Saturday, May 26, 2018

When the Choir Preaches Back

"I don't want to be told
what to write
I can excavate my own content
I want to be pushed into
digging deep wells
in unheard of lands.
I want you to give me eyes
in the back of my head.
Be a thunder clap
and rouse me.
Be an earthquake
make me tremble
Be a river raging rampant
in my veins.
Shock me shitless."
~ Gloria Anzaldua (1974)*

If you find Gloria Anzaldua quoted in the Foreward to a book you just began reading (as I did when I began reading the one this post is about), you should probably pause to buckle the seat belt of your psyche or you might find yourself suddenly flying into the air and free-falling down whatever personal mountain you're currently on. Gloria Anzaldua is no one to play with. And Deborah Santana, author/editor/film producer and philanthropist, who believes that people of gentleness and faith can change the world, is no one to play with either. The latest proof of this is a hugely important new anthology of short essays by Women of Color representing a range of ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences.

Launched in January of this year, All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World ~ Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom, edited by Santana, hit the ground running, its cover and first few pages decorated with blurbs from the likes of Isabel Allende, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Alfre Woodard, among others. Invited to speak with Santana myself(!) before adding my review to such dignitaries' comments would have been daunting indeed had I not already been shocked shitless by the essays and very excited by the opportunity.

The volume is so intense, so raw but matter of fact, so challenging and so celebratory that -- once I had read it -- I could hardly wait to put in my two cents. Still, not being a Woman of Color myself, I wondered how I could dare to weigh in. Susan Gabriel calls the book: "A revolutionary primer for all us well-meaning white folks who haven't a clue about what it's like to be a woman of color." And I agree.

But then Deborah Santana casually dropped into the conversation, "We're interested in what you have to say about these essays," placing me firmly on tenterhooks to deal with the implications. Suddenly, the tension of an editor waiting for a critic to speak was replaced by the tension of the critic being informed that she will be judged by those who wrote and edited and lived the essays. I don't mean to suggest I felt challenged in a belligerent way. I just mean I was being asked to ante up, to enter the relationship between writer and reader with reverence, to prove I got it. That's why I say Santana is not to be played with. She looks gentle. She speaks gently. But she has found her voice and has made it her mission to help other girls and women find theirs -- even if it's your own -- and Goddess help you if you get in her way.

After writing this blog for more than twelve years and speaking out on White Supremacy for half a century, I might have slipped on the banana peel of my ego or my age or my "Whiteness," but instead, I felt, as I always do when allowed to sit at this table, honored and greatly humbled and responsible for giving it my very best effort. Santana, I suspect, has a way of communicating that she expects as much of everybody she works with, not as a demand, but as an invitation to rise to your own next level, encouraged to stretch and learn. The result, of course, is evident in everything she puts her hand to. All the Women in My Family Sing is no exception.

I have long since admitted publicly and more than a few times that thirty years in higher education have not endeared scholarly writing of any kind to me. It has its place, of course, if rigorously researched and well presented. It carries on the discipline through scholarly dialogue, for sure. But Santana believes -- as do I -- that storytelling is the basis of the kind of education that changes lives and builds communities. That's why many of the posts I have written personally on this blog are in the form of storytelling and much of my teaching is in that form, as well.

Storytelling makes listeners into learners. Storytelling puts listeners in the position of the person telling the story; puts listeners in contact with feelings they cannot escape in the same way they might side-step some third party rendition of a concept or a situation. This is what makes fiction and film so powerful. When storytelling is used to place a listener -- or a reader -- in the skin (literally) of the storyteller, the story becomes a lightening bolt after which anything it strikes can never be the same.

When the call for submissions originally went out in the publishing world, among writer's groups, and to a selected number of recruited others either personally known or recommended, Santana says she was an innocent related to the overwhelming nature of the undertaking. Then, no fewer than 300 essays poured in, throwing Santana (and a quickly collected group of women to assist her) into a task that required her undivided attention 24/7 until the book was launched three years later. No matter what each woman's role, relates the editor proudly, every person involved with the project (running the gamut from soup to nuts -- editing through cover art) is a Woman of Color. This commitment was so successful and such a strong source of energy and inspiration that it has created a model Santana now sees as spearheading a movement.

Slowly, but with deadly aim, the anthology took shape, with some submissions requiring a fair amount of re-working and others less, but the overall process being very much a group effort by highly competent women who came to trust and respect each other and their mission, referred to by Santana as a "journey of magnificence." It is apparent when the reader opens the book.

I had received my copy of All the Women in My Family Sing a couple of months before I got time to read it, but once I began, even with a good bit on my plate, I had no trouble at all staying engaged. The sixty-nine stories that ultimately appear in the book are so beautifully written, so powerful, and often so gut-wrenching (even though most are only three or four pages long), that each is a stand-alone jewel in and of itself. Some, I believe, will become famous for their crystal clear message. One, for example, written by a poet who was 16-years-old when she wrote it, presents such a strong indictment of the way people in the U.S. (particularly people who have been taught to believe they are "White") approach Africans that I intend to read it aloud on the first day of a course on intersectionality.

Because I was not at all sure how to review a book of sixty-nine stories, initially I tried to take notes, but thirty pages in, I gave up and just started to read it like a novel, meeting the "characters" one by one in their own voices. In this one remarkable volume, every possible aspect of the human condition appears in unvarnished clarity -- without self-pity or bitterness or blame and without flinching. Every story resonated in my soul in horrific, tender, complicated ways. And repeatedly, I found myself startled into a better understanding of and deeper appreciation for the storyteller's experience and personhood.

Incest, pregnancy, birth, and abortion; depression, disease, bulimia, addiction; riots and rape and dysfunctional families; grief and loss and ostracization; feelings of worthlessness; feelings of joy; all overlaid with the systemic oppression of White Supremacy and then threaded throughout with triumph and resilience, unflappable determination and hope. All the Women in My Family Sing is a collection of stories epic in nature and bound to change lives and the world.

As each Woman of Color relates her personal journey, we are allowed to see into her soul and through her eyes, forced to feel her pain, and brought into a space where we must realize her truth and acknowledge our own relation to it. The reflection this process will invite, if the door is open, offers those of us in the dominant society an opportunity to see what Santana calls "the World of Color" and then embrace social change and work for justice in the interest of the common good.

"We know that no one is going to hand us anything," says Santana in closing, "But these women's stories speak to their ever green potential in such a way that now other women are coming forward to say, 'I want to do this, too; I want to write.' This is not just a book, it's a movement to shine a light on Women of Color whose voices have seldom, if ever, been heard so their brilliance, creativity, joy, love, and contributions to the world can be recognized and celebrated for what they are."
* from The Gloria Anzaldua Reader, edited by AnaLouise Keating, 2009, Duke University Press

NOTE: To learn more about the movement, future events, a call to action, and to "meet" some of the women whose work appears in the anthology, visit the All the Women in My Family Sing website.

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