 215-218)

      I had the CD on in the car, and I was enjoying her voice, talking to Richard about the difference between Billie Holiday early and late, and I was thinking about which song of hers I could learn and sing when I read with the drummer in D.C. Just before he got out, I asked him, “You never heard me sing like Billie Holiday, did you?” “No,” he said, “but I heard someone describe it.” “What did they say?” “Well, Ben Shannon said it was the first night of class and that you closed your eyes and sang a cappella...

  11. Afterword: Rites, Rituals, and Creative Ceremonies A Social History of the Wintergreen Women Writers’ Collective
    (pp. 219-232)

    Each year since 1987, twelve to fourteen African American women poets, scholars, fiction writers, essayists, and general readers have gathered together high in the secluded Blue Ridge Mountain haven of Wintergreen, Virginia, for an annual retreat. In May 2007, we celebrated our twentieth year of meeting to cultivate, energize, sustain, or simply support the creative spirit. We pray and eat together, play and work together, read together, tell stories, and relax together. In a constantly malleable (one or two new women are invited every year) yet essentially consistent community, we annually reaffirm a connection to the spirit within us and...

  12. Poetry Reading A Coda
    (pp. 233-236)

    “I want to bring you wintergreen.”

    “Excuse me,” I said.

    “I want to bring you wintergreen.” The woman made her smile even bigger. It was the end of the poetry reading. We had come to Barbados for our twentieth-anniversary meeting and Carmen, unable to join us there, had arranged for us to join in a poetry reading with a group of local poets. Our hosts were offering us sandwiches and punch, and everyone was milling about. The woman had materialized out of the crowd, and the darkness.

    “I want to bring you wintergreen,” she said. “People today, they forget the...

    (pp. 237-245)