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by Gabrielle James

Black women storytellers have changed our lives in ways too numerous to count. With voices that ring out through diverse media, they continue to shape our culture and center important American narratives. At Hedgebrook, our commitment to celebrating black women writers, poets, musicians, and filmmakers is evidenced in the work of our remarkable alumnae community.

We asked some of our Hedgebrook sisters to share with us how black women storytellers have affected their lives. This open question inspired words of gratitude to flow from our alums as they opined with delight, sharing their tremendous reverence for black women, past and present, and more than a few love notes to the great Toni Morrison. We are thrilled to share with you some of their replies.

“My first play commission was a “bio” play of Theodora the Empress of Byzantium. I wanted to come at it in a new way, but couldn’t find the inspiration. Then. I met actress Michelle Wilson. Viciously smart, generous, hilarious, and fiercely talented, she was the best collaborator I’d ever met. Michelle always tells the truth. She holds your feet to the fire and pushes you to go beyond what you think you can do.  My way of working (and my career) was never the same. All hail Michelle Wilson.” -Jamie Pachino 

“1982: writing my dissertation in sixteenth-century theology; a friend happened upon Their Eyes Were Watching God in the library; I borrowed it and fell in love with Zora Neale Hurston. Read everything I could get my hands on. Spunk, Mules and Men, The Sanctified Church, Moses Man of the Mountain, Dust Tracks on a Road. Her mind, humor, art—inimitable self! 1989: named my daughter after her. 2019: enthralled by Barracoon. 2020: still in love.” -Mary Lane Potter, Ph.D, MFA

Kindred, by Octavia Butler, shook me to the core. It’s a brilliant example of the “time-travel genre” being used for social commentary, but it’s so much more. Butler’s imaginative empathy dissolved the historical distance between contemporary times and the antebellum south and hurled me into the heart of the complex, traumatizing slave/master relationship in a way no strait-up historical novel ever could.

Lucille Clifton brought the light of possibility into my life. Her words, their cultural weight, and significance, when reading on the page or aloud, reminded me of home, of so many influential black women in my life. In seeing and hearing those words, she let me know that I, too, could become a poet.” -Teri Ellen Cross Davis

In seeing and hearing those words, she let me know that I too could become a poet.

“When I was in my twenties, I heard Maya Angelou speak in Portland, Oregon. She held an audience of hundreds spellbound with her reading, her ferocity, and her clarity. Someday, she told us, we would need to answer to our ancestors. I wish I could remember her exact words, but the gist of the question was: “…And what have you been doing to make my sweat and struggle, count?” Now in my fifties, I still think about that question and aspire to live a life that can justify the efforts of my own immigrant great-grandparents and all the fierce, courageous women, including Angelou herself, who came before me.” -Anndee Hochman

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ama Ata Aidoo, Sharon Draper, Buchi Emecheta, Tayari JonesBebe Moore Campbell, Gloria Naylor, April Sinclair, Zadie Smith, Dorothy West, and Brenda Scott Wilkinson are just a few of the many black women storytellers whose works have shaped me and/or stayed with me and challenged me to write more deeply and honestly.

If I had to narrow it down to one writer whose work has made the most indelible impression on me, it would be Buchi Emecheta. Her novel The Joys of Motherhood came into my life just as I was grasping my way towards grown womanhood, and it helped me reflect on the particular experience of being a woman, namely how cultural mores and time conspire to define a woman’s value. Set in post-colonial Nigeria, Joys taught me to honor my mother and my father in a new way, specifically, to respect that before I entered their lives, they had had dreams, hopes and weathered devastating disappointments. They had made bargains and sacrifices to give me the life I had, and I owed them something for that–not my life, but something.

The Joys of Motherhood gave me the space to consider what I wanted my life to look like; it dared me to ask myself what I was willing to sacrifice to get it, and how I would survive if I failed or succeeded. It made me proud to be West African, and it made me want to write about Ghana, to situate the joys and conundrums of life in a context growing up in America had made me ashamed of. After reading Joys, I aspired to write differently.

Wide Sargasso Sea made me want to write. Taking the demonized madwoman who burns down Mr.Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre from the shadows of colonialism and revealing her as its victim, showed me the horrors and legacy of my Jamaican past. The book began my awareness of how the black (female especially) body was valued only as it served white greed but was then cast as that greed’s biggest and worst spectre.” -Suzanne McFayden

After reading Joys, I aspired to write differently.

When I was an NYU freshman, I saw Toni Morrison read from her novel Paradise at a packed Barnes & Noble. Her words were powerful and memorable. After, there was a Q&A. I’ll never forget when a man asked, “When I write, my words sound so terrible.” He asked, “How do your words turn out so beautifully?” Toni Morrison glanced at her book. “While reading this, there are words I’d change. I would rewrite forever, but at some point, you have to let it go.” I was in awe. I waited with lots of other folks to get my book signed. I was nervous. She’s my favorite writer. I don’t remember what I said exactly. But I did say, “I’m a writer.” She looked at me said, “Keep writing.” I left that night with that memory of Toni Morrison telling me to keep writing. And I have and I will. Her books left imprints on my heart. Thank you for that kindness and your words, Toni Morrison. -Jennifer Chen

She looked at me said, “Keep writing.”

Toni [Morrison]. Her courage to remain loyal to her characters, in telling the stories as they wanted to be told and her focus on writing stories about things no one wanted to talk about gave me the courage to write from my gut. -Barbara Mhangami

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: Such a short book, yet every page, every word so painful to read because I knew Pecola. Her yearning—for eyes so blue they’d make her beautiful and visible—was mine. My classmates and neighbors looked at this Jewish girl born in North Africa and saw through the olive skin and eyes to her pieds noirs (black feet) and black heart and called her Jungle Jew. Morrison gave Pecola the bitter Little Mermaid ending, where you get your wish at the price of your soul. That little book burned through me until I swore I would make people see me through my words: I would not be invisible. -Ruth Setton

When I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the 1980s, Toni Morrison came to the English department to teach for a semester. Her son was an undergraduate at the time. She held regular office hours, which were publically posted, so I went to her first hour, thinking to find a crowd. Nobody was there but Morrison. I explained who I was and she graciously invited me in to chat. I went back every week for the entire semester, just to talk to her. No one else ever showed up, not a single other student. I asked her why and she said she thought the students were afraid of her.

Anyway, of course, her prose changed my perspective, particularly Beloved (which I have taught, now that I’m a full professor of English at the Univ. of Florida) but she gave me the best advice for a young writer, and I will always remember it. I asked her, is it possible to become a professor of literature AND write fiction. At the time, I was being discouraged and told to choose one or the other. Morrison frowned, laughed and said, “hell yes. In the past, writers always did both so why not now? It is an utterly ridiculous notion, to say you can’t do both.”

And I have, ever since. I’m 60 now, and my seventh novel is about to be published, because I had Toni Morrison’s laughter and ‘hell yes’ at my back all these years. -Stephanie Ann Smith

About GabrielleJ
I have worked for nonprofits the majority of my career, managing youth development programs, where kids felt empowered, honored and creativity was encouraged. Hedgebrook does all of that for women writers and I am excited to be a part of the development team, helping to amplify women’s voices for years to come.

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