Black Women Writers at Work

Black Women Writers at Work (edited by Claudia Tate) expanded my mind, but before I could arrive at expanse, I had to work through the anger. Yes, this book brought up a lot of anger and frustration for me. It wasn’t the content that angered me, it was that I only encountered Black Women Writers at Work somewhere close to midlife.

Let me explain.

Many years and many dollars of the first half of my life have been spent studying reading, writing, and literature. I went to two “elite” institutions of higher learning and in between I studied to become an English teacher at what would be considered a less “elite” institution. I worked hard to be accepted into those schools (Did you know that kids as young as middle school take standardized tests and write applications to attend high school? Or at least we did in my day. But I digress.) and work hard to learn and be successful while I was attending school. Although I opted to not continue in the ivory tower, I am a well-read person by almost any measure and most of the institutions where I was learning would almost certainly taut themselves as being diverse and representative in their curriculum. And yet, of the fourteen Black Women (and American) writers that are interviewed in Black Women Writers at Work, I have heard of half of them. And I’ve actually read less than that.

This collection of interviews was first published in 1985, while I was still in elementary school.

As someone who has studied reading and writing (and the teaching of reading and writing) and through much of it has felt a certain disconnect between my reality and what I was being taught to read, I feel like these writers and their work was actively kept from me. I recall being told or being made to believe that literature by black women writers simply did not exist (outside of a few books that made it onto a syllabus). And, yet, clearly the women in this book were writing and publishing prior to 1985.

And that’s what makes me angry. I’m pissed off that all of these writers and their work has been actively kept from me in spite of all the energy, time (and money) I put into learning what is supposed to be the “best” literature.

The interviews themselves, the words of these women’s writing is a cooling salve to this hot anger. I’m just going to include a few quotes from these pages below and I’m going to just flip open to some of the pages that I marked as I read.

“Writing was a way to ‘hear’ myself, check myself. Writing was/ is an act of discovery. … I do not wish to be useless or dangerous, so I’ll write. And too, hell, I’m a writer. I am compelled to write.” —Toni Cade Bambara

“That’s what [Marge Piecy] means when she’s talking about martyrs not permitting themselves to be martyrs, but at some point just before martyrdom they should just go away and do something else.” —Alice Walker

“I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don’t have any resolutions for, and when I’m finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I won’t write out of what I know. It’s what I don’t know that stimulates me. I merely know enough to get started. Writing is discovery; it’s talking deep within myself, ‘deep talking’ as you say.” —Toni Morrison

“What we’re hearing in the music is the women. People have just continued to overlook the impact of women. We women won’t. We women are the ones in the fields in Africa. The music is not something we learned on these shores. We were communal even then, and as we got into bigger fields, we would call to one another. If you didn’t answer back, we went to see about you. The hum, the holler, the leader-call are women things. The men didn’t do them. Black men were out hunting in African but in America they were in the fields with the women. They learned the women things from women. So what you’re hearing in our music is nothing but the sound of a women calling another women.” — Nikki Giovanni

“One of the things I would like to see is real American literature taught in this country. I would like to see “American lit.” defined and taught in such a way that you’re teaching the literature of all the people in America, not teaching it from one point of view as in the past, which excluded everybody else except white men and a few white women from consideration. I’m talking about constructing a new kind of perspective. In some universities this is happening, though granted very slowly.” — Sherley Anne Williams

I could go on and on with more and more quotes… but honestly you should all just read the book. But just for a moment, consider what it would mean for young people to have read just these words alone as they are embarking on studying literature and writing. Let me put it this way, if you have ever considered an MFA in creative writing, you could do worse (much, much worse) than starting with this book. Take it from someone who has an MFA in creative writing from a prestigious university, reading this one book offered more knowledge, understanding, and (perhaps most importantly) inspiration than all the books I read for my MFA combined.

In any case, aside from the encouragement, support, and expansion that I felt whilst reading Black Women Writers at Work, the text also helped me generate a “to be read/ re-read” list for myself.

Here’s the list:

  • The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
  • The Street by Ann Petry
  • God Bless the Child by Kristen Hunter
  • Corregidora by Gayl Jones
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • Sassafras by Ntozake Shange
  • Nappy Edges by Ntozake Shange
  • A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women by Sonia Sanchez
  • Black Picture by Bill Gunn
  • Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich
  • Women and Nature by Susan Griffen
  • Fat Mama by Ntozake CHange and Thulani Davis
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
  • Jubilee by Margaret Walker
  • Iola Henry by Frances Harper

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