We Can Be Heroes

Black women writers pay homage to the women who've inspired them most.

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When I think of the women who inspire me most, they all share something in common: they're revolutionary. Audre Lorde, Kathleen Collins, Jacinda Townsend, Tiphanie Yanique, and my mom. They taught me countless lessons about womanhood, black feminism, and what it means to not just survive but thrive in a world that fails to acknowledge the fullness of who we are. They have shown me what it means to fight for what you believe in, even when hope feels elusive, and the importance of reclaiming the history of our shared diaspora from the margins without apology. I am who I am because of their brilliance, activism, and creative work.

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As many of you already know, we're almost halfway through Black History Month, and this year, despite the horrifying election of our 45th president, I've managed to find joy by celebrating the lives of women whose words have kept me sane and hopeful. They remind me of something Sister Audre once said, that when we dare to be powerful and use our strength in the service of our visions, it becomes less and less important whether or not we're afraid. Because of them, I'm able to persist.

Earlier this month, I got the chance to ask a few black women writers I admire — Zinzi Clemmons, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Jazmine Hughes, Kendra Pettis, and Gabrielle Octavia Rucker — which woman in their lives inspired them the most.

Zinzi Clemmons

The most important things in life are the most basic. Water, shelter, food, clean air. These are all things that if we are lucky enough to have, we usually take for granted. The same may be said for seeing yourself reflected onscreen. When you have gone so long without that experience, when it finally arrives, it is big — you feel it. I felt it when I first watched Issa Rae's Insecure. That click of recognition in seeing characters like myself represented fully, faithfully, on-screen, was so unfamiliar that I didn't even recognize it. I felt bewildered: How had someone taken my life, sprinkled in some hilarious jokes and better outfits, and put it on HBO?

Black women voted and canvassed for Hillary Clinton in droves, helped organize and turned out for the Women's March, and led one of the most important social movements in history — Black Lives Matter. And in 2017, we are just starting to see nuanced, realistic portrayals of ourselves onscreen, and it feels like a rupture and a homecoming. Insecure is extremely funny, well-written, and well-acted, as or more deserving of the awards ceaselessly languished on its white peers. But more than that, it provides a point of connection for so many young black women like myself, who are a little awkward, a little nerdy, who love hip-hop and have great careers and relationships at the same time. Importantly, it treats our experiences as just as valid as anyone else's, finally moving our stories from the margins to center stage. Rae's long, publicized battle to get Insecure made the way she wanted, and her work as a producer and an activist, inspire me to fight for my art, no matter the costs. As Rae has shown, the rewards can be spectacular.

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Zinzi Clemmons's debut novel, What We Lose, is forthcoming from Viking this July.

Nicole Dennis-Benn

I was the first born in the house — the only child — for a while. My great-grandmother Addie was sent from the country to take care of me since my mother and grandmother both worked. She fell in love instantly, I was told, as though fate had brought her from the country to Kingston to help raise her daughter's grand-baby. She carried me everywhere, delighting in the excitement and revelry of neighbors whose eyes fixated on my chubbiness. I remember following her around, terrified to let her out of my sight. Since she wore long skirts, which she'd put between her legs to peel oranges or to comb my hair, it was easy to tug at them. I'd stare up into her face — a beautiful Maroon black, burnished to a high fine gloss; her features sharp with a wide nose and lips that seemed to bloom on her face; her eyes, discerning. I never remembered her to be old, though her hair was as white as the clouds that sailed above the mango trees in the yard. Sometimes, she wore a kerchief over her head, and on Sundays, she'd put on a broad-brimmed hat for church.

She mended clothes, teaching me early on how to sew. To this day, I remember the pink of her tongue as she strung a thread into the hole of a needle with precision. I do the same whenever I mend my vintage dresses. However, another important thing that Addie taught me was to read and write. "It will get yuh somewhere," she said. She was hanging sheets to dry. I remembered gazing up at her; the sun's rays, splashes of gold around her head as I read aloud. I remembered watching her face transform, her eyelids moving as she closed them, tilting her chin as though the knowledge I recited was a sweet relief. "C'dear, dat g'wan be yuh words one day telling we story. Jus' wait."

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Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Here Comes the Sun.

Kaitlyn Greenidge

I think the black woman who inspires me the most is Debbie Allen. I knew her, as a kid, as the teacher on the TV show Fame (I am old as fuck). She was the woman my sisters admired. We would tie sweatshirts around our waists and pull leg warmers up our legs and pretend we were wild and free dancers in the city, living only for art. We wanted a teacher like Debbie Allen, someone who would see the best in us and push us to realize it, one who wouldn't let us off the hook, one who believed each of us contained some genius. I forgot about Debbie Allen for a bit, until I was watching Oprah: Where Are They Now?. Debbie Allen's segment is an absolute delight. There she is, in her LA mansion, teasing her son, cooking her gorgeous husband peppers on her stovetop, casually mentioning the life of art and teaching and mentorship she's built over the past few decades.

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Most important, she's alive. And she's joyful. In the pantheon of great black women artists, it's hard to find many of us whose lives end on a high note. Who end up loved and happy and prosperous. When you are an artist, you aren't supposed to care about those things. But when you already start out at the bottom as a black woman, alienation doesn't seem so romantic and becomes, instead, just a really weary burden. I saw Debbie Allen at the point in my life when art seemed fruitless, like I was whispering into a void or, worse, merely becoming a very enthusiastic hobbyist. It seemed like to live as a great artist, especially if you were a woman, especially if you were a black woman, was to end up friendless, bitter, obscure, or dead young. My heroes — Nina Simone, Gloria Naylor, Lorraine Hansberry — all seemed to have lived that way. But here was Debbie Allen, floating across the screen, laughingly telling me that art didn't have to be that hard. I know it's an illusion. I know life is hard for everyone, and for artists it is about to get impossible. But I'm going to keep imagining I'll come out of this a rich auntie in a shawl, with a nice bougie house and a life constructed around the joy of creation and community. It's the only way to keep going.

Kaitlyn Greenidge is a contributing writer for Lenny Letter and the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

Jazmine Hughes

Media depictions of journalists are often trite — we're always overdramatically searching for our next big story ("I need a big story!!" every TV journalist has said, often within seconds of filing their last Big Story), or on the phone with the mayor ("Get me the mayor!"), or schlubbing around with a cup of day-old coffee and stained khakis. The clear antipode is, of course, the always glamorous Carrie Bradshaw, who was less a writer and more of a scammer and, either way, neither realistic nor relatable. Enter Khadijah James, played by Queen Latifah on Fox's Living Single, who was somehow stylish and messy and struggling and in charge and always, always broke. But what's more: she was black. James, who ran the fictional magazine Flavor on the show, was an exacting and scrappy editor, shrewd and dedicated; she was forthright about the difficulties of being a black businesswoman but never succumbed to dejection and always stood her ground. (She also had an affair with the subject of a story, Grant Hill, which was unethical but thrilling.) Her focuses throughout the show's five-season run were her friends and her job above all else: she had an inspiring, fiery hunger for success. She made journalism look fun, which, as a girl, I already had no doubt was true; she made it look hard, which, as a young woman, I soon found out was also true. But what's more, she made it look worth it.

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Jazmine Hughes is an associate editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Kendra James

Pinkie Freeman threw herself a gala for her 80th birthday.

A gala.

My cousins and I often remind each other that it would behoove us to "be like Pinkie." Pinkie (her given first name, which we call her only at brunch, never to her face) is our 1930s-born grandmother. She graduated from high school in the segregated South at age fifteen and moved to New York City by herself at sixteen. She lived my 1940s pop-culture dream, staying in one of those fabled women-only buildings, the kind that conjure up images of old women in curlers knitting and watching for any girl trying to sneak her beau in for the night. Pinkie went on to marry, have my mom and uncle, and get her BA and master's degrees. All this, and she served on the boards of NAACP chapters, joined neighborhood coalitions, participated in local government, and traveled to more countries than I can count.

When I was younger I thought Pinkie was loaded. Her house had a pool. She was forever traveling, bringing us back trinkets from the countries she'd visited. Pinkie wasn't rich; Pinkie was just smart. Brilliant, actually, when it came to investing her money, so that once she moved to Orlando her lifestyle was set. One cruise per year, minimum. As morbid as it sounds, my grandmother was often my counterpoint for the depressing narratives of mid-century Black America that we heard in school. For every Claudette Colvin or Emmitt Till, there was a Pinkie Freeman, a wealthy older Black woman who had not only survived America but had somehow thrived in it.

Pinkie's still thriving, by the way. She entered the hotel ballroom for her gala wearing a gold sequined mini-dress and matching heels. I still remind myself to be like Pinkie.

Kendra James is a writer and blogger based in New York City.

Gabrielle Rucker

My first encounter with Jesmyn Ward happened on a rainy day in Chicago. I had been up all night writing, trying desperately to piece together a short story that I had been attempting to finish for weeks. Discouraged, I decided to take a break. Somehow, between aimless Internet searches and staring at the inside of my refrigerator, I stumbled across Jesmyn's 2014 interview with Guernica on race, Southern stereotypes, and writing as a Black woman. Immediately I was entranced. Her voice, so strong, enlivened me and illuminated the powers that always seemed to bring my worlds, writing and lived, to a panicking halt: the fear of failure, the stigma of poverty and Blackness and womanhood, and the constant anxiety that the stories I had to tell would never find a home. I spent the rest of the day reading whatever excerpts and interviews of hers I could find, eventually making my way to a video of her 2011 National Book Award acceptance speech. Perched uncomfortably on a wooden chair, I watched a room full of writers and publishers erupt around Jesmyn's name. Ripe with shock and slightly timid, Jesmyn rose and made her way to the stage where she delivered her speech. It wasn't until the video stopped that I realized I was crying.

I'm not sure how to explain what Jesmyn's work means to me. Years later, I still lack the proper words, but I can say this: My adoration is not just for her but for the language she speaks a language that functions through art, whose purpose is to honor loss so great and ancient that the reader is, if only for a moment, alleviated by the weight that has been cast upon them. I thank Jesmyn Ward for introducing me to this language and teaching me how to speak it.

Gabrielle Octavia Rucker is a writer from the Great Lakes. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn, where she can often be found on the subway aggressively cursing under her breath.

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Dianca Potts is a writer in Brooklyn and hopes that you dare to be powerful.

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