My forever muse with black history month will be Lorraine Hansberry. These days I have been reading and re-reading her address to three scholars of the United Negro College Fund back in the 60’s. This particular sentence ‘look at the work that awaits you’ is how I choose to close out this month, knowing that black history is every month, still.

The work that awaits all of us committed to history is under assault these days with so many forgetting that black history is American history, no matter how you choose to tell the story. History has been made and written and if not now, it will still be told. So for me personally, I choose to focus on the work that awaits us all. The work of writing about people that look like me, telling their stories so history never forgets that they also existed. These gifts are not to be taken for granted. I also intend to perfect them one story at a time, knowing as as noted by Ms. Hansberry, we have something begging for attention, worthy of being used to tell stories that matter. I do not know what this may lead to in the end but for know, keep black history in mind period. The world needs our history and it is up to us to tell the stories of our people, to perfect them too, by writing to a point about all our history.

A womb tells the beginning of your story. Life forgets it’s continuity. Yet, if your stories, instead of theirs, your life, instead of their own. All your gains, instead of defeat. Your pain too, instead of deceit. If your lillies bloomed in any way. Your roses only registered thorns. Your days are as days. Your nights too, like nights.

If only you spoke of all the ways the rain fell on your head. A clear view of your flood. Those that deflated or those that manifested into all the sum of you. If you ever disappeared, even if for a minute, in your thoughts or in reality, all the moments, distant or near, that are simultaneous with your years. If there were no colors in your life, no dash of pink in Spring, or yellow in the summer, if only black and blue, then the telling of that will do. If there were hours unaccounted for. Labor unpaid. Tears unknown, joy undiscovered, desires unfulfilled, even delight unspeakable, only insight may salvage all the residue that remains.

So then tell all the arcs you know. Those that bent all the way to the ground, those that lost the ground or those that flapped up to foreground. Tell all the moments flowers made you smile. Dahlia’s or daffodils will do. Remember the rain, the depths of the fall or floods. Remember too ending hours of your existence, the earth beneath your feet, ideas that persisted, or encounters that made you rise, all before your sun sets.

Picture from Homemade Love by bell hooks.

When the hours of your existence have been accounted for, what will remain? I woke with this need to ask myself this question. Who will tell my story for me, just the way I would want it to be told? We die, that may be the meaning of our lives, said Toni Morrison. But we do language and that maybe the measure of our lives. So when your time is up, how would your life be measured? With the things you did and as told by those behind, or with your own words and as told by you.

I want my words to do the talking. I want it to talk back even when I’m gone. I want it to speak of all the ways I lived, the flowers I kissed, or the storms that persisted. Either way, our memories are all we have and we can keep them now, even as we breathe.

So to those wondering whether it’s worth keeping, these moments of our living, know that your stories are worth it. Keep it.

They called her Mary.

19 years old Mary.

I imagine she was happy.

Pregnant and happy.

Preparing for new life.

Until, the life she knew was lynched.

Killed, before they could experience, new life together.

I imagine she was wild.

Death will make anyone wild.

She feared nothing.

Feared no one.

Prepared to live.

Ready to die too.

For a love gone so soon.

A life cut too soon.

Then they did the unthinkable.

Wild men like beasts, killed Mary.

Crushed to death the baby with their boots.

If these words are wild.

Her death was wild.

A wild struggle for life.

All because she dared to speak.

Even now, she dares to speak.

Till madness becomes visible.

Like a knowing, so deep.

Mary Turner: A silent protest against mob violence sculpture by Meta Warrick Fuller. Museum of African American History, Boston & Nantucket.

Who gets remembered by history, how and why is how I choose to close out Black History Month, 2022. Mary Turner’s story is all I want to keep. Despite the circumstances surrounding her death, she was a woman; she was eight months pregnant and killed for speaking out against the men that murdered her husband. Only to keep her silent, she paid a price for speaking out. She faced a violent mob, and died fighting back. Black women like Mary Turner have died living lives inseparable from the act of speaking truth to power. The story of a pregnant woman killed for talking back, has direct links to what Audre Lorde once noted that our silence will not protect us, not when we were never meant to survive. And for the most part, history has also forgotten her. Yet, her defiant spirit refuses to be silent. Like wildness, refuses to be tamed, prepares to stay monstrous too, so long as we never forget the ultimate price she paid for visibility. The story of Mary Turner continues to bear witness to the visions of invisibility that even today’s society would rather we embrace. For so long, so many Black women around the country have struggled and perserved to be a voice, speaking as loud as they can, for whatever cause they hold dear. Speaking and becoming visible as black women, challenges all the dominant society knows. Mary Turner’s legacy instructs us, all black women to speak, even if it kills us. We were never meant to survive. Even as they adjust the template of who gets to be visible or not, speak. Even as they argue whether our experience counts or not, speak. Even as they question credentials, set arbitrary rules, or try to diminish all that you are, speak. And speak, not in language of gratitude or struggle, but to leave a mark that leads to their madness.

They call us Iwelunmor.

The ones for whom anger does not reach our soul. Even if they stir up trouble.

The ones for whom anger does not invade our being. Even if they hinder our dreaming.

The ones for whom anger does not dwell in our mind. Even if it lasts for a moment.

So we will live season after season, not with their trouble or their anger near our soul.

We will dream, night after night, not with their anger invading our being.

We will love, time after time, not with their anger dwelling in our mind.

But as Iwelunmor. The ones who lived despite their trouble. The ones who dreamed. The ones who loved. Knowing that they could never reach us.

The Iwelunmor’s back in the 70’s

I have been reflecting on my maiden name lately. Mainly because someone asked me what it meant and I told them. They said wow, I should write about that someday. I guess here is the day. I get a kick out of explaining it to. It’s from Delta State region of Nigeria by way of a village where my ancestors hailed called Onicha Ugbo. By the way, I come from a great line of farmers as that’s what my village is know for mostly. But the name, Iwelunmor, which you can pronounce as Eway-lun-morhor, means ‘anger does not reach my soul.’ Imagine that. Just thought to keep this here as I continue to shape this season I find myself in, remembering the lessons too of falling leaves, such letting go (of things like anger), is love. And this love is God.

There are pathways often invisible.

Spaces often hidden, where Black youth thrive.

These spaces allow them to confront their fears.

Heal their wounds.

Witness things they have never witnessed.

Or simply learn to talk about love.

I long to bask in these spaces.

I long to see Black youth remove their masks and tough exteriors and simply smile and dance at the sound of the music that makes their heart swell with joy.

I long to hear their dreams.

What they hope to become or how they plan to live.

I long to hear too their strategies for surviving.

They live in a world where being young and Black comes with a death sentence, comes with becoming Freddie, or Trayvon or Martin or Ahmaud or Brenona.

When all they simply seek to become is a light for the world to see.

I long to see this light in them shine forth.

I long to hear how they plan to survive. Encourage each other too as they navigate this world with all their hopes and dreams and fears.

Understanding how Black youth care. Knowing how they love or dream, imagine or hope is my life quest.

They have been asked and continue to be asked how does it feel to be a problem.

But now, I looking to Black youth and their rising to teach me how to lead the way.

Imagine restoring hope and possibilities to the lives of urban youth in the US today. Imagine detailing what it would take to rebuild their lives through a process of radical healing. I came across a book by Dr. Shawn Ginwright leading the way. We need clear and detailed strategies, radical healing ones too to help a generation live out their wildest dreams. I am raising three black boys in America and a little black girl and I know I have one weapon and one only where they are concerned and that is my ability to teach them how to live in the world they find themselves. Ours isn’t a perfect union. By no means. But I am prepared to ensure they rise up and shine their light brightly for the world to see. I am prepared to do my part, to pursue it vigorously from what they see to words they hear with a firm and relentless commitment to justice and love so that no matter what, they too can rise as they attain their God given right to live, dream, hope, imagine, love.

I am undoing all that keeps my soul from prospering.

All that keeps me buried.

I am looking at the mirror to.

I know my soul.

I am like stars against the sky.

Like galaxies bouncing through space.

Becoming green as I pass through storms.

I know what stirs me.

I bow my heads in humility to know why.

Even all that holds my breath.

Every single thing I hold dear, seeks to rob me of my cares.

And if I fail.

If I fail to set my heart on fire or come close to deep waters.

Neither the fire nor the floods will engulf me.

Even the failure form part and not my whole story.

Contemplating your declaration that you alone know the plans, I am comforted by this calming thought: I know my soul.

Claude McKay

I am slowly making sense of writing in verse. Using my own ear and taste, turning words that come into compositions that suit my soul. And Claude McKay, the first great poet of the Harlem Renaissance is my guide today. His book Harlem Shawdows has so many short sketches that resonate with my soul. I have reflected on one of them before for a post that I called ‘if we must live.’

But this one on ‘I know my soul,’ was perfect for today. Maybe it’s his vivid brief descriptions of life. Maybe it’s his insistence on pledging no allegiance to any master. Something always keeps me yearning for more with him and it feels alright with my soul. I am drawn to how he puts ideas and feelings into words that move me. Mr. Claude McKay was quick to remind anyone that he never studied poetry in the traditional way. He refused also to use patterns, images and words that would make people stamp him as either a classicist or a modernist. He was neither. Only better. His knowledge and style suits my soul. They way he chooses melodies and rhythms by instinct or favors words and figures which flow smoothly and harmoniously is like a balm for my mind. I am also drawn to his directness, his truthfulness and naturalness of expression. In fact, he knows my soul and my soul glows in his words.

I stand surrounded by many whirling elements.

Thunder, storms, fire, ice.

All surround me.

I stand neither consumed nor protected.

Just looking, seeing, waiting, writing.

The things I have seen, while writing.

The stories are plentiful.

Rejection. I know it too well. My soul has known the sting of being dismissed. We have bones scattered with this, though we stand.

Failure. Well, Lord knows I know it’s key ingredients and can make a tasty meal out of it. The coils of it have coiled around my neck, choking me, though I learnt how to spit it out too.

Silence. This one has never protected me. I keep learning that every day. So many of us are transforming it to action.

Light. My middle name. The only thing I come to with full vigor, gathering words, like lamp, to light my path. Declaring too, “Let there be Light.” Perhaps when you know you are light, you know you cannot be hidden. In your light they see light.

That is why it is full of grace to be so young, so gifted, and it is equally divine to do so, being Black, to be young, gifted and Black.

The world isn’t waiting for you.

Not today.

So do whatever you want.

For me, words.

I intend to write as I please, write about the world as I see it, write about what I hope it was, and write about what it must be.

Or there will be no world. Not for me, not for you, and definitely not for the next generation.

So I will write.

About beginnings I care about, some I found, where they called us wild, used bits, and whipped our backs, and somehow we learned to fly.

I will write to a point, continue to work hard at it, for I care about it.

I will also write about our people, write to tell their stories, write to uncover their rejections, their failures, their silence, their light.

I cannot pass this up.

Something glorious is happening.

I intend to perfect it.

These words were inspired by Lorraine Hansberry. It’s hard to imagine what she might have contributed had she lived longer.

Here is a woman born in Chicago in 1930, dead by 1965 at the age of 34, but nevertheless became the first Black woman to have her play produced by Broadway and the first Black winner of the prestigious Drama Critics award, something she won at age 29.

That play ‘A Rasin in the Sun,’ remains the most widely produced and read play by any Black American woman.

In ‘Looking for Lorraine,’ Imani Perry described her as ‘a woman intoxicated by beauty and enraged by injustice.’ She was also passionate about amplifying the voices of Black people.

One of my favorite aspects of her life is the ‘To be Young, Gifted, and Black’ speech she delivered to the winners of a United Negro College Fund writing contest.

This speech would set the stage for her play by the same name adapted by her husband after her death in 1969. Nina Simone also performed a song of the same name that year. This sterling woman is my muse for today and inspiration for the verses above. I hope you know wherever you are, that you should always keep being young, gifted and Black.

Lorraine Hansberry’s speech, To be Young, Gifted and Black.

Listen, you are belong to a people so beautiful.

Langston Hughes, the poet wrote about how the night is beautiful, like the faces of your people, the stars are beautiful, like the eyes of your people. Beautiful also is the sun, beautiful also, the souls of your people. You belong to a people so beautiful.

Listen, you belong to a people who had a home, a place, a land.

Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson wrote about their story, their origin, one that did not begin with whips and chain, or that dreadful voyage that took them from their home, their place , their land

Listen, your future is greater than your past.

Ben Okri once wrote about how we need to see the world differently, to see ourselves clearly. Only free people can make a free world. So infect the world with your light. Help fulfill the golden prophecies, press forward the human genius, for your future is greater than your past.

Listen, you are like dreams that hang in the air, touching everything.

The poet Lucille Clifton noted like smoke, these dreams get all in your clothes, as you wear them more than you do, trying to wave them away, but their smell is all over you, getting in your eyes, making you cry, even even the fire is gone, these dreams that hang in the air, touching everything.

Listen you are beyond the small stuff too small to see.

The artist Chris Robinson once wrote that even if somethings swim with the tide and somethings don’t, even if something are out of reach, or you feel lost and alone, you matter, beyond the small stuff too small to see.

Listen you are like the year you learned to fly.

The writer Jacqueline Robinson once wrote about how a brother and a sister used their beautiful and brilliant minds. They lifted their arms, closed their eyes, took a deep breath, and believed in a thing the year they learned to fly.

Listen you are a light for the world to see.

Kwame Alexander wrote words for the undefeated, those unforgettable, those unafraid who carried the red, white and weary blues and shined their light for the world to see.

Listen you are more than this skin you are in.

This skin you are in, is just a covering bell hooks once shared. It cannot tell your story. They can find all about you, coming close and letting go, of what they think you are. For you are more than the skin you are in.

Listen you are more than the only black kid in the class.

You are the manifestations of several lifetime of toil, said Clint Smith, the poet. You are deemed the expert on all things Morrison, King, Malcom, and Rosa. You are everyone’s best friend until you are not, a star before they render you asteroid, before they watch you turn to dust, you the only black kid in the class.

Listen you are carrying nothing but the world.

Even Amanda Gorman the poet noted that you are enough. There is joy in discarding almost everything. Though what you have left behind will not free you, but what you have left is all you need, is enough when you are armed only with your hands, open, walking into tomorrow, carrying nothing but the world.

Listen you are called to bear witness.

Cornel West once shared about how he was prepared to bear witness to the height of his capacity, to the best of radical traditions that produced him, to help people think and feel differently over and over again, as long as we work to bear witness.

Listen you are more than you name.

You are like Toni Cade Bambara, with a name you earned and worked hard for. A name that tells the story of you, whether forever constructing yourself, forever inventing yourself, you are more than your name.

Listen, you are like jasmines, perfect of perfume.

Claude McKay, the poet wrote that your scent is in the room. Swiftly, it overwhelms, and conquers. Jasmines, night jasmines, like you, are perfect of perfume.

Listen, you must transform your silence into language and action.

Audre Lorde, the poet and feminist shared how we can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. The weight will choke us unless we transform silence into language and action.

Listen you must accept them with love.

There is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The terrible thing is that you must accept them, noted James Baldwin, the writer. You must accept them and accept them with love.

Listen, you are like an invisible ink

To Toni Morrison, an invisible ink is what lies under, between, outside the lines, hidden, until the right reader discovers it. The reader, open to your invisible ink.

Representation as with stories for black children, have been controlled by others for far too long. For our children to thrive, we really must write about ourselves in other to reclaim our stories, our way of life. As long as others direct attention and conversations surrounding the experiences of all children, as long as their rules and style dominate wiring for children, then the lived experiences of our black children will not be represented in society. It’s up to us, the adults in their lives and/or our children to represent ourselves and take back our stories. Enter ‘I am enough’ by Grace Byers.

As a parent, reminding my children that they are enough is a daily mantra. The world may want to say what it feels like saying, but you my child, with all your dimples and beautiful nappy hair are enough. The world may want to question why you are so active, or even restless, say to them that like rain, you are here to pour and drip and fall until you are full. The world may question your intelligence, ostracize you even in school because of it, with some choosing not to even be your friend. Relax my dear and smile and know that their is privilege with learning and you have been blest with it’s finest ingredients. Your knowledge. So learn, keep it, everytime you are in school and beyond. Grace Byers book opens up spaces for parents like myself to talk to my children about why they are enough. She also helps make it easy for us to start conversations on ways they too can tell their own stories of being enough. She also gives voice back to our children’s experiences, something often absent in mainstream writing for children of color. I am enough is a great book for all children, and black children in particular. It helps the rootedness of who they are so that they never forget that they are enough. As we begin to wrap up black history month, and to keep it alive all year, keep reminding our children that they are enough.

In the spirit of Black History Month, my family and I have been reading about Anna Julia Cooper, the 4th African American woman to earn a doctorate, something she accomplished in 1924. Anna Julia Cooper was as fearless as she was powerful, as sublime as she was effortless in her discussions not only on the plight of black women in general, but the need for women to attain higher education. The professor in me is always alert to women who paved the way for me to call myself a professor. Women like Anna Julia Cooper, with her profound book ‘ A Voice from the South’ which urged black women to not be mute or voiceless, but happily expectant and ready to add our voice to the experiment and experience we call America. One statement she wrote in the book that made me alert is: ‘Woman, Mother, your responsibility is one that might make angels tremble.’ This statement was eloquent then as it is perfect for me today. I look forward to the future always with zeal, knowing that the many words of Anna Julia Cooper will be my guide. Keep her in mind.

Anna Julia Cooper