How Black Women Writers Have Led Revolution Through Literacy

Many times, when we think of revolution, we are flooded with thoughts of battle and strife for freedom by way of bombarding whatever it is that may be blocking our liberation with force and protest. We give the credit to the highly visible, in-your-face moments that catapult us into change and evolution. We credit protest, we honor petitions, we happily give praise to the street-fighters and ground workers, as we should. But what of the writers? What of those who have courageously used their very voices both outwardly and inwardly to shake the very core of the human heart and spirit to cause a ripple effect of discourse, dialogue, self-reflection, and transformation through words. How often is it that we identify some of the world’s most powerful revolutionaries as the ones who have cut away at disparity, chaos, and biased systems through language?

Profound Black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Sonya Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and more, have led us through revolutions for generations through the sharpening of their pens. Black women writers have given us a way to not only document the times, but to live and channel through them. Novels, poems, essays, and articles have traveled through time to transform humanity with the heavy power of language. Black women writers have taught us that we do not need permission to exist inside of the world we live in nor the world we create. They have allowed us to find beauty in what is Black life no matter the complexities, while learning to navigate and free our innermost selves. Many Black women writers have broken barriers to write the words they so often have, which has allowed those that have come after them to write bravely and with truth. That is revolution. That is an acquired freedom. 

 

But what of the writers? What of those who have courageously used their very voices both outwardly and inwardly to shake the very core of the human heart and spirit to cause a ripple effect of discourse, dialogue, self-reflection, and transformation through words. How often is it that we identify some of the world’s most powerful revolutionaries as the ones who have cut away at disparity, chaos, and biased systems through language?

 

From the most recent atrocities in our country—like the murder of George Floyd, and the shaking of what we may deem normality by way of COVID-19many writers have found solace in sharing their life’s work. This has always been the case. Perhaps literature has led many of the most powerful women into revolutions carrying just a pen and the world on their pages. Literature and language have helped humanity to find both hope and understanding amid chaos for years. Through depictions of slavery, stories of friendship, poems of love, essays on living, surviving, and overcoming—we have seen the power of liberation and what is possible for us through every printed text. Words have shown us that the world—without the impression of Black women writers—can be both hopeless and grim. Whether non-traditional or traditional, many Black women writers deserve credit for the advancement of societies, the transformation of minds, and the opening of eyes through literature. 

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am, the late literary giant and way-maker Toni Morrison recites, “I thought it was important for people to be in the streets, but they couldn’t last. You needed a record. It would be my job to publish the voices, the books, the ideas of African-Americans and that would last.” I think of this line often as I am writing and in the everyday. How forward and revolutionary it is to publish, create, and share intellectual property that not only documents feelings, lives, scenarios, circumstances, imaginations, and glimpses of a period in time, but solidifies them in such a way that—as opposed to the body—cannot be destroyed. It is in this way of thinking that the act of writing and publishing turns from extraordinary to liberating. 

 

Black women writers have taught us that we do not need permission to exist inside of the world we live in nor the world we create. They have allowed us to find beauty in what is Black life no matter the complexities, while learning to navigate and free our innermost selves.

 

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From the story of Morrison’s novel Beloved, readers were able to travel the journey of a Black woman in time and learned to redefine what freedom meant. Authors like Bell Hooks, in her novel All About Love, explored love in the most liberating ways through text and allowed us to partake in a challenging of emotion and ideals that was a freedom all its own. Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and so many other timeless texts allowed us to more deeply understand human nature and that love is too a deliverance. Audre Lorde, who is heralded for writing these very words, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” has made way for even women in the now to embrace the idea of striving to preserve one’s own mind, body, and spirit as a revolutionary act. We can hold dear even to the thick, sweet words of poet Maya Angelou who embedded in our minds the visual essence of what it is to be a “Phenomenal Woman” and applaud how in classrooms, homes, coffee shops, and alone time, Black women were able to see themselves more fully through the works of poetry. Alice Walker in her prize-winning novel The Color Purple, awakens us to the beauty of overcoming even the most unimaginable experiences. She carries readers through reality in a way that transforms the way of thinking from hopeless and grim, to brimming with hope.

Black women writers have worn their histories like a badge of honor. Angela Davis’ autobiography provided us a glimpse into the on-the-ground fight for justice in the system and the triumphs over it. Assata Shakur gifted the world with knowledge that far exceeded her time in the Black Panther Party and highlighted in her autobiography a life of not only activism, but redefined freedom through truth-telling and escape. Nikki Giovanni paints pictures of Black life so well in her poetry that all we can do is taste the overflow of life and partake in the words, to be if even a piece of the air in each text. There are so many profound revolutions happening each day a Black woman writer chooses to share their voice with the world. They happen each time one musters up the courage to share their innermost thoughts and stories with the world, hoping to transcend readers to a higher level of thinking. The revolutions happen each time a Black woman writer breathes life into her writing so that there may still be hope in a chaotic world. Revolutions happen when Black women writers own their work and do not beg for a place in the literary canons of the world. They just write, live, and evolve so that the world can own up to both its own ugliness and beauty; so that maybe one day it can truly be free. 

 

The revolutions happen each time a Black woman writer breathes life into her writing so that there may still be hope in a chaotic world. Revolutions happen when Black women writers own their work and do not beg for a place in the literary canons of the world. They just write, live, and evolve so that the world can own up to both its own ugliness and beauty; so that maybe one day it can truly be free. 

 

Writing is such a sacred place that whenever one chooses to put ink to paper or fingers to keyboard, we must listen. We must hear and breathe in the stories, poems, novels, and journals of diverse writers. We must taste the aftermath of Black women writers pouring out their very souls for us in books and text. The writers, both then and now, have provided a way for us to see ourselves, to break barriers, to heal, to be free in the mind, to doctor up our spirits, to time-travel out of chaos into new worlds, and to open up ourselves so that we identify new ways to be free. If that is not revolutionary, I am not sure what is. So, as you navigate trying times in history or try to find balance in the day-to-day, I hope you will continue to stock your shelves with works of writers like Walker, Morrison, and Lorde to take your mind to familiar and unfamiliar places. Visit your local bookstore and stock up on Black women writers whose work you are curious about or whose life work speaks to you. Cuddle up with a book by one of today’s Black women writers like Imani Perry, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or Jaqueline Woodson, and sink yourself into the power of their words. Then most importantly, if you are a Black woman writer, write. Keep at it, embrace the rawness in your work and answer the call of revolution by writing your way through the world. This is how they, you, we, have and will continue to shape and nurture the world through literature. This too, is how we will lead ourselves and others into revolution.

 

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