Zaki: I Rise to Write the Story
by Risë Kevalshar Collins
In the spring of 1977, when I was twenty-four, I flew from New York to vacation in Europe. Many Frenchmen had a Josephine Baker complex and fetishized me. But overall, Parisians embraced me human to human—rare in my experience with white people at that time. Though France had been a colonial power, it had, to some extent, evolved. Paris seemed a place where equal justice didn’t have to be fought for, bled for, died for; it seemed a place where I could live a life unbridled by relentless racism. That’s why some American artists of African ancestry became expats. When I called to tell Mama I wanted to stay, she reminded me of my work on Broadway, my signed contract, my responsibility.
Decades later in Boise, in spring of 2021, I asked my sister, whom I call Zelda, “Why do you think Mama didn’t want me to move to Paris—was it too far away for the two of you to follow?”
“No. It’s because Mama wasn’t yet done with her experience of your Broadway experience.” Zelda laughed.
“Why did she often say, The pen is mightier than the sword—yet it sounded like a warning?”
“Because people can hold you hostage to what’s written—even when your consciousness has changed.”
“I think Mama didn’t want me to write about her.”
“I don’t want you to write about me, either.”
There’s safety in secrecy, silence, anonymity.
I’ve been a reluctant writer, born and raised in a time when and place where equal justice, though long fought for, is not yet won. My literary journey has been unconventional, as I am, as this essay will be. I am the daughter of an artist. I became an actor, then a traveler, then a political social worker. Now I am a writer. My artistic narrative and America’s historical narrative are dreadlocked.
In my experience, a black woman writer challenges and is challenged by white supremacy—the belief, conscious or subconscious—in the inherent superiority of the white race. She challenges and is challenged by the fact that we live in a pathologically racialized nation born of genocide on stolen land, built with forced labor, maintained by apartheid, rooted in patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist white supremacy.
A black woman writer has much at stake. She confronts the white male canon. Not only is she a writer, often she’s an activist, an educator, a spiritual mother seeding love into the hearts of the privileged, sowing humanity beside the hubris of the powerful. She carries invisible weight, faces greatest scrutiny, harshest judgment, lowest pay. Sometimes she’s deemed a leader. Historically, black male leaders have been denigrated, denounced, murdered. Often black women writers have been dismissed, devalued, undermined.
I’ve been a reluctant writer.
Mama was born in 1929. At nineteen, she wanted to become an actress. In 1948, there were few roles for a lithe brown Negro woman with a shock of reddish hair, into which she sprayed a streak of silver. This young woman of African ancestry turned heads when she entered a room. She was a tall, colored woman who smoked Salem cigarettes using an eight-inch, filigreed silver holder, a black Southern belle who prided herself on being able to converse with royalty, a Negress who adopted the middle name Elizabeth after England’s queen. Elizabeth means “My God is abundance” or “My God is my oath.” Among her most prized possessions was a bronze figurine of Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands.
Mama acted, danced, sang, played piano, painted, wore clothes like a model, sewed, cooked, gardened, and beautified everything she touched. On the eve of my birth, in 1952, she dreamed of a bright star hung high in the night heavens. That star, she discerned, symbolized my future. She bequeathed her acting dreams to me.
In October 2018, days after her seventieth birthday, Ntozake Shange died in her sleep. Born in 1948, Ntozake, four years my senior, was a feminist, poet, activist, performance artist, educator, novelist, and playwright. Her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf, a collection of poetic monologues, told the stories of seven black women who’ve experienced the oppression of a white male–dominated society. She called it a choreopoem—a series of poems accompanied by dance, music and song presented as a theatrical work. It defied orthodox forms, as she did, as I do. It was the second play written by a black American woman to be produced on Broadway. It was a sensation, won nominations and awards, was adapted for television, produced as a spoken-word album, published as a book, adapted for film. Ntozake and I were members of the original Broadway cast.
I called her Zaki. There was a silent boundary between us. I was secretive. She was well-bred. We weren’t close. We weren’t friends. We were artists whose lives intersected in the play and contrasted beyond it. Over time I’ve come to realize the extent to which Zaki was a part of me. As an actor in her play, I spoke her words a thousand times.
Zaki and I met when I answered an ad for black actresses to audition for her play at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York City. For black women, in 1976, such an opportunity was rare. I was twenty-three and had just returned from working a year at Baltimore’s Center Stage theatre. I prepared a monologue—possibly one I’d written about a near romantic liaison with a bisexual male friend. Zaki was there, twenty-seven, maybe five inches shorter than I, butter-colored, doe-eyed. She stood in silhouette, at the back of the theatre, watching, listening closely as I auditioned, then she spoke in undertones with director Oz Scott as I waited, sweat-drenched, under the stage lights.
Bohemian, like me, in our days of samite kimonos and harem pants, adorned with a bright head scarf, multiple earrings intermixed with feathers, a nose piercing, turquoise on the middle and ring finger of one hand, she came forward on bare feet, smiled, asked, “Would you like to join the cast?”
Ntozake chose me.
Maybe it was because I could act. Perhaps I brought the balance of tall darkness to what one actress called the cast’s “high-yellow contingency.” Might’ve been my good karma. Soon after the off-Broadway audition, my then sixteen-year-old sister, Zelda, awakened from a fever, wild-eyed, and said, “I had a dream. The voice in the dream said: Tell your sister she’s going to be on Broadway. And it’s going to be very successful.”
Zaki’s father was an Air Force surgeon. Her mother was a psychiatric social worker and educator. She had two younger sisters and a brother. The man who fathered me was a stone that kept on rolling. My single mother earned twenty-five dollars a week selling designer clothing to rich white women, while training working-class white women to do likewise. Trainees earned twice Mama’s pay. I had one sister. No brother. In my sphere, black men were often absent, targeted, beaten, jailed, killed, or sent to war, leaving black women single, black children fatherless, black families even more vulnerable.
When Zaki was five, her family journeyed from New Jersey to St. Louis and later back to New Jersey. My family circled between Texas, Ohio, and Texas. We said we were nomadic. Now I know why. Mama, in systemic surround-sound inequity, was looking for a hopeful opening, searching for a way to balance an unequal justice scale. For her daughters, she saw the arts as a path of opportunity, a path beyond the limited roles for black women that society prescribed.
There are some who put pen to paper when they pop from womb to world. Zaki was one of those. She wrote poetry when she helped integrate an all-white elementary school—perhaps to help herself cope.
Before kindergarten, I spoke my first poem while preening in the bedroom mirror:
Oooh looka there
isn’t that little colored girl
pretty and fair?
Thrilled, Mama encouraged me to repeat it several times. I did, with pursed lips and diva flair. She clapped, I bowed, she bragged to friends.
In my youth, Malcolm X seemed a distant relative. Mama, four years Malcolm’s junior, looked, or maybe felt, like him—keen intellect, intense eyes, fierceness coupled with humor and warmth—and, like Malcolm, Mama had a spirit of freedom, autonomy, and resistance.
I am my mother’s eldest daughter.
Mama named me for Risë Stevens, a white American operatic mezzo-soprano in the 40s and 50s who’s best known for the role of Carmen. Though pronounced REE-sah, it’s noteworthy that my name is spelled rise.
Mama taught me to count, read, and write early. Each night before sleep we prayed, snuggled, told stories, sang, read children’s books and poems.
She said: “I want you to be polite to everybody, but you don’t have to say, ‘Yes, Sir’ or ‘No, Ma’am’ to anybody—including white people—you hear?”
I was two, Mama was twenty-six, and Zaki was six in August 1955 when Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old Chicago boy, was accused of flirting with a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi. He was kidnapped, beaten, lynched, shot in the head, barbed-wired to a cotton gin fan and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. A month later, two white men were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. A year later, the men openly admitted killing Emmett Till. His murder was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Emmett Till was the brother I never had.
As colored girls, Mama, Zaki, and I grew up in a world that taught us to always brace ourselves for the next Emmett Till. Each time another black person is wrongfully killed, it’s another psychic blow. It’s visceral.
I wondered what white people—and those who considered themselves white—thought or felt when other white people repeatedly committed such acts. I saw them do nothing—other than benefit, by default, from nothing having been done.
In the early 50s in Fifth Ward, a Negro neighborhood in segregated Houston, Mama held my hand, paid our full fare, led me in my pink tutu and tights to the back of the Gregg Street bus where we sat—even when the front of the bus, reserved for white people, was empty—for the rickety ride to ballet lessons. She was introducing me to performance art.
Before I started school, Mama said, “I want you to promise me something.”
“Promise Mommy you’ll never be a maid.”
Then, as sometimes now, the white power structure dictated where blacks could live—usually in the worst parts of town. Fifth Ward has since become a cancer cluster. Environmental racism continues to hurt our health—as it does in Flint, Michigan, and in Jackson, Mississippi. But it was from Fifth Ward that Mama provided for me, trained me, took extreme measures to keep me safe. Black safety wasn’t built into the white-controlled social system. I don’t know what it is to feel safe. Hypervigilance is a family trait. I’m uncomfortable with visitors, have dogs, scan crowds, sit facing the door, check stove knobs repeatedly before and after leaving the house, test door locks before and after getting into bed.
I don’t rest well.
Mama worked multiple jobs. While she was away, I was free inside the house but wasn’t allowed to go outside or to let anyone in. I entertained myself. I’d place clippings of her long, red-polished fingernails atop my fingernails. I’d take a Salem cigarette butt from her turquoise glass ashtray, put it in her cigarette holder, stand before the full-length mirror and mimic how, like a movie star, Mama’d lift the holder to her painted lips, light a match, puff, pose, exhale, flick the ashes into the tray. Some days I’d sit at Mama’s dresser, twist and tuck my braids into a bun, clip on her favorite earrings—bulbous pearls boasting a smooth luster and gold trim. Mama said, Earrings should bring light to your face. I preferred dangling silver chandeliers. Sometimes I’d step into Mama’s taupe silk slip that trailed onto the floor behind me and, holding my fishtail train, I’d twirl. I’d place her strand of pearls over my head, finger them, color my lips with her red-flame lipstick—Oooh pretty! Carefully, I’d open Mama’s favorite perfume—Joy, by Jean Pateau, dab and sniff—a bouquet of flowers—Mmmm. Then I’d prance about in her pumps, fan myself, like a lady, before the screened window. Other days, in the mirror, I’d read aloud from the Bible, a book, a poem.
Throughout my sixth year, 1958, I pleaded, “Mommy, may I please have a baby sister?”
“Girl, how am I going to give you a baby sister?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’d better talk to God about that.”
And talk to God I did. Each night at bedtime, for over a year, I prayed for a sister—so I wouldn’t be alone.
When Mama was home, I could play outside. If I skipped, hula hooped or cartwheeled, she’d yell, “Be careful—don’t fall and scrape your knees! You can’t be a beauty queen with scarred knees!” Beauty queen? I’d never even heard of a Negro beauty queen—though I saw beauties, like Mama, every day. She had big dreams for me. I had big hopes for a sister.
In second grade, I saw a new word printed on the girl’s bathroom wall. I didn’t know what it meant, only that it made me shiver. When I got home, Mama was cooking a favorite meal: pan-seared trout, fried okra, salad greens, a glass of lemonade with a mint sprig.
“Hi. Food’ll be ready soon.”
In the dining room, a thin film of white dust lay atop the round ebony dinner table. In the dust, with my index finger, I printed in large letters the word I’d seen: P U S S Y.
Before I could erase it, Mama entered, two plates of food in hand, set them on the table, saw the word. Her eyes narrowed to slits, searched my face.
“What does this mean?”
Uh oh. “I don’t know.”
“Why did you write it?”
Trouble. “I don’t know.” I averted my eyes.
“Where did you see it?”
My chest thumped. “I don’t know.”
We ate in silence. She watched me. “Don’t swallow a bone.”
I swung my feet beneath the table, stared at the floor, chewed, but didn’t taste my food.
Mama removed the dishes, handed me paper and a pencil. “In your best cursive I want you to write one hundred times: I will not lie.”
I took the paper and pencil, numbered the lines, wrote:
I will not lie.
I will not lie.
I will not lie . . .
It wasn’t clear then that I’d become a writer. Now that I am, it’s clear why I write nonfiction.
At age seven, I discovered the prodigious power of prayer. Mama was pregnant. In the last weeks before the baby came, Mama sent me several blocks away to live with my great aunt Hazel. A robust, dark-skinned, churchgoing woman, Aunt Hazel was also a nurse who washed her hands in water so hot they blistered. Clear, thick plastic covered her white brocade living room suite. Her hardwood floors gleamed. On her kitchen wall hung a framed picture of bleeding white Jesus. In the cupboard, a box of bescarved Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. On the stove, a daily pot of smiling black Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. She’d sometimes fry bloody calf liver with sauteed white onions and brown gravy to serve over that white rice. My job immediately after dinner was to wash, towel dry, and put away the dishes.
I wasn’t allowed to speak a word I couldn’t spell or whose meaning I didn’t know. I kept the dictionary handy. We paused our conversations to look up words, discuss their spellings and definitions. Afterwards, we resumed conversations. I spent nights in the den on a recliner, kept awake by the hammering tick-tock and hellish hourly cuckoo of her clock. I ached to go home. By the time I did, Aunt Hazel had taught me to respect words.
I turned eight in 1960. Each day when I arrived home from school, Mama left for work. I was responsible for the care of nine-month-old Zelda, our red Chihuahua, and myself until Mama returned ten hours later. While Zelda napped, I charmed neighborhood children from our second story window. I’d fill bowls with Mama’s red beans, sausage, and rice, then aim heaping spoonsful into open mouths of kids below. While I fed them, told stories, asked questions, read to them, and made them laugh, they kept me company. I was learning to entertain people from my second story stage.
One night, Mama was too tired to go to work. While we slept, a man crept into our apartment, cracked open our bedroom door, flicked on a cigarette lighter. She awoke, screamed, thrust the chifforobe against the door, grabbed my sister, flung open the windows, howled down to the neighbors, Catch my baby! Catch my baby! Somebody catch my baby! I, praying aloud, watched our downstairs neighbor hobble into his pants, shove his feet into slippers, hoist his shotgun, then stumble. The intruder leapt down the back stairs and ran like hell.
What if Mama hadn’t been home?
Years later, Zaki’s poem “a nite with beau willie brown” brought back memories of this incident. Beau Willie, a Vietnam veteran, substance abuser, and wife beater, dropped his children from a second story window.
We moved again.
Mama started sleeping with a butcher knife under her pillow. One morning, she was awakened by Zelda, a toddler, tapping her in the chest with the sharp edge of the knife. Frantic, Mama spoke with her father, who invited us to move from Texas to his Ohio home.
At Granddaddy’s house I met my great aunt Ida, in her fifties when I was nine. Once a mulatto beauty, Ida was tall, had a mane of waist-length dark hair, and skin pale as yellow orchids. She was a singer, pianist, and gardener. Some days, Aunt Ida was left in my care.
Holding the polished banister, I climbed the wooden stairs two at a time. At the landing, I knocked on Aunt Ida’s bedroom door.
“Good morning, Aunty. May I come in?”
As I opened the door, the ripe odor of urine rushed forth.
“Time to get up.” I held my breath.
Aunt Ida lay on a twin bed between soaked sheets. Her headboard pressed against one sage-colored wall, the side of her bed pushed against another. Beneath her window, a nightstand, and thereon rested a small lamp, under it a clear glass jar one-third full of dust-covered water and a full set of false teeth.
She asked, “What we gonna do?”
I placed a hand over my nose and mouth. “We’re gonna open your window.” I unlocked the latch, lifted the handle, a breeze whooshed in. I breathed deeply. She watched, gnarled fingers gripping the top sheet pulled beneath her chin. Our conversation might’ve gone like this:
“I peed the bed.”
“One that touched me.”
“At the mental home.”
“No man’s here.”
Hmmm. I looked around. “Should we clean your room?”
“I don’t clean.”
“Should I help you bathe?”
“Don’t need bathin’ or baptizin’. Ain’t tryin’ to drown.”
I picked her crumpled gown from the floor. “Here, put this on.”
Aunt Ida stood nude, wrapped her heavy hair into a topknot, pulled the gown over her head, walked barefoot before me down the sunlit stairs.
I’d heard that in her youth, Aunt Ida’d had three daughters in three years, been institutionalized, placed in straightjackets, given electric shock treatments. Now, sometimes at night, she’d run naked through Cleveland streets. She spent hours mumbling about being raped by white men in white coats, playing solitaire, checkers, and piano with fingers that had been broken, singing in a throaty voice, and talking to people whom no one else could see.
One day, Aunty called me to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, took four brown eggs, put them carefully into her gown pockets. Holding hands, we walked to the back yard. Sun beamed. We knelt on warm soil in the vegetable garden. It smelled rich, dark. With knurled fingers, she dug four holes several inches apart. An earthworm wriggled. In each hole she placed an egg, backfilled the holes, crossed herself, muttered a prayer.
“What’re we doing, Aunty?”
Her smile showed pink gums. “Growin’ eggplants.”
Our time together taught me something about art—the art of being human. Because of Aunt Ida, I wanted to be kind. She’d later inspire my stint in social work.
In June of 1963, grown-ups whispered about white people killing civil rights activist Medgar Evers. In August, during the televised March on Washington, we watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. We wept with pride, possibility, hope. September of that year, days before I turned eleven, a month before Zaki turned fifteen, four black schoolgirls were martyred in a Birmingham church bombed by the KKK. One girl had my surname. One was my age. Three were the age of Zaki. Back then, I never thought I’d live long. I decided I wouldn’t have children. They might die young. We lived with the threat of domestic terrorism.
In November, JFK was assassinated.
Again, we wept.
In a New Jersey high school during the early 1960s, Zaki wrote poems about black themes. As with Toni Morrison, white critics criticized Zaki’s content yet praised her skill.
In Cleveland, at the Polish elementary school, my sixth-grade teacher predicted I’d become a writer. Mama said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” She seemed to warn: Your words can be weapons. Your words can be used against you. She who writes may do so at her own peril.
The summer before I turned twelve, we Greyhound bussed back to Texas. My maternal grandmother had died. I began my forty-year boycott of television. It degraded nonwhite people. The next year, 1965, the FBI and the police conspired in the murder of Malcolm X. His murder propelled the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. BAM merged art with activism. Artivism. The Last Poets inspired Zaki. She’d later inspire me.
So I could attend the best black high school in Houston, Jack Yates, Mama rented another one-bedroom, second story apartment in the grand home of Mr. Maché, a rich-for-a-Negro mulatto gentleman, who drove a Cadillac. His elderly black housekeeper was called Madam. Mr. Maché’s house was on a corner lot in Houston’s best black neighborhood, Third Ward, which had experienced Jewish and other forms of white flight when blacks moved in. Like our prior Fifth Ward neighborhood, Third Ward suffered predatory business practices. Asians opened grocery stores and fried chicken shacks in black neighborhoods, competed with black businesses for black money, didn’t hire or socialize with us—except to sometimes impregnate black project girls. Whites owned liquor stores in communities of color and secretly kept black mistresses. White banks didn’t give blacks loans to open businesses in non-black neighborhoods.
In 1966, I entered tenth grade at Jack Yates—the high school later attended by George Floyd—where I was told I was too dark to be a cheerleader. Blacks internalized racism. Non-whites and immigrants absorbed and perpetuated the anti-black racism of the dominant white group. In America’s color caste system, opportunity is first afforded whites, then coloreds—those of mixed ancestry or who are lighter skinned—and lastly, blacks. I’d move fifty-one times within the United States and would experience many baptisms in the river of American racism.
I’d also learn: You adapt, or you die.
There was little privacy in our one-bedroom household. To keep us out of harm’s way, Argus-eyed Mama was ever watchful. She had no qualms about reading my mail. I knew she’d read a diary. Though many future writers do, I never kept one.
One day after walking home from Jack Yates, I started throwing up. Mama thought I was pregnant. Pregnant? I’m fourteen. She dragged me by bus from Third Ward across town to Fifth Ward to the only Negro doctor she knew. Between bus changes I, chilled, feverish, delirious, slumped against a cyclone fence in triple-digit heat.
Measles, the doctor pronounced.
Mama never apologized.
We schlepped back home by bus, exposing the world to measles as we went.
Zaki’s family home was frequented by famous poets and musicians. In our apartment, Black Panthers got one of Mama’s home cooked meals—maybe stuffed bell peppers, maybe beef brisket with cornbread and mustard greens—when they visited. Zaki would marry a musician, and later an artist. I’d marry the son of black Louisiana sharecroppers—who advanced to information technology—and, later, the son of black Texas educators—a Baptist minister, activist, and community organizer turned politician.
In 1967, in the second half of tenth grade, I chose to bus across town to help integrate Houston’s most prestigious white high school—M. B. Lamar—in River Oaks, the city’s most elite white neighborhood. I was five-foot-ten, dark, handsome—beauty has no gender—and self-assured. One day while I stood at the bus stop, a City of Houston Police car slowed.
The driver, a white male officer, yelled out, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
I didn’t answer.
“Are You A Boy Or A Girl?”
I said nothing.
“ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL?”
He sniggered and pulled off. His partner, silent, looked the other way.
At my after-school bank teller job, an elderly white woman wagged her cane at me and screeched, “Angela Davis! Angela Davis! Angela Davis!”—whom I looked nothing like. The white security guard raced toward me, hand at his gun.
When I changed my hair from straightened to a short natural style, the rotund white female assistant principal summoned me to her office. I sat eyeing her elephantine ankles.
She stood over me. “Are you making a political statement wearing your hair that way?”
“Then change it back.”
“I cut my hair. I can’t change it back.”
“Then wear a scarf till you grow it back.”
Mama said the school couldn’t legally force me to wear a headscarf. So, I didn’t. But legal and illegal were moot points. White people wrote the laws, broke the laws, and changed the laws. Jim Crow segregation had been legal in my lifetime. People in Texas couldn’t marry whomever they chose until that very year—Loving v. Virginia, 1967. Black Codes, lynching of blacks, police-on-black brutality, white mob massacres of blacks—whether legal and unjust, or illegal and unjust—were executed with impunity.
Mama taught: “Never steal—it’s wrong. Besides, a white person who steals a hundred bucks’ll get a slap on the hand. You steal a thimble—you’ll go to prison.”
In 1968, a Texas Southern University black student leader, Lee Otis Johnson, was sentenced to thirty years in prison for passing a marijuana cigarette to an undercover cop. At Lamar, where I’d heard a classmate was an astronaut’s daughter, white male students smoked marijuana behind the auditorium in clear light of day. I had no room for error. My one choice was to be extraordinary.
Some say I’m high-strung. A “productive” worrier. Hard driving. Technophobic. Compulsive. Perfectionistic. Qualities that can hinder a writer. In retrospect, managing anti-black consciousness and anti-black culture consumed bandwidth I could’ve better used to write.
Mama valued grace in future stars of stage, screen, and rodeo. She escorted me across Houston by cab for a crash course in modeling. Each time the meter clicked an added charge for a portion of a mile, I winced. Later, she bought a car built the year I was born. In Betsy Lou Buick, Mama transported me to and from local speech tournaments, and afterwards drove Zelda and me to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream to celebrate my wins.
In eleventh grade, after reading the whitewashed American history textbook, I told my white female history teacher, “I’m not taking that exam.”
Stunned, she asked, “Why not?”
“Because it doesn’t include history of black Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, or Asian Americans.”
Sitting behind me, a white female student whispered, “It’s too bad you’re black, girl.”
I whispered back, “Meet me after school in the gym.”
At home I told Mama, “I was suspended for fighting. Good thing I didn’t have a gun.”
I won fourteen consecutive first place trophies competing in poetry interpretation tournaments, including the state championship, with my signature rendering of “The Mountain Whippoorwill” by Stephen Vincent Benét.
The white male principal summoned me to his office, rose from his desk, congratulated, and thanked me. Smiling, he shook my hand.“You are a credit to your race.”
There it was again, that ubiquitous white supremacist consciousness.
I was sixteen and knew: I am a credit to the human race.
While I resisted bedrock bias and challenged miseducation, Zaki, whip-smart, burned through her undergraduate program in American Studies at Barnard, a private college in New York City. She also got married during her first year, then tried to kill herself when the relationship ended. Still, she graduated with honors.
She later said Barnard was where she “came of age as a feminist.”
I visited Detroit years after the uprisings of 1967. Much of the city remained in shambles. But even as a youth, through my lived experience, I knew, though I couldn’t yet bring to language, that black rebellions were spurred by structural inequities foundational to the white power plutocracy. I knew that blacks faced disparate hiring protocols and unfair pay. Mama worked more and earned less than her white trainees. Blacks had unequal access to housing and education. I bussed from depressed Third Ward across town to a better white school in elite River Oaks. Blacks were subjected to an exploitative healthcare system and harsh policing. We avoided hospitals due to historic medical malfeasance. J. Marion Sims. Henrietta Lacks. Mississippi appendectomies. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. White policemen hog-tied black men in the streets. We confronted an unjust criminal justice system. Black Lee Otis Johnson got thirty years for one marijuana cigarette. A loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment allows mass incarceration and forced labor—enslavement—of black people to continue within America’s prison system.
I boycotted television and boxing. But I loved Muhammad Ali. I respected his choice not to go to war against the Vietnamese.
Dr. Martin Luther King was two months older than Mama when, in April 1968, he was assassinated by a white man. A beloved black father figure, sage spiritual and political leader—gone. I plummeted into historical despair, prayed for spiritual guidance, fasted ten days and ten nights—no food or water for the first five, only water for the last five—read the Bible cover to cover, twice. I saw Christian hegemony. Day to day, I witnessed many whites practice Christianity and racism. Later, I’d learn that religious apartheid, progeny of white supremacy, was ubiquitous. One example: The vicious treatment of indigenous students by Christian missionaries at Native American Residential Schools.
At Lamar, when we were sixteen, I met Jeanette, one of my few black classmates. Her mother recognized me by name. Mama confirmed Jeanette and I’d been born on the same day, at the same hospital, in the same room. Jeanette’s mom, the librarian at Zelda’s elementary school, was hospitalized due to breast cancer. Jeanette and I visited her. Lying in a hospital bed, Jeanette’s mother, in a thin, sweet voice, asked, “Risë, will you recite a poem for me?” Caught off guard, I declined. She asked again. Unrehearsed, I refused again. She pleaded. I didn’t know she was dying.
Later, Jeanette was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly after our fortieth birthday party in 1992, Jeanette died. Over time, I atoned for denying the reasonable request of a dying elder, Jeanette’s mother. I became a hospice worker. Further, I vowed to become a poet, and to willingly recite my poems.
One of my white high school classmates, I’ll call her Rose, was a petite, bosomy seventeen-year-old with dark blond curls, a sideways glance, and a wry smile. She asked me to partner with her in a duet acting competition. She suggested a scene from Lewis John Carlino’s Sarah and the Sax. We won.
In her sporty car, Rose whizzed us through River Oaks to her sprawling home reminiscent of Gone with the Wind’s Tara Plantation. Hefty, older black maids ran to open doors for “Miss Rose.” They stared at me with surprise and suspicion, which devolved to shock and dismay as I followed “Miss Rose” up the front steps, through the front door, onto the long staircase and into the wing that sequestered “Miss Rose’s” bedroom suite. Nonplussed, while we rehearsed, a maid brought us food.
Rose had money. We both had guts.
At that time, other than our mulatto landlord, material wealth among blacks was uncommon in my experience. Decades later, I read that Zaki grew up with servants in her home. Maybe the servants waited on her family’s famous, talented, and accomplished guests. I saw an interview in which Zaki said her parents wore their fur coats to see a performance of her work. Money and social status help, but they don’t stop white supremacy, racism, segregation, sexism, heartbreak, divorce, mental health challenges, or suicide attempts. They do afford one opportunity. They afford one education.
Rose was a year ahead of me in school. Days before she graduated, we sat together on the school lawn. Sun was merciful, branches of southern trees hung low.
I asked, “Where are you going to college?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Why can’t you tell me?”
“Because you wouldn’t be able to go there.”
“Why wouldn’t I be able to go there?”
“Because your mother probably can’t afford it.”
I bristled. “Well, what kind of school is it?”
“A drama school.”
“What do you have to do to get in?”
“Audition—but they only take forty-five people a year.”
“Where is it?”
Traffic whistled by. I leaned in. “What’s the name of it?”
I’d never heard of it.
It hadn’t escaped Rose or me, when we’d rehearsed in Third Ward, that her River Oaks bedroom was larger than the apartment my family shared. University buildings and city streets bore Rose’s family name. None bore mine. We opened our own doors, cooked our own food, scrubbed our own floors. No one called me Miss. I didn’t drive, much less own a sports car.
Texas had been a slaveholding state where blacks learned of their freedom two and a half years after issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. I’d heard my great uncle, Old Uncle Buddy—an unschooled genius mathematician who manned the local washeteria—speak of having no birth certificate, of young’uns born in the field durin’ pea pickin’ time, when black mamas gave birth on the ground, wrapped their babies in their skirts, and kept on workin’.
We didn’t inherit land, property, money, interest, or even respect in return for our ancestors’ 250 years of forced labor. What happened to our intergenerational wealth? Who inherited it?
I felt the scorch of shame and fury. I was determined, somehow, to get a college education.
When I arrived home, eight-year-old Zelda sat cross-legged on the five-by-eight–foot linoleum kitchen floor, doing homework. Mama cooked dinner—probably fried chicken breasts, stewed okra with corn and tomatoes over rice, a garden salad. To the right of the stove above the sink, sun shone through a small window where, on the sill, an avocado seed, supported by toothpicks spoked in its sides, hung balanced on the lip of a half-full glass of water, growing white threadlike roots, sprouting green nodules.
“I know where I’m going to college.”
Mama’s eyebrows raised. “Where?”
“Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.”
“That’s a good school. What’ll you major in?”
“I’m going to Carnegie Mellon University. Or—I’m not going to college.”
Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969, when I was seventeen. It gave me courage.
Zaki and I each had a lust for experience, we both were extreme. She had to address her passions, whatever drove her moods, her attempts at self-harm. I had to address my survival, how I’d go to college, how I’d pay my way. My preparation and refuge were taking drama classes, competing in speech tournaments, singing with a weekend band, giving newspaper interviews, asking for spiritual assistance.
Mary, another black classmate, and I decided to perform a duet of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” in the school talent show. Mama bought us matching hot pink mini dresses and cute shoes, directed and critiqued our living room rehearsals. Aretha wailed on the record player, Mary sang into a hairbrush, I crooned into a straightening comb. Zelda warbled along. During breaks Mama fed us hamburgers, fries, and RC Cola. After Mary left, I rehearsed more.
The day of the talent show, we did a live run-through with my weekend band. We were hot. When our turn came, we lit the stage up, tore the house down. The auditorium roared with white kids screamin' their fool heads off.
After the performance, a white Jewish man followed me backstage and introduced himself as the father of a classmate.
All smiles, he said, “That was really good.”
“Do you plan to go to college?”
“I’d like to help you go.”
“I’ll get people to donate money.”
“I’ll talk to my mother and get back to your daughter.”
“Be sure you do.”
After graduating in January 1970, I took my first airplane ride to Carnegie Mellon auditions held in Chicago. I performed a monologue—from which play, I don’t recall—and was accepted. In the gap before fall, ten-year-old Zelda tried on my clothes and tried my nerves. Mama worked days and did evening community theatre. I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and further embraced my negritude.
That year, Zaki entered her master’s program in American Studies at the University of Southern California. Born Paulette Williams, she adopted the Zulu name Ntozake: “She who comes with her own things.” Shange: “She who walks like a lion.”
My Pittsburgh welcoming committee was a car of white guys who, as I waited at the stop light, rolled their windows down, hurled eggs and slurs. For succor, I visited a Christian church near campus. When I walked in, everyone turned to stare. For support, I saw the unsupportive campus therapist—once. To release stress, I’d climb to the roof of a campus building and scream to the stars.
College was a blur. Actor Ted Danson was a senior when I was a freshman, along with future author Jewell Parker Rhodes and future director Sheldon Epps. We started the year with about fifty classmates. Each of the next three years, a quarter of us dropped out. After receiving an inheritance, one student left for a trip around the world. I, too, wanted to travel, but would’ve never quit school. My degree meant a lot to Mama. The degree and Mama meant a lot to me.
She called. “Do you need birth control pills?”
“No. But if I do, I’ll take care of it.”
She sent care packages. Zelda later shared that in order to send those packages, Mama went without stockings.
In my junior year at Carnegie Mellon, I took a weekend trip to New York City. I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. So that I wouldn’t have to pay the five-dollar re-admission, I sat through it back-to-back five times. The film probes issues that shaped Bergman’s life, and mine: spirituality, femaleness, family bonds, emotional estrangement, pain, illness, death. My life—our lives—were also shaped by different sides of white supremacy. Nearly two decades later, I saw Julie Dash’s film, Daughters of the Dust—the first full-length feature film directed by an African American woman in the United States to have a general theatre release. It tells the story of three generations of South Carolina Gullah women. Historically, socially, and artistically pivotal for me, the film set a standard of value, creativity, and beauty to which I would aspire.
Although Rose entered Carnegie Mellon a year before me, we finished together in 1974. At auditions held for graduating seniors, I wore all black and performed a monologue I’d written, possibly about my maternal great grandparents—the parents of Aunt Ida—an octoroonish-ish or quadroon-ish Irishman and his black former housekeeper who, family lore had it, came by way of Morocco to Haiti to Louisiana, was an outstanding Creole cook, and spoke French patois. Afterwards, the artistic director of Alley Theatre invited me to return to Houston to play the part of a maid.
No. No maid in life. No maid on stage. No.
I skipped the graduation ceremony, spent twenty dollars—half of my entire worldly fortune—for a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to New York City—City of Dreams. Gonna see my name written in lights across the Broadway sky.
Unbeknownst to fourteen-year-old Zelda or me, Mama planned to relocate them from Texas to join me in New York City. Oh God. Mama aimed to keep her family together, plus she was an adventuress. Thankfully, they settled in Spanish Harlem. Mama worked and, in her mid-forties, returned to college. In a year-long rebellion, Zelda barely spoke and refused to venture outdoors except to attend junior high. I remained on the Upper West Side, sublet twelve apartments in twelve months, and auditioned. After a few off-off-Broadway gigs, I landed a year’s work at Baltimore Center Stage theatre. The best thing about that year was my down time spent studying color at local museums, scouring shelves in spiritual bookstores, and Mama and Zelda’s visit. We made breakfast omelets. Mama cooked dinner—maybe salmon croquettes and fried green tomatoes—for my newfound friends.
In 1975, Zaki left California to return to New York City, master’s degree in hand, dancing to the beat of African drums. At New York’s New Federal Theatre, she combed the kinks out of her choreopoem. Later, my play would be produced at New Federal Theatre. Later still, I’d study Middle Eastern dance and complete graduate school in Texas.
By 1976, I’d returned from Baltimore to New York City. Between acting jobs, I waitressed. One night, as I set my tables, the white male manager lurked near, talked trash, came on to me, came too close, put his hand on me.
I pointed a steak knife at him. “Don’t touch me.”
He stood down, sized me up. “When you were hired, did you join the union?”
“Then, you’re fired.”
“Then I’m fired.”
I stand against male bullshit.
Shortly thereafter—thank God—I auditioned for Oz and Zaki. I was cast as the Lady in Purple in the off-Broadway production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
On the spoken word album, I hear myself speak Ntozake’s words:
i lived wit myths & music waz my old man & i cd dance
a dance outta time/ a dance wit no partners/ take my
pills & keep right on steppin/ linger in non-english
speakin arms so there waz no possibility of understandin
& you YOU
came sayin i am the niggah/ i am the baddest muthafuckah
i said yes/ this is who i am waitin for
For three months we played to full audiences who leapt to their feet and erupted in cheers as we bowed. Cicely Tyson rushed backstage after a performance, congratulated and hugged us.
She was authentic, enthusiastic, warm. A good omen.
On September 15, 1976, at the Booth Theatre, the original Broadway production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf opened—three days before my twenty-fourth birthday, a month and three days before Zaki’s twenty-eighth. The cast included Ntozake, Laurie, Trazana, Janet, Aku, Paula, and me—Risë.
Ntozake birthed the choreopoem. Oz midwifed it onto the larger stage. We, the cast of seven wild women, imbued it with our lifeforce, breast-fed and nurtured its Broadway existence until July of 1978.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, produced seventeen years earlier in 1959, was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway—the first theatre opened on Broadway in 1735. It was also the first Broadway play to have a black director. Portraying a slice of black American life—a family aiming to move beyond segregation and disenfranchisement—as the civil rights era dawned, it ran for over a year. Hansberry, a writer, playwright, civil rights activist, feminist, and lesbian led the way. She died of cancer at age thirty-four.
Likely Lorraine, as well as poet Audre Lorde, knew: Racism, sexism, and homophobia take a toll. Writing and activism exact a price.
Ntozake glowed like daybreak in offstage spotlight. Mama, social butterfly, brought friends to show after show. I gave my all on stage. Offstage I was misplaced.
I disliked people queueing for my autograph, felt claustrophobic, wasn’t into hoopla, hubbub, hobnob, schmooze. I felt weighted by social obligations, drained by the presence of too many people in too close proximity for too long. Still, I was struck by the calm, consideration, and warmth of Sidney Poitier. Later I’d work with his daughter, Pamela, in my play. But usually, I’d race away after the show, rocket down from the high of performance, eat out, cab home, listen to Donny H., Joni, Luther, Chaka, Gato, Luciano, Hako, Leontyne . . . read Hayden Herrera, Zora Neale Hurston, Kahlil Gibran, Yukio Mishima, Violette Leduc . . .
Not long after For Colored Girls . . . opened on Broadway, Ntozake left the show. I felt her absence as a loss. She was on a trajectory. She had other work to do, some of which likely included acclimating to sudden fame.
More than fame, I valued privacy, relatedness, intimacy.
Zaki married a second time. I was alone in New York City, still searching spiritual bookstores, Monet’s Water Lilies, strangers’ faces, within myself, for something palpable, intangible, amorphous.
I wrote letters to God.
Frequently after performances, I’d take the subway to Greenwich Village to hear Alberta Hunter sing jazz and blues. She’d had an international singing/songwriting career from the 30s to the 50s, took a twenty-year hiatus, worked as a nurse, then made her comeback. I went so often she’d invite me to her table, leave her purse in my care while she sang, sit and chat with me between sets. Ageless in her eighties—old enough to be my grandmother—she was fabulous. Those lyrics—I got the world in a jug, stopper right here in my hand—bright eyes, shining hair, red lips and nails, bold earrings, that figure. She sizzled with mischief.
“Miss Alberta, are you married?”
“I have a place to live, an alarm clock, and a job—what do I need with a man?” I later learned she’d had a long relationship with a female partner. Miss Alberta, a Southern-born artist, modeled being in the limelight, leaving it, then returning. In her time. On her terms.
By 1978, I was worn from two years of eight, full-tilt performances a week. I was bored with the repetitiveness of a long run, the redundancy of speaking the same words—Zaki’s words—though enthralling. When the show finally closed, I was in shock. Then I was in aftershock. Then I was good.
In the City That Never Sleeps I took a rest from acting, started writing Incandescent Tones, my first play. But when the bills came due, too much rent was left at the end of the money. Producer Woodie King Jr. offered me a different role—the Lady in Red—in a For Colored Girls . . . west coast tour. Again, I said yes to Ntozake’s words. I think we played LA and, for sure, San Francisco. After that, though the experience had been extraordinary, I declared my For Colored Girls . . . days done.
Good roles for dark-skinned actresses in the 80s were about as few and far between as they’d been for Mama in the 40s. A white male agent told me my look was “too ethnic.” Anti-black aesthetics. I thought of Marian Anderson, Nina Simone. I could’ve slapped him.
What was missing? Black women writers to tell their stories, to expand the vision, to deepen the narrative. I realized I’d gone to acting school because Rose’d said I couldn’t, because being an actress might’ve been as much Mama’s dream as mine, because that’s where life led.
Mama was a force with which we reckoned.
One day, she announced, “I am the tree, my daughters are branches on the tree, and the tree will always be bigger than the branch.”
I said, “No Mama, God is the tree and we’re all branches.”
Zelda and I eye-rolled and groaned the time Mama proclaimed, “I’ve already learned, forgotten, and flushed down the toilet more than you’ll ever know.”
I shot back, “Intellect only goes so far, Mama. After the mind, spiritual consciousness takes over.”
Another time, she declared, “I am the mother, and seniority rules.”
“Just cause somebody’s old doesn’t mean he’s not a fool,” I said. “Could be he’s just an old fool.”
“Risë, you’re a rebel.”
“I’m an individual, Mama, and there’s a place where you end, and I begin.”
Zelda and Mama left New York City for Ohio in 1979, after Granddaddy died. I experienced Mama’s absence as an abyss. A fawn silk slip that she forgot to pack, I wore. After leaving Cleveland, they returned to Houston. I finished writing Incandescent Tones. It was autobiographical, leaned into my spiritual journey, artistic journey, relationships with men. The play was produced at several theatres. The off-Broadway production was memorable due to S. Epatha Merkerson’s interpretation of a poetic monologue I’d written about a trip to Asia taken with my Japanese boyfriend.
I’d trained to become an actor. I wanted to train to become a writer. But, at that point, I saw no way forward to that end, no way to conjure resources and invest time required to become the writer I wanted to be while simultaneously earning a living. I set my own bar. Until I could clear it, I put writing on the back burner, put Incandescent Tones in a box.
My path to becoming a writer would be serpentine. It now occurs to me that drama school and an acting career were important junctures on my journey. I also see that the process of my living was and is part of my training as a writer. I required a span of time to become more of myself, to gain broader experience from which to extract realization so that if and when I entered the literary conversation, I could make an intentional contribution.
During the late 70s and early 80s, the AIDS epidemic blowtorched Manhattan. Some sank in the undertow of the city’s sexual waters. Six of my friends died AIDS-related deaths. Zaki later updated For Colored Girls . . . to include the poem “positive.” I remained celibate for a year.
I rehearsed a play written by Ruby Dee and directed by Ossie Davis, had a small part in an NBC Movie of the Week, performed in the off-Broadway musical Blues in the Night. But after the murder of John Lennon in the archway of his Dakota Apartments residence—where my school friend, Rose, also lived—a lingering pall blanketed the city. I saw Yoko walking, dressed in black, paused, shared a moment with her in weighted air under a sky low-slung with collective grief.
New York was no longer the place where I wanted to be.
In 1981, Zaki gave birth to a daughter. In future years I’d miscarry twice, then hold a dead newborn son. Later I heard she'd separated, divorced. I, too, would divorce twice.
I found women as intelligent as men, as attractive and, generally, more humane.
In September 1982, just before my thirtieth birthday, I left Gotham for Houston. Mama’s health was declining. An artist-in-residence position led me to Ohio. Performing one-woman shows took me around the United States and included my strained performance at Carnegie Recital Hall.
Acting had become drudgery.
In the mid 80s, I came off the road in Houston, declared my time in theatre complete. Mama had been proud of my acting career. It’d been the fulfillment of a shared dream.
I shifted course.
Life guided me along a circuitous route that included travel to five continents, friends and lovers, food and drink, clothing and art from far-off countries, varied cultures. While I was being my version of a cosmopolite, Zaki wrote, published, cooked, taught, performed, translated, directed, traveled, nurtured her daughter.
Periodically I’d heard Zaki was in Houston—teaching, working in theatre. We’d never reached out. One bright day I sat in a public park. She appeared from behind me, walked around my left side, disheveled, drinking from a brown-bagged bottle, looking like love might’ve gone wrong again.
She slurred, “How’s it goin’, Risë?”
“Hey. I’m OK. How ’bout you?”
“I’m alright.” She raised the bottle, took a long guzzle.
“What’s up with you, Zaki?”
Things were askew—her hair weave, the bottle, her effort to stand, to talk, to walk away.
“Where’re you going?” I asked.
I stood. “Can you get there by yourself?”
“Yep, I’ll make it.” She leaned against a pole, cradled the bottle, smiled.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll be alright. Gonna go to bed. Get some sleep.”
We left it there. I hadn’t seen Zaki in possibly a decade—since New York. I’d lived in many aspects of her world on stage. There’d been references to substance use in the play. In real life, I’d maintained distance. I was navigating my own distress—my mother’s illness, an unworkable relationship, a career change. Zaki and I were resourceful. Though the incident worried me, followed me home, I trusted her with herself.
Years later, I saw a talk Zaki gave on mental health. She said she’d known, between ages ten and thirteen, that something was wrong. She’d sleep two days, then stay up several days. Classic manic-depressive symptoms. She remembered she’d forgotten to take her meds that day, laughed, said she felt OK. She was magical.
It’s known that bipolar disorder favors creative artists. Studies show that poets, even more than other artists, are vulnerable to mental health concerns. The gift of a manic phase—if one can keep body and soul together—is that she can get a lot of work done. Zaki did.
In March of 1991, I cringed while watching the televised police beating of yet another black man, Rodney King. Many other officers stood by, watched, and commented on, but did not stop the four policemen who did the beating. LAPD officers Koon, Powell, Briseno, and Wind were later acquitted by a state court jury. Days after King was beaten, a fifteen-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in the back of the head by a fifty-one-year-old Korean woman, Soon Ja Du, over a $1.79 bottle of juice for which Latasha had $2 in hand to pay. Though tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Du was sentenced to only five years of probation by white trial judge Joyce Karlin. These incidents stoked the 1992 LA riots. They stoked my ire.
I saw Ntozake a final time, briefly, in Houston. I’m not sure when. She looked well. Vulnerable yet fierce, like a colored girl who’d survived to become a woman of color. Our conversation escapes me. But Zaki’s presence reminded me of my as-yet-unrealized dream. I’d spoken her words a thousand times. When would the time be for me to write and speak mine?
There’s the way I wish things had been for me as an artist. And there’s the way things were. I had to reliably earn my keep. In my application essay for graduate school in social work, I wrote a statement, inspired by Aunt Ida, about my desire to serve those with mental illness. I earned a master’s degree with emphases in clinical and in political social work—leading clients toward insight and toward confronting oppression—while I earned steady pay. Social work seemed a further detour on my sinuous creative journey.
Mama was the age I am now when, in Houston in 1998, her garden of pink tulips in February bloom, she died. She had been our earth, sun, rain, air. At the Valentine’s Day memorial service, I eulogized her. Soon thereafter, I adopted my new middle name, Kevalshar. Loosely translated: “One who embraces God.”
Six years later, Zelda, the animals, and I trekked from the Southwest to the Northwest. We carried Mama’s love, her ashes, and watercolors she’d painted of petunias, magnolias, roses. We brought forward her spirit of freedom, autonomy, and resistance. We, our nomadic mother’s daughters, hoped for work, welcoming, and a safe place to settle in our homeland.
From 2004 to 2007, I was a social worker in Portland, then in Seattle until 2014. Serving those who confronted mental illness, physical illness, gender dysphoria, addiction, incarceration, aging, and death was edifying. The work deepened my empathy, expanded my humanity—a crucial step on my labyrinthine creative path.
I’d met Nelson Mandela following a fundraiser in Houston in 1991. I purchased his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, when I visited South Africa in 1996, and read it shortly before his death in 2013. He expressed regret at having been absent from his children during his long political imprisonment. Nothing replaces one’s father, though Mandela’s absence had been for an honorable cause. Too, he was the father of a nation, a father figure for me.
I read Zaki settled in Brooklyn, had a rare nervous system disorder, suffered several strokes. In a talk archived at Barnard College, she spoke of a time when she couldn’t stand or use her hands. In an online interview she shared that she’d written with computer-voice-to-text technology assistance. Yet even as she navigated systemic bias, mitigated mental health challenges, militated against substance abuse, managed symptoms of progressive illness—still, she wrote.
Manhattan proclaimed “Ntozake Shange Day” in 2014, the year Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee died, the year I began four years of social work and writing my way through unforgiving winters in North Idaho, former home of the Aryan Nations. A female friend, concerned for my safety, asked me a privileged white woman’s question: “But why would you move to North Idaho?”
An upgraded question: “What stand must I take, what must I do so that everyone—including nonwhite people—can safely live everywhere in America?”
When my North Idaho job abruptly ended, I declared my time in social work done. In spring of 2018, Zelda, the animals, and I caravanned to Boise. I entered a creative writing program. Six months thereafter, in October, nine days after her seventieth birthday, Ntozake died in her sleep. Thunderstruck, my commitment to write intensified. The next year, Toni Morrison died. Anguished, I drilled down deeper. Beyond my commitment is my covenant to write.
In 2020, pandemic year of lockdown and bloodletting, there were many more Emmett Tills: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were but three among them. They could’ve been my children. Through grief, in protest, I wrote.
Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, whom I loved like family and revered as the last of the civil rights old guard, died.
Morocco, my male Bullmastiff, died.
In the New Year, lone black officer, Eugene Goodman, armed with only a baton, diverted part of an insurrectionist mob so legislators could safely evacuate during the Capitol siege.
Cicely Tyson died.
During and after the murder trial of George Floyd for which, in an atypical instance, a white male police officer, Derek Chauvin, was found guilty, guilty, guilty, police upsurged in their killing of nonwhite people. Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant were three more among the many Emmett Tills. They could’ve been my grandchildren. Through angst, to bear witness, I wrote.
Between spring and summer 2021, in our Boise Foothills patio garden, Zelda soaks in sunshine. We sip coffee and whisper beneath rapid wingbeats of a hummingbird who imbibes a long, sweet drink. To respect Zelda’s privacy, I’ve written a fiction story inspired by our shared experience of being detained by a white male law enforcement officer. Not knowing the story is finished and will be published, Zelda gives me permission to write it as nonfiction. I do not.
Ancestresses are omnipresent in the garden. Mama’s peacock tulips bloomed, her Moroccan roses climb. Aunt Hazel and Aunt Ida bud tangerine geraniums. Jeannette and her mother blossom a lemon tree. Love-lies-bleeding for Zora, Maya, and Toni. Bearded irises burgeon purple Audre, blue Lorraine. Day lilies Aretha and Miss Alberta, Ruby and Cicely, flourish. Passion flowers vine in Zaki’s name.
My life as an American artist has been lived against the backdrop of American apartheid. I’ve been a reluctant writer. Now I join the brave kindred voices who’ve come before me, who come beside me, who will come after me. Co-creatrix of a new future, in this darkest and ripest hour, I rise to write the story.