City Lit: Women’s Works

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As a child, new to my growing love for the written word, I would spend hours sitting at the kitchen table writing stories. These stories always ended with the character either walking off the page or simply with the words “She disappeared.” I didn’t know then that I had some sense of my own fate: As a black woman in a society where black women are often made to feel invisible, devalued and silenced, I too faced the risk of disappearing.

Patricia Bell-Scott’s powerful new collection, Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives, uses autobiographical essays and poetry to examine the lives of black women and black women artists in America. Each literary gem is a brilliant story of survival that will move everyone who has ever known or loved or lived as a woman.

To tell the flat-footed truth, the editor informs us, is “to offer a story or statement that is straightforward, unshakable and unembellished.” This truth is “sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly,” but ultimately healing.

Edited by Bell-Scott with Juanita Johnson-Bailey, the anthology includes slave-trading histories, essays on the impact of breast cancer and HIV, stories of sexual and physical abuse, and excerpts of Anita Hill’s testimony before the U.S. Senate. These women set forth their lives without self-pity or defeat. From bell hooks’ inspiring essay on the difficulties of autobiography to Alice Walker’s story of finding Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave and putting a headstone on it, the collection moves with soft and hard edges across the spectrum of womanhood.

Flat-Footed Truths starts with the personal: Writers talk about their own lives and the lives of black women who have passed on. It travels through the political, with stories of resistance, to the spiritual, where the writers speak of transformation. It brings to the forefront questions artists have always asked themselves and the world: How does one create and thereby grow powerful? How does one create and thereby speak? How does one remember and thereby survive? And by providing a place for black artists and women whose work is too often negated or simply ignored, the anthology also speaks to the question: How does one make art that embraces and confronts these issues and still remain visible as an artist?

Becky Birtha, a lesbian feminist who is also a Quaker and a mother, presents the haunting Poem for Flight, which outlines a path for the future by giving a glimpse of the past:

There will come a day–
it is not far off now–
when you wake in the morning and know
you were meant to be happy…

If you fear it will never be possible
think of Harriet
who traveled alone
the first time
who finally freed three hundred people
but first
had to free

In her essay, the poet and activist Audre Lorde illuminates the significance of transforming silence into language. The cost of not speaking out, she writes, is too high: “We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed….And we will still be no less afraid.”

Harriet Ann Buckley, whose art often combines quilting, photography, painting, leather and metal into images and ideas of herself and her community, remembers coming to terms with herself as a black woman artist and the ways the white world saw her: “One of the enduring criticisms of my work is that it is ‘too Black’….I’d like to know, ‘What is too Black?’ How can you get too Black? Black is a good thing. And my work says that I am a Black woman artist.” Her watercolor, “Keepers of the Culture,” is featured on the book’s cover.

Flat-Footed Truths chronicles how the well-known and not so well-known artists within its pages made themselves seen and heard. From struggling with single motherhood and the sex industry to fighting for visibility and recognition in front of professors, politicians and family, these women have come a long distance to create art.

Years have passed and the kitchen table at which I once sat writing has been replaced by a desk. The stories have been transformed into novels, and the novels are their own chronicles of survival. The women and girls in my stories are no longer disappearing because I have refused to disappear.

My struggles as a writer, and as a woman who is black, often echo those of the writers in this anthology. As with anyone who is not in a position of power, in working to be heard and to be seen, I meet with resistance. Too often I am asked why it is necessary to have a work speak specifically to one group of people–say, black women. The answer, I have come to realize, is simple: so that struggling artists can feel less alone. To sit down with this collection is to sit down with a roomful of sisters who, through their stories, tell mine. Weaving the flat-footed truths of courageous pasts, this collection is a promise and a means toward a better future.

Jacqueline Woodson, author of the novel Autobiography of a Family Photo, has also written a number of books for children and young adults.

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