- Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers
Some years ago, I was privileged to witness a dialogue between the celebrated critics Frances Smith Foster and Nellie McKay on how their friendship sustained them during the difficult efforts to establish African American studies in the U. S. academy. The memories these two captivating speakers summoned were both cautions and inspirations to those of us in the room, as we not only realized how far we’ve come, but also recognized how many problems remain, and the great deal that still needs to be done.
Today, African American and ethnic studies programs are under attack as the budget axe falls across the nation. As we jointly plan and implement a spirited defense, we will be sustained by memories of the sort raised by Professors Foster and McKay, and likewise by the vibrant resources gathered in Joanne Veal Gabbin’s new collection, Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers, which documents the trials, tribulations, and singular accomplishments of an extraordinary group of literary women. Over twenty years ago, they launched a series of annual meetings at the Wintergreen Resort, atop a Virginia mountain. From the outset, it was understood that this new community would function not only as a strengthening sorority, but also as a complement to the work members were doing as creative writers and/or literary scholars. [End Page 729]
Memory, of course, must be inclusive if it is to be instructive; so many of the tales told in the individual stories that compose the collection offer inspiration against the backdrop of painful lessons drawn from personal and professional trauma. As an ensemble, however, bound by Professor Gabbin’s expert editing and Sandra Govan’s unifying afterword, the stories function like the Roman fasces, creating tightly conjoined communal strength. All twenty-five contributors deserve consideration here, but space constraints will keep me focused on representative selections.
As Gabbin states in her moving introduction, writing can be at once a safe place, a memorial, and a record of what women have pulled in with the great nets of their imaginations. The haul of these horizons proves rich indeed. The poet Nikki Giovanni speaks eloquently of her mother’s friends, whose talk inspired her own writing; she has found an extension of those early voices in her Wintergreen companions. The doyenne of African American folklore studies, Daryl Dance, speaks of her mother’s inspiring courage in the face of death, while writer Mari Evans pays tribute to her devoted father. Poet Nikky Finney honors elders, describing how Grandmother Beulah inspired creativity with the Christmas gift of her fabled ambrosia. Grandfathers receive their due in Lovalerie King’s loving memory of Big Daddy. Friends can be like family, too: in a short but glowing piece, Sonia Sanchez eulogizes her beloved James Baldwin, while Toi Derricotte recounts Billie Holiday’s effect on her and her poetry.
Families, however, can wound as well as sustain. Noted playwright Elizabeth Brown-Guillory speaks of the pain her grandmother caused when she mocked little Elizabeth’s dark skin, but also praises her ancestor for challenging her to excel academically. By contrast, Eugenia Collier’s mother depresses her family with her preoccupation with illness and an inordinate fear of death. In the shortest essay in the book, Karla Holloway contributes one of the most piercing memorials, as she recalls the tragic death of her son in a prison break.
Most of these women are literary scholars, so it isn’t surprising that many of them talk about the inspiration they have received from the writers they have studied, and in many cases, met. Particularly moving is Maryemma Graham’s account of her relationship with the late Margaret Walker, the subject of Graham’s forthcoming biography. Inspiration, however, has many forms; Marilyn Sanders Mobley talks of the teachers who influenced her, but closes with an account of her call to the pulpit, which represented a resurgence of faith after a long period of skepticism. Opal Moore reveals the ways in which her early religious...