From the late 1990’s to the early turn of the century, I was fortunate to witness a really neat, cool bundle of movies about Black writers and thinkers in a short period of time for the world, but at just the right time for me. I paid homage to them in two prior posts, partially written because Flavorwire published a story on films about writers and included only one black-cast film- to exclude at least nine my friends and I could think of. Of course I knew writers existed, and I knew many were Black and people of color. But, according to what I had been programmed to believe in school, Black writers were all passed away or they were senior enough to be my great-grandparents.
Someone passed me PUSH (Sapphire) and The Coldest Winter Ever (Sistah Souljah), both by Black women writers I could see as for my age and time. Terry McMillan was a glimmer of modern-day hope. More radical and activist Black friends gave me E. Lynn Harris’s Invisible Life (one of the first mainstream novels about gay black men in America), and African novels published in Britain and abroad. I subscribed to Poets & Writers, to be pleasantly surprised at the high number of young faces and M.F.A programs in Creative Writing, and to even send off my dreadfully young work to its listed contests and grants. If someone had told me I would soon work with and receive praise from these writers, I would have thought they were poking fun at me.
I kept on with more “real” and “professional” ambitions: to be a lawyer or journalist, taking the right classes and work-study jobs to prepare myself for both. I mean, people of color who are first-generation college students suffer through high-priced schools to get that fancy degree and name a price for it; the idea of the “arts” is almost unspeakable in some of our homes. I wrote baby press releases in the University of Chicago News Office and sorted mail at the University of Chicago Press. I bought LSAT study guides.
My heart, addiction to books and love for writing anything (even friends’ resumes and poems for church) made me an English major. By my junior year, I learned from my few Black professors that I could actually entertain the thought of being one of them: to keep reading about these things I loved learning, to show others what I learned and to contribute to the respect of black writers throughout the whole culture.
Finally, I could be “professional” but also stay in love with books forever. So, I set about studying and teaching the incomparable and consecrated greats: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. I did outside independent research on others, including Black women who went to University of Chicago, like A.J. Verdelle. I entered the Andrew Mellon Minority Fellowship Program in Humanities, one of just a few minorities selected that year. And, I wanted to study Black films as well as books. But by then, Love Jones had come out. I saw all these Black people just like me: not pandering to Whites, dressing and hairstyling naturally, in love with Gordon Parks and Sonia Sanchez. What?!?!? I still have all the photography stills I took
First Lady Michelle Obama was a Dean during my college years, and an unofficial mascot for the few but overly-ambitious black students at the school; when I sought advice on grades and the pressure-filled environment and career paths, I capped most quandaries with: “But I really, really like to write.” She finally recalled, almost flippantly, “Oh, my husband wrote a book…I’m gonna get him to talk to you.” Still, they were older than me. And they had gone to Harvard Law School. I could not imagine myself writing books. It is amazing how many people walk away from dreams because they think people who have attained them have so much more or are so much better than they are. I accepted advice cheerily, but I did not really believe something like that could happen in my life.
Thanks to my involvement with the few but tireless Black student organizations on campus, I was part of committees and actions to pay several of these consecrated untouchables to come talk to us lowly admirers: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Octavia Butler, Derek Walcott, Angela Davis, John Edgar Wideman. When I saw in person the faces I had only seen in books, leaping out to me from a stage or a frantic airport pickup the always-humble ladies and gentleman could agree to, it was humbling. Not bad for a gal from Kankakee, Illinois. But still, I would think: “They are famous and important and read in the schools. I can’t be that.”
The idea of the working, current, real (yes, human!) Black writer introduced itself to me on camera first and real life next. Like Preach in Cooley High, I was teased for speaking in metaphors and mouthing my poetic thoughts. Like Sidney in Brown Sugar and Lauren in Slam!, I envisioned myself in the leadership role of editing as well as teaching language arts. I made sure to do both in college, opening up more ideas.
After college, I wanted to breath awhile from solitary confinement of school stress and work in the world with others. I did so for a black business organization, in the communications department, travelling and ghostwriting and making others sound good. While I contemplated the directions to take, I knew my soul was not going to rest until I had least tried to emulate that “Black Writer” I could see truly existed. I moved to Harlem in emulation of the Renaissance Black writers of old, and I enrolled in an M.F.A. program to run around New York City’s Village like the Black writers of new.
So while my earlier listed films about Black writers may be most important for historical and African-American cinematic advancement reasons (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Cooley High, for example), the later movies are important for just showing ourselves back to ourselves, telling people like me “Yes, we are here and working right now!” and updating the “Black Writer in America” to extend beyond the Harlem Renaissance and Black Power eras in my eyes. Had I remained looking at greater people who had lived so much longer lives and had so much more of a writing career, I would have always talked myself out of the possibilities. I would have stayed scared. The films helped me to see myself in current moments as I was at the time for my age, which was poised to do anything I wanted to do- including writing. I really owe a huge debt to those movies and filmmakers, for widening my possibilities.
No matter who you are or where you are, keep writing!