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