I forget all too often I am a subject-participant in an ongoing history, that what happens around me requires documentation, that what happens inside of me constitutes a process that is important to my growth and reflective/indicative of a group journey.
Toni Cade Bambara (on her 42nd birthday) in a letter to June Jordan
Toni Cade Bambara’s life and work insist that we write books and essays, edit anthologies, do archival work, maintain tradition or, for that matter, even construct canons. However, she insists that we do this for something other than, or in addition to, degrees, tenure, and celebrity status. And she insists we keep talking to and arguing with each other in order to clarify our goals and our visions. The stakes are too high for us to abandon this kind of commitment.
Farah Jasmine Griffin in “Conflict and Chorus: Reconsidering Toni Cade’s The Black Woman: An Anthology”
Angela Davis walking and talking with Toni Morrison.
And Toni Morrison at her desk at Random House, where she worked as an editor and played a pivotal role in bringing black literature to mainstream American audiences by editing work from Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, and Henry Dumas.
“The little kids you keep telling not to cut through your yard are cutting through your yard. Not boisterous-bold and loose-limbed as they used to be in the first and second grades. But not huddled and spooked as they were last year. You had to saw off the dogwood limbs. They’d creak and sway, throwing shadows of alarm on the walkway, sending the children shrieking down the driveway. You couldn’t store mulch in lawnleaf bags then, either. They’d look, even to you, coming upon those humps in your flowerbed, like bagged bodies.”
Poetic Meditations: Writing Self Into Time, Into Home - Part I | by CFL Intern Kiana Murphy
Writing often feels like a self-mutilating act. A conscious opening of wounds. An open surrender.
I imagine Audre Lorde. Toni Morrison. Octavia Butler. Toni Cade Bambara. Alice Walker. Ntozake Shange. bell hooks. All in small rooms, trying to write, trying to make the blood run like ink, hearing the moaning and wailing from their Ancestor’ s Pen.
I hear Gloria Anzuldua from a distant land, her envisioning of a Shadow Beast, one that takes over, consumes the insides out. A dim fire rising from her core, engulfing her spine with a spiral of smoke, like words.
And trying to narrate my experience in North Philly has sent me on a similar spiral, often back to the fragments of my childhood in Washington, DC. North Philly has made me realize I had been running from home, never wanting to look back on the ruinous landscape from which I came, the same one that has cultivated three generations of my family.
Moving from DC for school, I often heard the voice of my mother warning me about the world “out there”: one that had the potential to be better than our neighborhood, but also one full of those same dangers and anxieties. I hear her echoed in Nana Peazant in Daughters of the Dust, where she warns her grandson Eli about moving North:
Eli, I’m trying to learn ya how to touch your own spirit. I’m fighting for my life. And I’m fighting for yore’n. Look in my face. I’m trying to give you something to take north with you. Along with all your great big dreams! Call on those old Africans Eli. They come to you when you least expect em. They hug ya up quick and soft. As the warm sweet wind. Let them old souls come into your heart Eli. Let em touch you with the hand of time. Let em feed your head with wisdom that ain’t from this day and time. Cause when you leave this island Eli Peazant. You ain’t goin to no land of milk and honey.
Growing up, I was Eli. And probably still am. My mother was (is) Nana Peazant, packing my head like a lunch box with psalms and songs to sing in the late night hours. Something always felt wrong about people’s fear about catching the Green Line too far past Gallery Place-Chinatown, closer to where I lived. Something felt wrong about my mother only letting us play in a small section of our backyard, and how anything too far from her eyesight was not safe. Something felt wrong about taking the train a couple stops North and seeing parks, playgrounds, and nice houses – and almost nobody that looked like me. Something felt wrong about a man from a development project knocking on a family’s door telling them they have to move the same week, giving them money that doesn’t even amount to a couple of months’ rent. Something felt wrong. Something was wrong. But I was too young to articulate what I felt as truth.
Biking to North Philly sent me back to those feelings. That cotton mouth feeling of having no words. Of somehow being sent back in time, or perhaps past time being sent to me. And what amazes me most about being at a nexus of temporalities is the birthing of a rich understanding of the world, a perspective situated at the intersection of time and place.
So I ran from time. From place. The feeling of a place drawing me back, forcing me to remember. The half jar of vaseline my mother used for a head that “ate up everything”; The pools in the backyard space; the cookout food bellies; the strronnnggg smell of Fabuluso and lysol and bleach with closed windows; the roof my dad fell through and the belly ache laughter that followed; the new go-go song somebody was bumpin’ and somebody “beatin’ their feet” drenched in sweat, body caught on fire from the movement; running to the sound of the ice cream truck for pickled egg and seeds and an icee on a hot summer day; racing with the neighborhood kids on bikes down the parking lot and not stopping once you hit the finish line; catching fireflies in a bottle as the milky light of dawn peaks in, only to let them go cause Ma ain’t having no bugs in her house, let alone us smelling like outside.
And North Philly sets me back into a similar temporality and I wonder what this place draws people back to and how it propels them to elsewhere. What memories are trapped there, and which ones have escaped. And why it’s so hard to capture this spatial-temporal nexus of being and becoming into words.
Like love, writing can’t always save. But it has brought me closer to something, often unnamed and fleeting, yet in the moment whole, like healing…like home.
Daughters of the Dust. Dir. Julie Dash. Perf. Cora Leed Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, and Kaycee Moore. Kino International, 1991. Film.
Kiana Murphy is an English Ph.D student at the University of Pennsylvania. Both her creative work and research examine how Black women and girls use oral and written narratives to explore and critique what it means to come of age. She is interested in how writing and storytelling can be used as forms of protest and healing. Kiana is interning with @communityfutureslab this summer.